Short story review from The American Tradition in Literature: “The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street” by James T. Farrell

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The American Tradition in Literature, Fourth Edition.

“The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street”
James T. Farrell

I was looking for something different to read and found this short story in The American Tradition in Literature, a college anthology. Written in 1950, it’s the story of Morty Aiken, a fourteen-year-old boy, growing up in Chicago. He is well-known in his part of the city for his swift running and ice skating. He runs and moves for the sheer joy of feeling his body travel faster than anyone else. Morty enjoys the fame and popularity that comes with this athletic ability and has big dreams of being a star athlete in high school and college.

Morty’s speed earns him the respect of his gang of boys, but Morty is nearly oblivious to the racial tensions in his neighborhood and in the city. He can only think of running. The author introduces this tension first within Morty’s group of friends, who pick on Tony Rabuksi, a tough, but slow-witted Polish boy, calling him a “dirty Polack” and worse. The tensions shift when Morty and Tony become friends. With Morty’s speed and Tony’s size and strength, the two boys chase down and beat up boys who have been making fun of Tony. Tony gains acceptance and the two boys think they have accomplished something.

The hatred among the boys doesn’t stop, however; it only expands to the surrounding blocks, and fuels the idea of chasing down and beating up the boys in the black neighborhoods. Morty gets caught up in this mentality, full of pride at being the fastest, and blind to the meaning of what they are doing. It is this mistake that leads to a tragic but almost predictable ending.

Farrell has a simple, matter-of-fact style. These plain statements allow the reader to pick out the characters’ mistakes and the irony of their decisions. I enjoyed this style and think it enforces the impact of the story and the sad results of mob mentality.

James T. Farrell (1904 – 1979) was an American writer of fiction and poetry. Much of his writing is based on his experiences growing up and living in Chicago. One of his most famous works is the Studs Lonigan trilogy which was made into a film in 1960 and a television miniseries in 1979. Farrell was noted throughout his writing career for his ability to consistently write about the world of childhood and youth, and especially through a boy’s point of view.

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