Adventures in Reading

“Center of Gravity” by L. J. Amster

“The railroad yard bull squinted closely at the picture on the card that said I was licensed to box in Illinois.”

Launching the Best American Short Stories of 1965 is L. J. Amster’s short story “Center of Gravity.” At 56-pages, it is one of the longest stories in the collection. I have read “Center of Gravity” three times now and while I can say I have appreciated it I cannot say I really have enjoyed the story. Our narrator is arrested for illegally riding on freight cars, is put into jail though allowed to box, and when he returns to prison is “caged” by the sheriff and his men to be held for what Amster suggests as an indeterminate time to fight when they want him to.

The “rules” that exist within the book’s world are always murky. A barber moonlights as the justice of the peace, the Jewish narrator recently threw a fight, boys are let out of jail to box, the sheriff and his men are drinking, and there’s a stop in at a regularly closed down roadside house. Though I don’t necessarily like comparing short stories and novels, I found “Center of Gravity” to be fairly reminiscent of Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning or Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl.

Within these 56-pages there is a great deal happening and Amster appeals to the reader with some beautifully portrayed moments and details: the narrator’s photo looking “as if [he] were wearing a large white flower behind [his] right ear” or the temptation and denial sequence between the turnkey’s bone and a dog, which becomes a central theme of the story.

I suppose part of my disconnection with “Center of Gravity” involves literature and Chicago and literature and boxing: both two areas that have quite tough acts to follow. Amster’s book simply didn’t offer a refreshing or grimy enough appeal. However, I also believe that “Center of Gravity” would be an excellent story to read in a group or for a class and I hesitate to develop any final opinion if only because there is a lot – even much more than I’ve already mentioned – going on in the story. I found it to be a tough one to swallow on my own.

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