‘A Terrifyingly Ordinary Man’

I picked up Ray Bradbury’s The October Country at the library some days ago. Originally published in 1955, “the Dubliners of American Gothic” is a story collection that leans into twilight subjects, potentially unsettling tales touching on darker matters. At least that’s how the book is billed, but I want to talk about a light-hearted story that might should be on all the college reading lists.

“I met the most astounding bore. You simply must see him! At Bill Timmins’ apartment house last night, a note said he’d return in an hour. In the hall this Garvey chap asked if I’d like to wait in his apartment. There we sat, Garvey, his wife, myself! Incredible! He’s a monstrous Ennui, produced by our material society. He knows a billion ways to paralyze you! Absolutely rococo with the talent to induce stupor, deep slumber, or stoppage of the heart! What a case study. Let’s all go visit!”

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is a tale for a new generation. The in-crowd discovers Garvey, whom the narrator describes as “a terrifyingly ordinary man” who had lived alone with his wife for twenty years. Though she was a delightful woman, he was so boring no one would accompany them to anything. This group of seven would-be elitists think he’s a gas, and after a few weeks he comes to enjoy their attention. Their subtle mockery turns to genuine admiration, and Garvey takes steps to keep them enthralled.

The prejudices of the in-crowd are remarkably dated, but their attitude is contemporary. They see through everything; they love to be unimpressed as their tastes flit from fad to fad. They embrace common entertainment only ironically, unless they can spin it into a superior, sophisticated pleasure. “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.”

Would Garvey or his wife be better off with or without the attention of this self-righteous crowd? Let the reader judge for himself and decide whether he has in-crowd attitudes that should look just a foolish today as the Garvey fan club does decades after their story was written.

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