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The Self-Made Brain Surgeon and Other Stories

The Self-Made Brain Surgeon and Other Stories

by Mark Harris, Jon Surgal (Introduction)

These thirteen short stories represent Mark Harris’s distinguished work in this genre from 1946 to 1993. They were undertaken at a time when the author was becoming famous as a novelist for such triumphs as Bang the Drum Slowly and The Southpaw. Although Harris loves and writes tellingly about the pleasures of baseball, his primary subject has


These thirteen short stories represent Mark Harris’s distinguished work in this genre from 1946 to 1993. They were undertaken at a time when the author was becoming famous as a novelist for such triumphs as Bang the Drum Slowly and The Southpaw. Although Harris loves and writes tellingly about the pleasures of baseball, his primary subject has always been the human condition and the shifts of mortal men and women as they try to understand and survive what life has dealt them. While baseball is virtually absent from the stories in this collection, Harris’s gift for the wry appreciation of human variety is never lacking. The pleasure we take in these stories reminds us why Harris ranks as one of this age’s most perceptive and satisfying writers.

Editorial Reviews

David L. Ulin
What's most surprising about this colleciton is Harris' talent for absurdity... —The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Baseball maven Harris, best known for his 1956 novel, Bang the Drum Slowly, collects 13 tales (1946–93), only a few of them about America's favorite pastime—though Harris does sometime use baseball as a template for living life fully and wisely. In the title story, written in a strange, depersonalized voice echoing the language for handbooks, a storekeeper runs a noninvasive "brain surgery" lab in his backroom, which is actually a psychology lab for getting local "patients" back on track with their lives. While leading to an artistic unity on a more ambitious level than any other story here, the depersonalization acts against the warmth seen so engagingly and straightforwardly elsewhere herein. The immensely amusing earliest piece (from 1946), "Jackie Robinson and My Sister," asks whether or not Harris would want his sister married to the major leagues' first black player—she is in fact only twelve and in sixth grade. The latest story (1993), "The Bonding," the high-water mark here for richness of feeling, shows how the 69-year-old author bonds with a local pickup team on which he plays left field. "Flattery" tells how an elderly English teacher is suckered by an itinerant con man, while "Carmelita's Education for Living" reveals how a college-student counselor, whose fields of concentration are Middle English and modern women, tries to entrance a young lady with blond bangs, blue eyes, and bare legs into studying Middle English. All told, a strong collection that places each bemused word just where it works best on the playing field.

Product Details

UNP - Bison Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.28(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Jackie Robinson and My Sister

Some time ago the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a baseball contract. That is, they signed him to a Montreal contract. Brooklyn owns Montreal. If Robinson turns out to be a good enough shortstop he will be promoted from the International League and sent to Ebbetts Field.

    I was very interested in this because I am extremely interested in the Dodgers and in any shortstops to whom they might acquire title. I have always believed, not without prejudice, that Brooklyn shortstops were limitless in ability. It is my wish that Brooklyn obtains the best, most durable shortstops in the whole world.

    This is hardly an ideology for a St. Louis newspaperman to possess because nobody in St. Louis has any special love for Brooklyn baseball players. If he does he is wise not to bandy the information about.

    So, without committing myself, I scouted around to find out what St. Louis people thought about Brooklyn's new shortstop.

    Some people did not have any opinions at all and some said they couldn't blame Brooklyn for wanting to corner the market on infielders.

    Other people, however, asked a question instead of answering mine, the way some people do. They wanted to know how I would like it if my sister married Jackie Robinson. They even hinted that such a union was imminent.

    Since this is such a popular question I feel it deserves an answer.

    I understand, of course, that the matter is not up to me. Robinson says he plansto be married in January to a trained nurse. It would probably be difficult to induce him to change his mind at this point. It would also entail consulting the trained nurse, who is not likely to be any more sympathetic than any other woman in such a situation. Maybe less so, loss of sympathy being an occupational disease peculiar to trained nurses.

    Furthermore, he is in South America at the moment, traipsing around with a bunch of norteamericanos, some white and some Negro like himself, playing baseball for their good neighbor aficionados to the South. I cannot see my way clear at this time to run around after him and get him married to my sister before January. And if I don't get them married I won't be able to say how I like it.

    Martha, my sister, lives in Mount Vernon, New York, and is in the sixth grade at William Wilson Junior High School. It would not be unkind to say of her that at this time she is not a hot potato. Robinson, at twenty-six, has, by this time, lost all interest in young ladies of twelve.

    She last wrote to me just before Halloween, for which she was preparing with traditional enthusiasm.

    In her letter, written in reverse slant on blue-lined notebook paper, she hinted that she is now in love with Raymie Carucci. This is not surprising, the Caruccis having always been a lovable bunch. I can distinctly remember being in love with Theresa Carucci off and on during many a school year.

    Martha was in love with Billy Pelkus when I was last home. During the winter, however, he smacked her in the eye with a snowball, putting at end what had been, at best, a one-sided affair.

    I do not believe Martha has ever heard of Jackie Robinson. She has never been a student of the sports pages and I have never known her to follow with any degree of avidity the fortunes of the Kansas City Monarchs, for whom Robinson short-stopped last season.

