On a quiet morning last summer, I ran my fingers along the row of books on a shelf in our living room. I stopped at one heavy-weight: The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 2nd edition. The table of contents listed over fourteen hundred pages worth of stories by must-read authors: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor.
So, I was surprised to find “A Giant Step for Mankind,” by Woody Allen, first on the docket. Not that Allen isn’t a great writer, but I hadn’t considered placing him in the same circles with Hemingway or O’Connor. I also hadn’t considered just how much I would learn from the story, about character description and the effect of a skillful narrative.
Sounds serious, right?
But, Allen’s story is about three scientists who almost discover the secret behind the Heimlich Maneuver. I laughed out loud the first time I read it, with its high register language describing the research done around “dinner-table choking.” I’m still laughing. At passages like these:
This one, describing a character —
Met my two colleagues today for the first time and found them both enchanting, although Wolfsheim is not at all as I had imagined. . . His beard is of a medium length but seems to grow with the irrational abandon of crabgrass. Add to this thick, bushy brows and beady eyes the size of microbes, which dart about suspiciously behind spectacles the thickness of bulletproof glass. And then there are the twitches. The man has accumulated a repertoire of facial tics and blinks that demand nothing less than a complete musical score by Stravinsky.
And this —
Today was a productive one for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was accomplished by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. Shulamith and I made voluminous notes on the experiment. If we can transfer the tail-snap procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.
Taking these quotes out of context doesn’t give the story the spotlight it deserves. Bound alongside “The Metamorphosis” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” “A Giant Step for Mankind” reminds me that writing should vacillate between serious and fun. Because, as a reader, I want a good belly laugh as much as I want a story that brings me to tears; it’s a bonus if the story does both.
Have you read “A Giant Step for Mankind?” What’s hiding between the covers of a book on your shelf?
* This post has been edited from its original version, published in September 2009