Dispatches | May 21, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from writer Alex Luft. 

I’ve always thought about the short story as an extended form of joke-telling. You’ve got your basic premise (three guys walk into a bar), and your growing complication (and then the second guy says) and then your punch line. Or, in some cases, there’s no punch line—and that awkward lack of punch creates an entirely different effect.

And if we understand short stories as a lot like jokes, then Roald Dahl’s “A Fine Son” might be a sort of literary practical joke. I first came across this story while cataloguing stories published in Playboy; this one appeared in December 1959. While it was Dahl’s first original story for Hugh Hefner’s magazine, many of his other works—including a novel excerpt—showed up in Playboy.

Strange place to find the man who brought us James and the Giant Peach.

“A Fine Son” is not necessarily a great short story, but it does perform a peculiarly notable set of moves. The exposition: we’re in a German hospital, where a doctor is trying to calm a woman who just gave birth to a little boy. The complication: the woman has lost three children in the last 18 months, and she fears this child, too, will die. To make things worse, her beer-swilling husband blames her for producing such frail children and hesitates to acknowledge this new child.

Dahl drops us a breadcrumb. The mother says: “I think my husband said that if it was a boy we were going to call him Adolfus because it has a certain similarity to Alois. My husband is called Alois.”

When the husband shows up, he is disappointed in how small the child is and declares it’s no use trying; the child will certainly die. The doctor urges him to reconsider, to hope the best for the child.

Then, the punch line. In reference to the wife, the doctor tells Alois: “Be good to her, Herr Hitler.”

Dahl has spent this entire short story gearing us up to root for baby Adolf Hitler. Gotcha!

The turn of this story at first appears simple—a nearly manipulative demonstration of how character and narrative can direct our sympathies toward places we’d never imagined they’d go. But for a lot of readers—and we have to remember this happened in 1959—it was perhaps a subtle way of challenging the master narrative of singular evil and inhumanity already formed around Hitler. I think the question for Playboy’s readers was not necessarily whether they ought to reconsider their views of Hitler, but rather how they might understand certain human sympathies manipulated for unclear or even nefarious ends. Gotcha again.

So even if Dahl plays a bit of a joke on his reader, he’s done it for a purpose. That’s one of the strengths of the short story form—it’s like a writer’s playground, a place where they can try new or innovative things.

Alex Luft’s fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Barely South Review and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in creative writing from the University of Missouri and will be pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He just completed his master’s thesis titled “Pleasure Reading: Playboy’s Literary Fiction.”