[from July 2006]
O. Henry’s The Four Million will always be remembered, if for nothing else than the oft-borrowed “The Gift of the Magi.” Henry’s narrative voice, even 100 years later, sounds so honest and fresh that when the story does feel dated (like when a cab turns out to be drawn by a horse instead of horsepower) the effect is jarring.
The stories here are meant to be representative of the people of New York, with the premise being that any inhabitant of that city would be worth meeting or have an interesting story to tell. Most of the stories prove this claim, though some suffer from repetition. Most end in O. Henry’s trademark “surprise twist” endings – sometimes they seem “slap-your-forehead”-brilliant, sometimes they elicit a smile, and still other times a groan.
Also worth bearing in mind before tackling these stories is the racism of the times. Irishmen’s brogue is always spelled phonetically to call attention to their accent. Negroes are negatively represented. Asians are non-existent in this New York. I had to look up what a “dago” was, as that term for Italians seems to have been largely forgotten, but it gets used repeatedly here. One could also make a case for sexism, as the women here tend to be weak and in need of rescuing, yet most are strong or at least maintain their dignity. Their frequently repeated plights are merely meant to tug at the heartstrings, perhaps the strings of what might have been a largely female readership.
“Tobin’s Palm” is a story about two superstitious Irishmen trying to turn their luck around. It’s one of the more racist stories, but has one of the most enjoyable surprise endings.
Everyone knows “The Gift of the Magi” – if you haven’t read it, you’ve surely seen it on TV disguised in one form or another. It is, despite its ubiquitous nature, a truly moving tale with a great ending.
“A Comspolite in a Café” is a slight joke-story about hypocrites.
“Between Rounds” starts out as an interesting “apartment-building-as-microcosm-of-society” story, but -- probably because of its lesson of “people don’t change” -- the story “goes nowhere”.
“The Skylight Room” is a real tearjerker of a story, a surprisingly engaging read about a woman too good for New York and how her dreams of being saved our answered. Also of interest is how the story begins, and works, from the rare second-person perspective. I actually took the time to re-read this one. Right up there with “Magi,” this is my other favorite story from this collection.
“A Service of Love” is sort of a variation on Magi, with a young couple giving up art in order to pay the bills. Not one of the best.
“The Coming-Out of Maggie” is a slight story, notable for its twist ending, where the “prince charming” and the “villain” turn out to be the opposite of who you thought they were.
“Man About Town” is the inverse of “Comspolite” – a man goes around looking for a “man about town” to see what he’s like without realizing he is one.
“The Cop and the Anthem” is one of those familiar stories, like “Magi”, that’s been borrowed so often it feels very familiar without having read it before. Soapy is a bum who wants to get thrown in jail for a little winter comfort, but as soon as he wants to get arrested he can’t.
“An Adjustment of Nature” is a “buddy” comedy of four guys trying to “save” the girl they admire from falling in love. One can imagine Ben Stiller elongating this into a whole movie.
“Memoirs of a Yellow Dog” is notable for having the only non-human narrator. It’s also a pretty funny story about a hen-pecked husband and the dog his wife dotes on.
"The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein" is notable for being one of the few stories where the twist ending is a character getting his comeuppance. Despite the title, this isn't sci fi or fantasy. Sadly.
"Mammon and the Archer" is a "father knows best" story that whimsically turns the axiom "you can't buy love" on its head. Amusing, without offering any real surprise.
"Springtime ala Carte" is a sweet story, but its twist ending is the most far-fetched coincidence in the collection.
"The Green Door" is another sweet story, another with a helpless woman needing to be saved. It starts off wonderfully atmospheric, almost magical, and it's a shame that everything is explained away by the twist ending.
"From the Cabby's Seat" may be the weakest story here, relying on a twist ending that is not believable. "The Romance of a Busy Broker," listed below, uses the same ending, but has a better and slightly more believable build-up to it.
"An Unfinished Story" is a mild tearjerker about a poor shop girl who, inspired by the photos she keeps of men she admires, chooses her dignity over a date with "Piggy."
"The Caliph, Cupid, and the Clock" is a fine tale, propelled along by the delightful character of "Prince" Michael, a silver-tongued hobo who believes he is royalty in disguise and has the speech and manners, if nothing else, to back his claim. In fact, it would be nice if Michael's true status was more ambiguous by story's end. A longer story would have served him well, too, for he is a character who could have held a novella together. This story, however, is actually fairly slight and beneath him.
"Sisters of the Golden Circle" differs in that the twist -- the wife letting her husband be arrested falsely -- occurs mid-story, and the explanation only comes at the end. The explanation, though, is entirely unconvincing and it seems to me divorce should be impending for these newlyweds.
"The Romance of the Busy Broker" -- see "From the Cabby's Seat." This broker may be the first character with Alzheimer's Disease (albeit unnamed) in fiction.
"After Twenty Years" is a fairly familiar story of two young crooks who grow up, one goes straight, and they find themselves on opposite sides of the law. The "twist" ending here is entirely predictable, but getting there is not unpleasant.
"Lost on Dress Parade," with its morale that it is better to be yourself, seems like it was a worn-out cliche before O.Henry even got his hands on it. But Towers Chandler (what a name!), the architect who pretends to be rich once each week, and the girl he meets are too charming to be quickly dismissed.
"By Courier" is a fun little story. The twist ending explaining the gentleman's seeming infidelity is not nearly as much fun as getting there, as the gentleman and his lady communicate -- or fail to communicate -- through a street kid who's language skills are not up to their's.
"The Furnished Room" has a twist on the twist ending -- it actually does not end happily! Perhaps another one or two such endings before reaching this close to the end would have made this story, about a man trying to find his lost girlfriend by seeking out boardinghouses she might have stayed at, seem less out of place. The details of how the man searches the rooms are engaging -- possibly a good lesson for gamers looking to rely on fewer die rolls for searching.
"The Brief Debut of Tildy" is almost another unhappy ending, nor does it have a twist ending so much as a joke ending that reverses the previous tone of the story. Tildy is the ugly waitress, always living in the shadow of beautiful Aileen, who feels beautiful when a customer kisses her. His apology near story's end explains all, but is too obvious an explanation to count as a twist ending.