Artist: Lou Rogers

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The little devil: Petey by T.E.D. Klein

Reading “The Cat Jumps” by Elizabeth Bowen for the first time this week, I recalled that other great house-warming party tale, T.E.D. Klein's short novel Petey (1979).

Bowen’s story is a bravura sardonic short piece about petty bourgeois self-satisfaction. Its characters (well, except for Muriel) are all up to date and highly educated. Which makes their common collapse by the end of the story so satisfying. Humans are social animals, and Bowen indicates just how close to the surface the animal bit really is.

I first read Petey in the summer of 1986, in Klein's distinguished collection Dark Gods. (Apparently that book is now out of print.) One first and second reading, I could not fathom the plot. I came back to it this week (with a further thirty years of reading under my belt), and feel like I just read it for the first time.Petey is a rich work, written with assurance and flawlessly executed.

George and Phyllis are throwing a housewarming party in their new home in the wilds of Connecticut tobacco country. A dozen couples attend, green with envy that George, through connections and via some shady practice, made the deal of a lifetime.

The story covers the party from start to finish in about thirty thousand words. We follow the guests' interactions, and as they accumulate the menace builds. George senses a nemesis coming at him. You don't cheat a mad old hermit out of his home and just get away with it.

An excerpt will convey some of the flavor: M.R. James transplanted to Cheever and Updike country.









….Doris pointed to the woodcut." See? The farmer dresses him up in a little suit, and tucks him in at night, and he has himself a little friend."

" I don't think I'd want that thing for a friend."

"Well, that's the whole point. That's why he's called the Little Devil.

He's supposed to help the farmer tend the garden and clean the house, but he just causes mischief and eats up whatever's lying around.

Including a few of the neighbors."

Ellie shrugged." I'm afraid I don't approve of fairy tales, at least not for very young children. They're really quite frightening, and so many of them are unnecessarily violent, don't you think? Our two grew up quite nicely without them, thank God." She paused, then added, "Not that a steady diet of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew is so much better, of course." ill- "Oh, these stories wouldn't frighten anyone. They're all told with tongue in cheek. Typically French."

"French, huh? That reminds me-that's what I came in for, something French. What's this book called?" She turned to the title page, Folk Tales from Provenge. Hmm, no author listed, I see. How about the story?"

"None there, either. All I know is, it's called, "The Little Devil." I don't know what the title is in French." She closed the a thump; the sound seemed excessively loud in so silent a room.

The attic door slammed loudly; he hadn't counted on the wind pulling it closed. Bathed in the warmth of the hall, he turned the corner, and froze involuntarily at the figure in the doorway-though his brain had long since identified it.

" Sorry, Walt. I wake you?"

Walter stumbled back to the bed, his eyes puffy and half shut.

Creases from the quilt were etched into the side of his face." Jesus," he muttered, a slackness still about his lips, "it's a good thing you did.

I was having one hell of a nightmare."

George followed him into the room and stood awkwardly by the bed; he wished that Walter had picked somewhere else to sleep. He had left a sour, liquory smell in the room.

"Boy, it'll take me a while to get over this one. It seemed so goddamned real."

George smiled." They all do, that's the point."

The other was not comforted." I can still picture the whole thing.

It was night, I remember-"

"Are you sure you want to talk about it? You'll forget faster if you put it out of your mind." He was bored by other people's dreams.

"No, man, you've got it backwards. You're supposed to talk about your nightmares. Helps you get rid of em." Walter shook his head and eased himself back on the quilt, the bedsprings twanging with each shift of his body." It was at night, you see, but early, just after the sun had gone down-don't ask me how I know -and I was driving home.

The countryside was exactly like it is around here."

"Here? You mean this part of the state?"

"Yeah. Only it was around seven at night, a few hours ago, and Joyce wasn't with me. I was alone in the car, and I wanted to get home. And somehow-you know how it is in dreams-I knew I'd lost my way. All the roads began looking the same, and I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was getting darker and darker all the time, and that if it got too dark I'd never make it. I was driving on this road that led through a tobacco field, just like the one we passed tonight-"

"Right, it's a big crop around here. We've got plantations just down the road."

"Yeah, crazy-looking things, laid out so flat and regular… But I could barely see the land. It was dark now, except for a little glow in the sky, and I was driving very, very slowly, trying to find my way.

