I hesitated in picking ‘Man from the South’ which I have enjoyed reading to classes over the years. First published in the American magazine, Collier’s in 1948, the story displays certain early twentieth century values which might stick in the throat of the modern reader. The man of the title is exoticized – almost animalised – with his “very small uneven teeth” and the fact that the only black character in the story is the “colored maid” portrays a time in literature quite different from our own. Roald Dahl himself was known to hold controversial opinions and it is perhaps for this last fact that I went ahead with my choice. Is it possible to read – and still enjoy – the work of those with whom we strongly disagree?
‘Man from the South’ is a snapshot of a hot Summer afternoon in Jamaica where a deal between strangers gains momentum, building to a single horrifying moment. Dahl turns the trope of ‘a stranger comes to town’ on its head by setting the scene in a place where none of the characters are ‘home.’ And the ‘stranger’ is perhaps all the more peculiar, to balance out the temporariness of place.
What I love about this author’s writing is his ability to entertain. There’s something so satisfying in the set-up of the scene. Is it the straightforward language? The almost invisible, Gatsby-esque narrator who – like the reader – sees everything yet never interferes? It can’t be the other characters who, I think, appear somewhat cartoonish and flat.
My money’s on the plot mechanics which – like the best thrillers – capture and twist, leading the reader, inevitably, towards a visceral ending. ‘Man from the South’ reminds me of listening to a great storyteller spin a yarn with a surprising punchline – it achieves catharsis. A physicality in our response.
Picked by Josephine Rose. Josephine is a teacher and writer whose published work includes poetry and travel journalism. You can read more at www.muscattales.com and find her online @jrosephine
First published in Collier’s Magazine, 1948. Collected in Someone Like You, Knopf, 1953, and Complete Stories Vol 1, Penguin, 2013