    And I am certain my mother will not permit her to marry before she has completed junior high school.

    It does not seem probable that Robinson can be inveigled into marrying my sister before his intended trip to the altar in January.

    And my sister's present attachment to Raymie Carucci appears to be a determined thing. If Raymie backs out there's always Billy Pelkus.

    The whole thing is out of the question.

Chapter Two

Carmelita's Education for Living

There came to Horatio recently—to his office—a young lady with blonde bangs and blue eyes and bare legs, and in her arms her Packet. Horatio was charmed. He was thirty years old, a college student counselor, and his fields of concentration were Middle English and modern women.

    "Come in and sit down and tell me your name and all the most intimate things in the world about yourself," he said. And she went in and sat down and told him her name, "Scott, Carmelita B.," handing him her Packet. "I take it," said Horatio, "that you've completed all your Lower Division, Scott, Carmelita B."

    "Yes," she said, "I'm a new English major."

    Horatio unsealed her Packet and shook it, spilling onto his desk various documents of various sizes and various colors. They were certainly not very interesting, at least to Horatio, but he pretended to read them carefully: the longer he lingered over Carmelita's documents the longer she would remain in his office. She had been, in addition to being beautiful, President of the Sophomore Class, a cheerleader, and an honors student. She held the University record for Woman's Breast Stroke. Her father (the Packet said) was a farmer, her mother a farmer's wife, her hobbies were swimming, dancing, reading and "social participation of every kind," and she had come to the University (again, her own words, in faint blue ink) "to be educated for living."

    "My, but you're beautiful," said Horatio, looking up from her Packet and into her face.

    "That's what everybody says," she said.

    "And your Minor is—" He often left sentences unfinished. It was a classroom device, but a habit which clung to him even in his office, like chalk stain.

    "Psychology," she said.

    "Why psychology?" said Horatio. "Any particular reason why psychology?"

    "No, no particular reason," she said. "Only I've got to minor in something and it might as well be psychology."

    "Well, now," he said, "in what way can I counsel you?"

    "I think all I need is my Program signed," she said. She took from her notebook a blue card upon which, in a firm, controlled hand, but in an almost invisible blue ink, she had indicated her intention to carry three courses in English—Introduction to Chaucer, Introduction to Shakespeare, and Introduction to Grammar—and, in her minor field, one course, Evaluation of Personality: Theories of Individual Difference, taught by Gilbert Schaachtmann, an Assistant Professor of Psychology, unknown to Horatio.

    "How's this man Grammar?" said Horatio.

    "Sir?" she said, retrieving her Program. "Oh, no, that means grammar. Grammar. It's not a man, it's a thing."

    "I see," said Horatio. He regained the Program, balanced it upright on his typewriter, folded his arms, and read it at a distance. "Do you think you're ready for Chaucer?" he said.

    "I've got to take Chaucer sooner or later," she said, "and it might as well be now."

    "I'm wondering, though, if Chaucer might be easier for you if you take a course in Middle English first. You might take Introduction to Middle English."

    "I've decided against it," she said.

    "One terribly attractive thing about Introduction to Middle English," said Horatio, "is, I teach it."

    "When?" she asked, consulting her Time Plan. "No, I couldn't. I dance."

    "It's easily possible," he said, "to dance and take Introduction to Middle English at the same time."

    "But not at the same hour. I dance in the lunch dances."

    "Every day?" he said. "You know, I think I might come and dance with you sometime on a Tuesday or a Thursday."

    "I never knew faculty danced," she said.

    "I've danced at many a lunch," said Horatio, signing her Program and handing it to her, sliding the various documents back into her Packet, and rising and placing her Packet atop his filing cabinet. She also rose. "So you think I'm too old to dance," he said. "How old do you think I am? Tell me. Be frank. How old?"


    "You're way high. Anyhow, give my regards to Mr. Grammar."

    "I will," she said, "and I want to thank you for all your trouble," and down the corridor she went, her blue Program in her lovely white hand, and she disappeared.

    Now, ordinarily Horatio never saw his Counselees except during Counseling Week. He might receive, from time to time, official notice that a Counselee had dropped or withdrawn; or he might be requested to send a Counselee's Packet to Guidance, in the event a Counselee seemed to need it, and this he did unless he forgot. The Packets (in a manner of speaking, the Counselees themselves) were ultimately removed from the top of the filing cabinet and filed—filed in it—by a graduate student named Ursula Poindexter, with whom, upon an afternoon of leisure, Horatio had once discussed, at a distinctly abstract level, the possibility of an affair. He had thought to pursue the discussion, but no further opportunity presented itself, and such passion as he may once have felt for Ursula cooled beyond recall.

So it was with Carmelita B. Scott. Flickeringly, Horatio contemplated dancing with her at noon on a Tuesday or a Thursday, but somehow her image was never in his mind at precisely those hours.

