I could describe MacAuley as a poor man’s James Salter, and the heavy, cerebral, and often violent stories bear some similarities to those of that other great, under-appreciated, minor American master. Yet MacAuley writes less poetically, and more sparsely; Hemingway’s shadow seems to loom. Powerful, economical, and somewhat messy–the over-reliance on metaphor and simile leads to some clunky and even laughable lines, and these seem oddly out of place, like something written by some other author, or lines played with by an editor to the point of being unrecognizable.
I say all this, because we have to understand how good MacAuley can be, even despite some flaws that illustrate why these are not classic stories. Flawed as they may be, these are quite good to incredible stories, and evoke things about the “Greatest Generation” that we forget, or never knew. The aftermath of war, even one as noble as World War II, is full of confusion and ennui and a chance to evaluate honestly the experiences of a just-passed event that was necessarily obscured by patriotic myopia, by the short-sightedness necessary for survival, for endurance, for living. And that’s what we see on display here with the opening stories—the best ones in the collection—that retrospectively explore the experiences of the just-passed war, and the ways even its noble, necessary engagements dehumanize. This is not to say that these are stories of a pacifist, but that they are merely moments from the difficulty of the life of war, told by a man who lived through such things. The title story is a small masterpiece, in the ways in which it commands us to reconsider what we pity, who we pity, why we pity, and what causes us to abandon pity. The other three war stories are similarly strong.
The rest of the stories are divided into two groups: domestic studies of a childhood between-the-World-Wars in the small-town Midwest, and academic stories. The academic stories are the weakest; while they work as solid black comedies satirizing the self-importance of academia and academics, they are, at best, merely charming (I say this while admitting that the final story stays with me as a sort of comedic fable of the awful). The domestic stories are strong in their own right, and provide a vivid portrait of the life that produced men like MacAuley. In the end, however, these work best as character studies of the home life and childhood that produced the men who fight, endure, and become “heroes” in the war; they read like prequels to the war stories, and that’s perhaps the best way to understand them.
While uneven, even the weakest stories are worth reading. And the war stories are, again, minor American classics. The portrait of a generation here is nuanced, beautiful, and necessary. And as the 1940s and 50s become more and more mythic, The End of Pity is a useful guide to the America that was then, and beautiful unto themselves.