The problem with high expectations and deeply layered writing is that the simple enjoyment of reading the surface story is often lost. Not so with "An Encounter." Reading it was easy, quick, and enjoyable; and not until I reached the last two paragraphs or so did I remember that I was dealing with an author who doesn't write with entertainment at top priority. In fact it's evidently quite possible that Joyce didn't write for readers' enjoyment at all. His eventual publisher even whined that Joyce never wrote anything simple, direct, and fun. Maybe "An Encounter" fooled the publisher, too, at least until those last paragraphs. It's the second read-through that permits--encourages, even frustratingly--a second and third guess of every single detail: "Does that mean something? What about that? Could even that mean something?"
Basically, "An Encounter" is about a boy, the narrator, who is motivated by stories of the Wild West, brought to his attention by one of his friend's older brother, to skip school in the name of adventure, since adventure cannot be found anywhere but abroad. Apparently, the docks and the "pigeon house" are adequately abroad. The friend and another make the plan to leave, each planting a lie, or excuse, through someone else--Mahoney (friend no.2) with his obliging older sister, and Dillon with his likely less indulgent older brother; (we don't have information on how the narrator secures his alibi) --the following morning.
The narrator sleeps badly and so arrives early; Mahoney turns up shortly thereafter; Dillon never shows. His brother--bent on the clergy--clearly didn't post the lie to the Fathers of the boys' Catholic school. Mahoney's big sister, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind engaging in the assistance of sibling vagrancy, which likely levels the young lady right up there with the fantastic "unkempt fierce and beautiful girls" of the narrator's preferred American detective stories, while the older Dillon, I'm guessing, is posting up a personal preference of Joyce's against the Catholic church. By contrast to the restrictions of the two Dillons, Mahoney, who by appearance is Protestant, is entirely free, even wreckless, which independence is caste as beautiful, and the narrator clearly envies him and his ability to find that mysterious American adventure. In short: Dillons = Catholic and imprisoned; Mahoney = Protestant and free. It is the narrator who seems to be sitting the fence.
When toward the end of their day away they meet the green-eyed man--a wandering pervert--in the field by the harbor, the narrator pursues an intent of courtesy. Supporting his insecurities while sitting and talking, he boasts of reading three authors the man mentions, though he knows essentially nothing about them. The man is enjoying himself and asks about Lord Lytton; the narrator appears not to understand why it is that young boys should not read Lord Lytton. Mahoney, on the other hand, doesn't care what the queer old man thinks, and jumps up to chase a cat.
The boys succeed, it seems, in finding their adventure, despite the quick passage of time and its preclusion of reaching the pigeon house. I believe there's more to the chasing of the girls, the chivalrous local boys who defend them; the dock workers, the adjectives around the food, and so forth; but I don't know what it is yet. The telling moment of the story, however--at least for me, comes in the moment at the very end when the narrator jumps up and hollers, "Murphy!" hoping to escape the old man, and using the code name he assigned Mahoney in interested of escaping potential pursuance by the pervert.
We know that Joyce isn't thrilled with his city or country. Perhaps the story would show a more favorable light on the latter, at least, had the boys indeed found their green-eyed sailor, rather than a green-eyed creeper. Alas, the typical color for the country is not affiliated with the wandering freedom and exotic adventures of the seaman, but in the hobbled squint-eye of the degraded. In the end, whether by courtesy or indecision, the narrator (code name: Smith) is yet sitting with the old man who continues to talk and ramble, lost in the circling, deeply internalized gravity of his fantasies, while Mahoney runs and chases the cat--a very boyish thing to do. Finally there's a pause in the speech, and the narrator seems finally to arrive at his decision--or the decision, epiphany-like, comes to him. And a mighty collision! He jumps to his feet and shouts at his friend, who comes to help him out.
But what of that last line: "And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little"?
I can't help thinking that a lot of this story has to do with nationality. Does the narrator have a twinge of guilt that maybe he's expatriating himself by leaving the national scumbag (and "scumbag" matches the color profile from the previous story, which was there used to represent city and country), and the spoken dislike is just empty validation for his further moment of doubt? I don't know, but it fascinates me.
I will come back to it after further context is read.
Two down; thirteen to go.
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