    Indeed, so blurred did his memory of her become that, for a moment, when he found her note tacked to his door, he could not assign the name a face. "It is urgently important," the note read, "that I contact you at three (3): Miss Scott (Carmelita B.)." It was penned in blue on the reverse side of a blue receipt. Horatio saw that Carmelita had recently bought, at Kampus Kredit, a sweater, a bra and a book, and he said to himself, "Ah, contact," summoning to memory the blonde bangs and the blue eyes and the bare legs. When three o'clock came he was waiting, studiously casual and studiously young, his books hidden, his shirt sleeves rolled above his muscles, his tie loosened, his feet upon his desk and his eyeglasses in his pocket, and she knocked, and he called, "Come!" in his youngest voice, and she said, "I hope I'm not disturbing you, but it's my thematic apperception."

    "Well, we all have trouble with our thematic apperception," he said, swinging his feet athletically to the floor. "What in hell is thematic apperception?"

    "I finally thought about you at the last minute," she said. "You're supposed to evaluate somebody you don't know too well, but it seems like everybody I know I know very well." She opened her notebook. "You look at these little pictures, and you tell me what you see."

    "What I apperceive?"

    "Yes. I know you're busy, but it won't take long."

    Horatio, peering at the first picture, so-called, saw nothing. It looked, to Horatio, like an ink blot. "I see your slender, inky fingers," he said.

    "You're supposed to look more at the picture," she said.

    "I see light-blue ink," he said. "It looks to me as if you spilled your light-blue ink."

    "But does it have anything thematic about it?"

    "If you wish," he said, "I'll see a theme even if I don't."

    "Go on."

    "The theme is, There's no sense crying over spilled ink. But actually," he said, looking up, "I'm afraid I'm just not thematically apperceptible."

    "Everybody sees something," she said.

    "Tell you what I'll do," he said. "I'll see my mother murdering my father. How's that?"

    "Show me which is which," she said.

    "Here's ma, here's pa."

    Carmelita tore from her notebook a sheet of blank paper, and she wrote in blue ink, "Personality X." She drew a line beneath it. "You're Personality X," she said.

    "X for Excellent," he said.

    "No," she said, "just X for unknown quantity."

    "This first figure," said Horatio, "is imploring this second figure to do something. To see something. He's pointing at something."

    "Try to perceive what he's pointing at," she said, her pen at the ready.

    "He's pointing at the air," said Horatio, "and he's saying, `Can't you see?'"

    "Can't see what?" she said excitedly.

    "Can't see that the air is an illusion, that there isn't all that air between them, all that distance, it's only her stupid and innocent illusion, imploring, imploring—"

    She said, very suddenly, "I've got you evaluated," and he laughed at her. "Me?" he said. "Me, who all these years I still haven't even begun to evaluate? You're a genius."

    "It's due, though," she said, "and he grades you down for late papers. I'm not a genius, but I am rather good at thematic apperception. Everybody says so."

    "I don't say so," said Horatio, "and I'm somebody. I think you're rather poor at thematic apperception, if there's any such thing to begin with. I think you're stupid at thematic apperception."

    "Anyhow I've got to go," she said. "I want to thank you for your time and trouble. Everybody around this whole University is always so helpful."

    "Do you still dance at noon?" said Horatio. "I've been meaning to come over and dance with you sometime."

    "That's what you said last time," she said.

    "I intend to," he said. "Sometime. I'll tell you the reason I haven't got around to it." He paused to rally reasons and the pause was ambiguous enough to allow her to mistake his words for a promise to be fulfilled not now but—as he said—sometime. Through this ambiguity she slipped and was gone, down the corridor, and away, with a wave of her lovely hand.

    Horatio could not help chuckling at her innocence, and after he had chuckled for a moment in this superior way he found, in his filing cabinet, where Ursula Poindexter had filed it, Carmelita's Packet. In the Packet he found the blue Program he had signed during Counseling Week. It had, since he last saw it, traveled the bureaucracy—been stamped by the Registrar, initialed by clerks in the Departments of English and Psychology, and finally been, for vague but traditional reasons, returned to Horatio. Horatio saw that her instructor in Evaluation of Personality: Theories of Individual Difference was one Gilbert Schaachtmann, whom Horatio, to his positive knowledge, had never seen. Yet Horatio, subtle fellow that he was, addressed a note to "Dear Gil," asking to know, "if I might, unless it be contrary to your procedure, Carmelita B. Scott's evaluation of Personality X. Miss Scott," he added, "is one of my Counselees." He deposited the note in the campus mailbox, and he went about his business which so largely consisted of complaining to his colleagues of the impossible distance between professors and their students.

    To Horatio's surprise—and it gave him pause—he received at week's end the following reply:

    Dear Horatio:

In re evaluation by your Counselee Scott (Carmelita B.): "I found difficulty in finding somebody I did not know too well. Finally found Personality X. But Personality X was also too emotionally involved with his Evaluator to supply valid apperceptive data. Personality X would like to have an intrigue with Evaluator but cannot descend from abstract."

You are right to be concerned about this Counselee. She needs help.



cc: Guidance

Meet the Author

Mark Harris (1922-2007) is the author of a famous quartet of baseball novels—including Bang the Drum Slowly—as well as Something about a Soldier, Speed, and The Talemaker. All are available as Bison Books.
Jon Surgal is a writer and critic. His father introduced him to baseball and the work of Mark Harris.

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