Yes, yes, we know.
We are fossils since we still take delight in the moribund practice of reading books.
Among the many works of fiction that have passed through these old hands, few have been as gratifying as the short stories by O.Henry, the nom de plume of American writer William Sydney Porter.
O.Henry is, of course, best known for the surprise endings in his short stories. There’s invariably a sting in the tail.
The twist-in-the-ending apart, we also like O.Henry’s elegant prose, oftentimes with a hint of mischief lurking close by.
Many years back, in our lost decade as we were were aimlessly trudging down the cold streets of Toronto we came upon an used book store on Gerard St run by an odd couple (an young man who seemingly had a lost air about him and his older seemingly worldy-wiser girlfriend).
One of the first books we found on top of a precarious heap in the small bookstore was The Four Million, a collection of fine short stories by O.Henry.
Although money was tight in those years, we quickly decided the book must rightfully belong to us. Over the years, we’ve dipped into this 87-year-old book on countless occasions.
Here’s an excerpt from one of our favorite stories in the collection, The Cop and the Anthem (a short account of a homeless man in New York City desperate to get arrested in a bid to escape the rigors of the coming winter):
The hibernatorial ambitions of Soapy were not of the highest. In them there were no considerations of Mediterranean cruises, of soporific Southern skies or drifting in the Vesuvian Bay. Three months on the Island was what his soul craved. Three months of assured board and bed and congenial company, safe from Boreas and bluecoats, seemed to Soapy the essence of things desirable.
For years the hospitable Blackwell’s had been his winter quarters. Juat as his more fortunate fellow New Yorkers had bought their tickets to Palm Beach and the Riviera each winter, so Soapy had made his humble arrangements for his annual hegira to the Island. And now the time was come.
But as the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.
Despite his best efforts to get arrested and irritating the bejesus out of more than one policeman nearby, our homeless friend finds that goal elusive. Soapy falls into a funk and what do you think happens next?
But long before The Cop and the Anthem, we read The Gift of the Magi followed a few years later by After Twenty Years.
The Gift of the Magi is likely O.Henry’s best known work even among those not known to be friends with books because it often constitutes a part of the high school English curriculum in India.
Of all the love stories – real, feigned and fictional – we’ve stumbled upon in books and movies and friends’ tales over so many decades none come anywhere close to the poignant ending of The Gift of the Magi.
Among the other well known O.Henry stories are Man About Town, A Cosmopolite in a Cafe and The Coming-out of Maggie.
It’s that very rare O.Henry story that doesn’t afford at least some joy.