Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Joker

When William Sydney Porter, pseudonym O. Henry, was a teenager in Greenville, N.C., he tended to be a somewhat cruel practical joker. How he developed this inclination is a mystery, though we do know that his aunt home-schooled him and encouraged his satirical cartoons and caricatures as well as his sometimes quite poignant writings. Further, he had little patience with people’s vices and foibles.

Some of the practical jokes got out of hand as reported in Gerald Langford’s biography of the writer. Apparently Porter’s father was an alcoholic physician who, because of his drinking, had to quit his practice. Since he was not doctoring, he took up a project in the shed behind the house, intending to create perpetual motion with a water-driven apparatus. The ruined doctor apparently thought he could actually create a self-powering “machine.” Knowing otherwise, young Porter would regularly sneak into the shed and subtly skew the project, secretly laughing with glee when his frustrated father discovered the flaw. Thus he contributed to keeping the old man busy.

Another of his jokes had a remedial intention. One of the employees at the pharmacy where he worked had created a long tube or “straw” that he secretly sank into the whisky cask in the cellar of the drug store. (I think that store used to prescribe whisky for toddies). Porter hid in the basement and observed the employee sampling the whisky through the tube repeatedly and with gusto. So, when that employee was out delivering some meds, Porter got some very hot pepper flakes and laced the interior of the straw with them. The next time the employee went to the basement, he came bursting back up through the store and ran out front to the watering trough, into which he plunged mouth open. Langford reports that Porter joined him at the trough and got a confession out of him while he and the other pharmacy personnel howled with laughter.

So, I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that O. Henry’s first published story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” contains a turn of events that could be classified as a joke played on some criminals. Dick, the hobo who was a great whistler, picks up a new stocking that has fallen off a high class buggy. He follows the buggy full of rich people and goes behind the great plantation where it stops. There he encounters a group of crooks who let him in on their plans to start a fire in the field and when all the menfolk are dealing with the fire, steal all the valuables from the house. Dick wants no part of it so he writes a warning note revealing the plot, inserts it into the stocking with a big rock. He throws the missile through a window, thereby thwarting the sinister plot and saving the plantation.

Now that I think about it, all his stories are, in a sense, practical jokes on the reader. Isn’t that what a surprise ending is—an unexpected twist that tricks you away from your expectations?

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