You know, kind of following the beams of my headlights… And then way off in the field I noticed a farmer or someone, one of the hired hands, way out there in the tobacco, so I pulled over to the side of the road and leaned across the front seat, you know, to ask directions… And I'd unrolled the window and was yelling to him when the man turned and made this odd movement with his head, kind of nodding at me, only I couldn't see the face, and then he came toward the car and bent down and I could see that it wasn't a man."

George gave him a moment's silence, then asked, "So what was it, then?"

The other rubbed his eyes." Oh, something pale, puffy, not completely formed… I don't know, it was only a dream."

"But, God damn it, you were just saying how realistic it was!" He found himself glancing toward the window, the shadow of the elm, and was angry.

"Well, you know how quickly you forget dreams, once you tell'em…Doris pointed to the woodcut." See? The farmer dresses him up in a little suit, and tucks him in at night, and he has himself a little friend."

" I don't think I'd want that thing for a friend."

"Well, that's the whole point. That's why he's called the Little Devil.

He's supposed to help the farmer tend the garden and clean the house, but he just causes mischief and eats up whatever's lying around.

Including a few of the neighbors."

Ellie shrugged." I'm afraid I don't approve of fairy tales, at least not for very young children. They're really quite frightening, and so many of them are unnecessarily violent, don't you think? Our two grew up quite nicely without them, thank God." She paused, then added, "Not that a steady diet of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew is so much better, of course." ill- "Oh, these stories wouldn't frighten anyone. They're all told with tongue in cheek. Typically French."

"French, huh? That reminds me-that's what I came in for, something French. What's this book called?" She turned to the title page, Folk Tales from Provenge. Hmm, no author listed, I see. How about the story?"

"None there, either. All I know is, it's called, "The Little Devil." I don't know what the title is in French." She closed the a thump; the sound seemed excessively loud in so silent a room.

The attic door slammed loudly; he hadn't counted on the wind pulling it closed. Bathed in the warmth of the hall, he turned the corner, and froze involuntarily at the figure in the doorway-though his brain had long since identified it.

" Sorry, Walt. I wake you?"

Walter stumbled back to the bed, his eyes puffy and half shut.

Creases from the quilt were etched into the side of his face." Jesus," he muttered, a slackness still about his lips, "it's a good thing you did.

I was having one hell of a nightmare."

George followed him into the room and stood awkwardly by the bed; he wished that Walter had picked somewhere else to sleep. He had left a sour, liquory smell in the room.

"Boy, it'll take me a while to get over this one. It seemed so goddamned real."

George smiled." They all do, that's the point."

The other was not comforted." I can still picture the whole thing.

It was night, I remember-"

"Are you sure you want to talk about it? You'll forget faster if you put it out of your mind." He was bored by other people's dreams.

"No, man, you've got it backwards. You're supposed to talk about your nightmares. Helps you get rid of em." Walter shook his head and eased himself back on the quilt, the bedsprings twanging with each shift of his body." It was at night, you see, but early, just after the sun had gone down-don't ask me how I know -and I was driving home.

The countryside was exactly like it is around here."

"Here? You mean this part of the state?"

"Yeah. Only it was around seven at night, a few hours ago, and Joyce wasn't with me. I was alone in the car, and I wanted to get home. And somehow-you know how it is in dreams-I knew I'd lost my way. All the roads began looking the same, and I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was getting darker and darker all the time, and that if it got too dark I'd never make it. I was driving on this road that led through a tobacco field, just like the one we passed tonight-"

"Right, it's a big crop around here. We've got plantations just down the road."

"Yeah, crazy-looking things, laid out so flat and regular… But I could barely see the land. It was dark now, except for a little glow in the sky, and I was driving very, very slowly, trying to find my way.

You know, kind of following the beams of my headlights… And then way off in the field I noticed a farmer or someone, one of the hired hands, way out there in the tobacco, so I pulled over to the side of the road and leaned across the front seat, you know, to ask directions… And I'd unrolled the window and was yelling to him when the man turned and made this odd movement with his head, kind of nodding at me, only I couldn't see the face, and then he came toward the car and bent down and I could see that it wasn't a man."

George gave him a moment's silence, then asked, "So what was it, then?"

The other rubbed his eyes." Oh, something pale, puffy, not completely formed… I don't know, it was only a dream."

"But, God damn it, you were just saying how realistic it was!" He found himself glancing toward the window, the shadow of the elm, and was angry.

"Well, you know how quickly you forget dreams, once you tell'em…”

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