A blend of nostalgia and didacticism, delicately paced yet stilted, Joseph Kertes's The Red Corduroy Shirt
is as odd a beast as the "corduroy" his protagonist, Jake, imagines when he assumes the beautiful shirt worn by his new friend, Jerry Hom, a Chinese immigrant, is made from the skin of an exotic animal. Jake is a young Hungarian immigrant, and his newness to English makes him mistake the tone of the classmate who disparagingly identifies the material for him: "The way he said it, I thought corduroy was a special kind of animal or something." This slip of language prepares a reader for the theme of cultural misunderstanding, the real beast of this story.
Confusion of idiom is replaced by the narrowness which undercuts Jake and Jerry's friendship: the prejudice of parents who hunker down in their cultural identity and insist their children do likewise. Kertes implies the depth of that prejudice by suggesting not only the smallness, but also the pervasiveness, of such thinking. When Jake comes home with the red corduroy shirt, a gift from Jerry, his mother sniffs it disdainfully and throws it in the wash. When at his mother's insistence, Jake returns the shirt, Jerry's father does the same. Neither family is excused from the limitations of its prejudices. Textural details (Jake's father reads a newspaper containing reports of Martin Luther King's plan for marches in Georgia and Alabama, for instance) set personal experience within a larger, historical frame.
The entire story collects around Jerry's red shirt: it initiates and confirms the friendship between Jake and Jerry, and draws the scorn that compromises friendly feelings. Jerry brings more than a red shirt to the relationship, of course; his ability to sketch figures largely in the story as well. Jake brings an open and willing heart, an eagerness to appreciate another individual and culture. Those characteristics are palpable in the telling, yet Kertes's narration has an awkwardness of perspective which jars slightly.
The unfolding of the narrative, the orchestration of events, is quite restrained, even graceful. Unfortunately, the narration isn't sustained. Jake's voice falters: it has the feel of an adult trying to sound like a child. The tone ranges from naive to grandfatherly; the prose occasionally lacks sparkle and verve. Consequently, The Red Corduroy Shirt, while in many respects quite lovely, feels just that much askew. Kertes has thoughtfully recreated the difficulty immigrant children face in defining new communities for themselves, but not in words that sing.
Marnie Parsons edits poetry and teaches literature in London, Ontario.