Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

Dark subjects driven by the dark psychology of the characters rooted in a common thread of loneliness. The short stories of The Delicate Prey are best described as “messed up” as someone noted in a short review I spotted on Good Reads. Artfully written bringing early twentieth century Latin America to life, contrasting the natural beauty of the land with the less-than-desirable living conditions of the locals.

An element of racism exists among those of Spanish descent toward the native people – known simply as Indians – adding to the tensions and demeanor of the characters, providing a sense of entitlement for some to act upon their ill intentions. In the first story, “At Paso Rojo,” an upper-class woman, Chalía, and her sister, visit their brother’s ranch after their mother has died. Chalía makes a game of emotionally manipulating and injuring a young Indian man who works for her brother. The specific root of behavior is not apparent beyond her open discrimination toward the Indians, though we learn of lying and deceptive behaviors through the story, and her desire to control others. The following passage paints a vivid portrait of Chalía’s diabolical nature.

Something dark lying in the road ahead of her made her stop walking. It did not move….as she drew near, she knew it was Roberto. She touched his arm with her foot. He did not respond. She leaned over and put her hand on his chest. He was breathing deeply, and the smell of liquor was almost overpowering. She straightened and kicked him lightly in the head. There was a tiny groan from far within. This also, she said to herself, would have to be done quickly. She felt wonderfully light and powerful as she slowly maneuvered his body with her feet to the right-hand side of the road. There was a small cliff there, about twenty feet high. When she got him to the edge, she waited a while, looking at his features in the moonlight. His mouth was open a little, and the white teeth peeked out from behind the lips. She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit. (P. 18)

 “The Scorpion” was probably one of the strangest stories I read, and the most thought provoking. Two sons had left their elderly mother to live in a cave they dug out of clay for an undetermined length of time. She was left to survive with a bare minimum of supplies, her dreams, and her memories. Surrounded by scorpions in the walls and constant dripping water, she adapts to her solitude.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. (P. 103)

Finally, one of her sons arrives to retrieve her, he seems surprised that either she is still there or alive; she refuses to leave at first. We don’t know why he is there for her, but it is clear their relationship is not good as she is not even sure of his identity.

One dark day he looked up to see one of her sons standing in the doorway. She could not remember which one it was, but she thought it was the one who had ridden the horse down the dry river bed and nearly been killed. She looked at his hand to see if it was out of shape. It was not that son. (P. 103)

We never learn the names of the old woman nor her son, not even the anonymous old man who sits outside the cave occasionally without any interaction. Her closest interaction with another person is built on isolation:

One old man used to come from the village on his way down to the valley, and sit on a rock just distant enough from the cave for her to recognize him. She knew he was aware of her presence in the cave there, and although she probably did not know this, she disliked him for not giving some sign that he knew she was there. (P. 103)

We can only surmise the reason the old woman was sent to live in a cave by her two resentful sons far outside of town was that it was intended to be her tomb. What we do learn is implied through actions and the bitter dialogue; the specifics about their estrangement are clear. It’s best summed up in this exchange at the close of the story as the son leads his mother out of the cave and the surprised old man sitting nearby says “good-bye”:

“Who is that?” said her son.
“I don’t know.”
Her son looked back at her darkly.
“You’re lying,” he said. (P. 106)

Interestingly, the story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz” paints a dark portrait of loneliness and despondency not unlike the other stories, but with a happy ending, as happy as one could expect in the circumstances. A young man named Ramón signed on to the crew of a ship, working in the scullery.

Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. (P. 106-107)

During a stopover in a port town, Ramón searches for the crew after he has finished cleaning the kitchen, hours after the crew had left the ship. He finds a group of them in a café. The following scene captures the anguish and anger Ramón confronts as it continues to build to a climax:

Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came an served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. (P. 108)

As Ramón continues to find ways draw the sailors’ attention to no avail, he sees an opportunity during their fourth day out at sea. A tired bird far from land is desperate to land on the ship’s deck, but the gawking crew scares it from doing so. As they place bets on the bird’s fate, Ramón brings out the ship’s mascot, a large cat, and trains the cat’s focus on the bird to attempt to catch it. The sailors are impressed.

In a situation that appeared to be leading to some type of violent act of Ramón’s doing was cleverly displayed by the cat attempting to catch the bird without success. Yet, Ramón is awarded with the acceptance from his crewmates he craved.

At noonday meal they talked about it. After some argument the bets were paid. One of the oilers went to his cabin and brought out a bottle of cognac and a set of little glasses which he put in front of him and filled, one after the other.
“Have some?” he said to Ramón.

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4 thoughts on “Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

  1. Hey David,Once again, you have given us an excellent summary of one of the all time classic short story collections. Well done!I’m glad you read Bowles. I know you have an aesthetic affinity for dark fiction, and Bowles is one of the best authors I know at dark. Really dark. Dark in an existential way, that makes you question many comfortable assumptions, including the basic goodness of humanity. And he’s also an incredibly skilled writer: his prose is elegant and about as clear as you can get, and I find his descriptions of the natural world to be particularly lucid. He also does a great job, as you point out, of accurately portraying extreme emotions such as anger, anguish, and despair. That’s not an easy thing for a writer to do, so we can learn a great deal from Bowles on this score as well. Did you learn anything in terms of craft technique that you might be able to put to work in your own short fiction?

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  2. Hey Tim,I had to think about your question for a little bit. I was pulled into his stories because they resemble what I have aspired to write: fluid style, integrating environment into action and language, and simple portrayals of complex behavior. Looking at how Bowles handled these nuances, it helps me assess my own prose and sentence structure to make them that much stronger.Thanks for the great feedback. I will check out more of his work. Definitely an inspiration.David

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  3. I'm currently reading Bowles' collected stories. The constant theme is the destruction of innocence. When the innocence of children is destroyed it's tragic (Fourth Day Out is such a story); yet an adult who remains innocent is ludicrous (as the unnamed professor in A Distant Episode, or the other professor in Cold Point – whose innocence it to think that innocence is possible). Bowles is a supreme technician, but spiritually depressing in the extreme.

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  4. Depressing and dark, yet I see his work as a reflection of reality. Not everyone's reality, but it's rooted in someone's truth. Am I becoming too obscure and esoteric now? Probably.Thanks for taking the time to read and post here. Much appreciated! I will check out Bowles' other works.

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