Last night I settled in to finish Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. What a curiously dark and strange novella. So brooding and unusual. And yet, it really only tells the story of an ordinary love triangle. But the language and the visuals, the eccentric characters and the dreary misery of the town turn everything about that commonplace theme into something remarkable. 

The narrator opens by describing a bleak little town and its boarded up buildings, its miserable dullness and desperate surroundings. Then the reader is invited to consider what used to be a café. Here is where the real story begins.  

The back of my Penguin edition summarizes things so nicely, I’ll just quote it here: 

For this is the tale of Miss Amelia, gaunt and lonely owner of a small-town store; and how she squandered her love on Cousin Lymon, the little strutting hunchback who turned the store into a café; and how her rejected husband, Marvin Macy, the meanest man in town, came back and stole the hunchback’s heart; and of the gargantuan fight that followed. 

Sounds a bit grotesque, doesn’t it? A hunchback, a lonely, eccentric woman and an ex-convict. And there was something definitely fantastic about it – Miss Amelia in her swamp boots carrying Cousin Lymon on her back, and Marvin Macy greasing himself up for the fight like a hog. The chocolate and sugar snuff that Cousin Lymon kept packed between his teeth or the outlandish remedies Miss Amelia practiced on her willing patients.

But despite the fantastic quality of the situation, the overall aesthetic was both melancholy and sad. Miss Amelia’s initial hardness wears away, revealing the anxious lover beneath. Cousin Lymon loses his magical aura and becomes pathetic and weak, willing to do anything for the attention of Marvin Macy. And Marvin Macy just wants his revenge. The ending is ugly and desperate, a truly sad ballad.  

McCullers is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. She has four novels in total, several short stories and a collection of poetry. All of them are purported to exhibit her tragicomic vision of existence. It doesn’t surprise me in the least to learn that she wrote poetry, as all I’ve read of her writing until now is strongly infused with what I would consider a poetic sensibility – a certain rhythm in the sentences and a dependence on unexpected visual imagery. Engaging and thoughtful, with a real sympathy for misfit-type people, she’s a pure delight to read.