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Master Misery

One woman was particularly relentless. Ordinarily, her face would have had a soft commonplace sweetness, but now, watching Sylvia, it was ugly with distrust, jealousy. As though trying to tame some creature which might suddenly spring full-fanged, she sat stroking a flea-bitten neck fur, her stare continuing its assault until the earthquake footstep of Miss Mozart was heard in the hall.  

An impersonal and cold city, that Big Apple. Impersonal precisely because there are so many persons roaming about; cold because skyscrapers and lonely streets tend to be windy and tree-starved, reminding us at every corner of our mortal path. An especially affecting environment for a young woman from Easton, a small town "north of Cincinnati," even if Easton and Cincinnati probably do not trammel their winters. So why then would someone from Easton come to New York? Perhaps because growing up in a place like Easton makes some people dream of its farthest attainable opposite. Why attainable? Perhaps because a young woman of Easton must never relinquish the opportunity to move back to Easton, even if that would signal utter defeat. A quandary plaguing the heroine of this famous story.

Our heroine is Sylvia, who is young but likely not very beautiful – if she were, our story would have a very different arc of events. Having moved to America's most famous city "for whatever reason, and it was indeed becoming vague," she has been working a typist for an underwear company, which may not quite be the lowest rung of the career ladder although it may seem so. She lives with Henry and Estelle – they are very much a hendiadys for a single unit – a married couple with great aspirations once diligent Henry graduates law school. It is not strange to learn that one of Sylvia's motivations for quitting her hometown was "to rid herself of Henry and Estelle, or rather, their counterparts" (Estelle, in particular, is the type of blinkered narcissist who sincerely thinks she can encourage others by prattling on about her own successes); but it is strange to learn that Estelle, too, hails from Easton. In fact, Estelle and Sylvia's "childhood friendship" might explain why a married couple could endure a third residential wheel for more than rental purposes. Today, however, has been different: not only did Sylvia defy her roommates' daily advice and cross Central Park alone at dusk, she also knocked off work early and hastened to the offices of a certain Mr. Revercomb. His appearance may betray his formal education, although not to the degree that one could learn his motives, ulterior or otherwise:

Impeccable, exact as a scale, surrounded in a cologne of clinical odors; flat grey eyes planted like seed in the anonymity of his face and sealed within steel-dull lenses.

This remarkable passage makes far more sense as an echo of Sylvia's sentiments regarding New York City itself ("Anonymity, its virtuous terror; and the speaking drainpipe, all-night light, ceaseless footfall, subway corridor, numbered door"). Who could fail to see these "steel-dull lenses" as that famous image (from a mediocre poet) of a skyscraper? More remarkable still is that New Yorkers congregate like so many "patients" to spend time, valuable time, as it turns out, with Mr. Revercomb. And what does Mr. Revercomb seek from this anxious, motley crew, held in check by the "green-pale hands ... as strong as oak roots" of his secretary, Miss Mozart? Nothing, strange to say, that they couldn't dissemble or fabricate. Because for a tidy sum Mr. Revercomb will pay you to tell him your dreams.      

What Mr. Revercomb – a French valley of dreams – does with these recounted visions ("all typed and filed") is not ours to ponder. Sylvia also gives the matter little thought, which cannot be said of another frequent dreamer, Oreilly. Sylvia first lays eyes on Oreilly when Miss Mozart seizes him by the necktie and casts out of the offices of Mr. Revercomb, and not only because of the alcohol on his breath (all the other "applicants," save Sylvia, "laughed delicately, admiringly"). Oreilly does have a sad, drunk air about him, but he persists in his belief in the human soul, for dreams "are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us." His uncanny resemblance to a clown, if one whom spirits have long since mastered, makes the ridicule he suffers oddly fitting. Unhoused and ever on the lookout for his next drink, Oreilly befriends Sylvia by reminding her at once of childhood's innocence and the vices of the city that has rejected them. A desperate gambit towards the story's end reveals that neither one of them has been in close contact with reality for some time, a scene preceded by another, even more harrowing exchange between two childhood friends who have been living on the fumes of a distant past. But the best passage in Master Misery, Oreilly's term for the dream-filer, comes when Sylvia intrepidly takes Central Park in a very impractical pair of high heels:

The real trouble with Henry and Estelle was that they were so excruciatingly married .... Enough to drive you loony. 'Loony!' she said aloud, the quiet park erasing her voice. It was lovely now, and she was right to have walked here, with wind moving through the leaves, and globe lamps, freshly aglow, kindling the chalk drawings of children, pink birds, blue arrows, green hearts. But suddenly, like a pair of obscene words, there appeared on the path two boys: pimple-faced, grinning, they loomed in the dusk like menacing flames, and Sylvia, passing them, felt a burning all through her, quite as though she had brushed fire. They turned and followed her past a deserted playground, one of them bump-bumping a stick along an iron fence, the other whistling. These two sounds accumulated around her like the gathering roar of an oncoming engine, and when one of the boys, with a laugh, called, "Hey whatsa hurry?" her mouth twisted for breath. Don't, she thought, thinking to throw down her purse and run. At that moment, however, a man walking a dog came up a sidepath, and she followed at his heels to the exit.

If you ever had any reason to doubt Capote's genius, this paragraph would immediately dispel such foolishness (with the children's chalk drawings being one of his most unforgettable images). Yet there are many other instances of this brilliance: "You could hear the tough afternoon voices of desperate running boys"; "Her head fell back, and her laughter rose and carried over the street like an abandoned, wildly colored kite"; "She put her arm through Oreilly's, and together they moved down the street, but it was as if they were friends pacing a platform waiting for the other's train"; "There was an enormous commotion in the hall, capsizing the room into a fury of sound: a bull-deep voice, vulgar as red, roared out"; "His voice trailed to a mere moth of sound." It is no wonder, then, that of all his stories, Capote named the tragic tale of Sylvia the dreamer his favorite. And what of the Master himself? Why does Oreilly claim the dream collector is the same being who "lives in the hollows of trees" and whose step "you can hear ... in the attic"? Perhaps because there are so few trees and attics in the Argus-eyed city.                     

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