Walter Macken was the author of dozens of short stories set in Ireland. I was reading his collection The Coll Doll and other stories (out of print, sadly) when I found one rich in ironic subtext. It concerns a man by the name of Gaeglers who one evening goes carousing along the promenade, getting into situations. It’s called Duck Soup.
The irony starts with Gaeglers himself. There’s a number of ironies in the first two pages and I’d like to refer to some of them here. He takes his walk upon “obeying an impulse- a rare occurence with Gaeglers” (31) but based on the tone of statements later in the story, I’m not so convinced. When he looks around the promenade, he thinks “in the thick of the tourist season he had found it a fertile acre for simple people who were willing to give him money so that he could enjoy his simple pleasures” (31). Macken doesn’t force us to conclusions but he guides us. I wouldn’t call his work vague because I think that would undersell his precision. Instead, he is deliberately non-specific in his sentences. What are his pleasures and why and how does he convince them to give him money? Each piece of information works together to create a subtle conflict that draws the attention of his readers.
With the implications of Gaeglers’ character now well-ingrained in the reader’s mind, Macken introduces two more characters in order to demonstrate how Gaeglers deals with the criminality of others. There are two brothers by the surname Spares. People call them Twotees because of their names, Tom and Toby. There quite a few details demonstrating how Gaeglers feels about them. He doesn’t want to talk to them but “they had been reared on the same street as himself and Gaeglers would hate anybody to think he was a snob” (32). His bearing them has less to with to do with any interest in them but more because it might affect his reputation. He has a high opinion of himself and would not have it sullied if he can avoid it. Though he is frequently implied to be an unpleasant and cruel man himself, he values his reputation. In fact, I think his opinion of them has a lot to do with how, despite their own penchant for thievery “if they saw anybody else doing an honest bit of stealing they would burn the leather off their shoes running to tell the authorities about it” (33). I think this is the closest Gaeglers’ inner monologue comes to the truth of his lifestyle. I admire how Macken can use implication, context and an ironic tone to reveal unwritten truths of the main character and his shared history with other characters in concert with his earlier references. It’s also a subtle flagging of the Spares’ habits that will be important later. Gaeglers betrays himself when he thinks “that it was only the fact that God allowed things like snakes and serpents and lizards and swamps and nauseating things that could account at all for the creation and existence of the Twotees” (33). The only real difference between their criminality and his is that he is cunning enough to be successful while they are not.
With these three reprobates established and brought together, Macken brings them into a situation where their personalities react to a situation. They hear a scream and find a man menacing a girl. Driven by his heroic fantasies, Gaeglers leaps into action slaps the man and says
“‘Go home out of that, you silly little bitch,’ he said to her. ‘Have you no sense?’
Maybe she expected kindness from him, or to be soothed. Her mouth was open. She was holding the torn front of her dress with one hand, a child’s hand. ‘Go home out of that when I tell you,’ he shouted,’ or I’ll give you something!’
She looked at him once, and then she turned and walked towards the promenade, stumbling on the rounded stones” (34).
When I first read the story, I was shocked at the word bitch because it contrasts so sharply with the tone of the narrative. Macken takes so much care to veil Gaeglers’ obvious malevolence behind ironic implications that it really stands out when he breaks it. It fits, of course, because it occurs in dialogue. That is what he says to the girl and no amount of ironic finagling can change that. His priorities are so skewed that he values how heroic action benefits his own sense of self rather than how it helps others. He sends her off straight away once she has served her purpose, as he sees it, and he’s more interested in the man and how he can take his cruel impulses out on a justified target. The Twotees hit the man a couple of times, as befits their random, directionless habits, but Gaeglers instead takes the man’s trousers, brings them to the end of the promenade and throws them under a bench, but not before he purloins the wallet contained inside. This moment is the peak of his self-serving attitude. He thinks “that he had been on the side of justice. He had fought for the right. Now it was only just that he should be rewarded” (36). The reward is hardly just, since he gives half of it to the Twotees to spend between them and keeps half for himself. His actions and the thoughts he uses to justify them conflict. The sum of money is twelve pounds, so they could have split it three ways evenly. Instead, he takes the lion’s share.
This was unwise.
Gaeglers gets arrested and sees the man, whose name is Ginter, and the Spares in court, who have concocted a story to get him in prison. Representing himself, he pleads guilty and gets a sentence of six months. Just before his sentence, he says that the Twotees’ story is “a pack of lies” (36) and that “the major part of Ginter’s story is a lie” (36) and declares the Twotees “weasels bought so that they may perjure themselves to injure” him (36). Of course, these statements are totally true, and it’s a rare occasion where Gaeglers is totally honest in a way that doesn’t directly benefit him. It’s a moment of petty vindictiveness, especially compared to the methodical revenge he takes on the Spares upon his release. Once again, Gaegler’s viciousness comes through only in his direct speech. A man of the moral judiciousness to which he pretends has reason enough to dislike Ginter but his enmity for the Spares revolves around how they challenge his sense of superiority and his own criminal enterprises. He may hide his nature in his thoughts but he expresses it through his words and his actions.
At the end of the story, Macken openly displays the depths of Gaeglers’ personality. He invites the Spares to his digs, serves them duck soup from an unseen pot. When they are finished, he brings out from the kitchen a different pot containing boiled water and “in front of their paling eyes he reached into the pot and pulled out the body of a dead cat and held it wet and dangling in front of them” (40). They run outside and get sick as he watches. He comes back inside and eats his own soup as the story ends with the following:
“That’s the cream of the joke, Gaeglers thought. It’s real duck soup, and nice duck soup, but nothing could possibly persuade them to the contrary. Not now” (41).
The ending really proves the effectiveness of Macken’s irony. All the previous hints were just subtle enough, to the point that they effectively double back and draw attention to their subtlety. Still, he doesn’t give any details of Gaeglers’ plan until the Spares learn about it. It’s another sign of Macken’s narrative restraint. It’s a level of depravity I hadn’t expected, but which makes total sense in hindsight. It hints that Gaeglers’ powers go even further than what Macken has implied earlier.
This book, like so many other Macken books, is out of print. He wrote a trilogy of historical novels which I believe are still widely available but sadly, I can’t provide details of any outlets to get the collection containing Duck Soup. By way of consolation, here’s a link to an interview with his son.
Macken, Walter. “Duck Soup.” The Coll Doll and other stories, Pan Books, 1971, pp. 31-41.