Today we focus on “The Nine Mile Walk,” by Harry Kemelman. If you are familiar with Kemelman it is probably because of his series of detective novels featuring Rabbi David Small. Kemelman originally wanted to write books about Judaism, but found it too difficult to get such things published. So he embedded discussions of Jewish thought into his mystery novels. The Rabbi novels were also memorable for their subplots, which typically involved the internal politics of the synagogue. Invariably certain members were scheming to get rid of the rabbi for some slight or other.
The present story, however, is not from the Rabbi corpus. It is actually Kemelman's very first story, published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1947. It is very short, and is freely available online. It is purely a gimmick story, but what a gimmick! This is one of those truly crackerjack ideas which, if you are really lucky, come to you once in your life. Alas, it is also a gimmick that can only be done once.
Here's the opening:
I had made an ass of myself in a speech I had given at the Good Government Association dinner, and Nicky Welt had cornered me at breakfast at the Blue Moon, where we both ate occasionally, for the pleasure of rubbing it in. I had made the mistake of departing from my prepared speech to criticize a statement my predecessor in the office of County Attorney had made to the press. I had drawn a number of inferences from his statement and had thus left myself open to a rebuttal which he had promptly made and which had the effect of making me appear intellectually dishonest. I was new to this political game, having but a few months before left the Law School faculty to become the Reform Party candidate for County Attorney. I said as much in extenuation, but Nicholas Welt, who could never drop his pedagogical manner (he was Snowdon Professor of English Language and Literature), replied in much the same tone that he would dismiss a request from a sophomore for an extension on a term paper, “That's no excuse.”
There ensues a brief discussion about the perils of drawing inferences. This eventually leads to the following exchange:
“Give me any sentence of ten or twelve words,” he said, “and I'll build you a logical chain of inferences that you never dreamed of when you framed the sentence.”
Other customers were coming in, and since the space in front of the cashier's booth was small, I decided to wait outside until Nicky completed his transaction with the cashier. I remember being mildly amused at the idea that he probably thought I was still at his elbow and was going right ahead with his discourse.
When he joined me on the sidewalk I said, “A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.”
“No, I shouldn't think it would be,” he agreed absently. Then he stopped in his stride and looked at me sharply. “What the devil are you talking about?”
“It's a sentence and it has eleven words,” I insisted. And I repeated the sentence, ticking off the words on my fingers.
Let the games begin! Welt now holds up his end of the bargain, and begins drawing inferences with all speed. They do lay down a few ground rules early on:
“Next inference: the speaker is not an athlete or an outdoors man.”
“You'll have to explain that one,” I said.
“It's the 'especially' phrase again,” he said. “The speaker does not say that a nine mile walk in the rain is no joke, but merely the walk--just the distance, mind you--is no joke. Now, nine miles is not such a terribly long distance. You walk more than half that in eighteen holes of golf--and golf is an old man's game,” he added slyly. I play golf.
“Well, that would be all right under ordinary circumstances,” I said, “but there are other possibilities. The speaker might be a soldier in the jungle, in which case nine miles would be a pretty good hike, rain or no rain.”
“Yes,” and Nicky was sarcastic, “and the speaker might be one-legged. For that matter, the speaker might be a graduate student writing a Ph.D. thesis on humor and starting by listing all the things that are not funny. See here, I'll have to make a couple of assumptions before I continue.”
“How do you mean?” I asked, suspiciously.
“Remember, I'm taking this sentence in vacuo, as it were. I don't know who said it or what the occasion was. Normally a sentence belongs in the framework of a situation.”
“I see. What assumptions do you want to make?”
“For one thing, I want to assume that the intention was not frivolous, that the speaker is referring to a walk that was actually taken, and that the purpose of the walk was not to win a bet or something of that sort.”
“That seems reasonable enough,” I said.
“And I also want to assume that the locale of the walk is here.”
“You mean here in Fairfield?”
“Not necessarily. I mean in this general section of the country.”
And that's all you're getting for me! Go read the rest, it will only take you a few minutes. Suffice it to say that Welt's chain of inferences eventually leads to a pretty dramatic conclusion. Having mentioned the venue of initial publication, you can probably guess what that conclusion entails.
As I said, the story is very gimmicky. But every time I reread it, as I did moments ago, I have the same reaction Thomas Huxley is said to have had upon reading The Origin of Species: “How very stupid not to have thought of that myself!” It's such a great idea for a story that it's a marvel no one else had thought of it first. I've actually assigned this to students when teaching the “introduction to proofs” class here at JMU. I see it as a light-hearted way of illustrating the power of deductive reasoning.
Is the story deep? No. Does it have great characters or penetrating insights into the human condition? Certainly not. It's just a very, very clever story, and it makes me smile every time I read it. For those reasons it deserves inclusion on any list of great short stories.
The sort of reasoning practiced in the story seems completely different from the type taught in an introduction to proofs class. The basic assumptions are hardly stated with the precision typical of mathematical reasoning.
Yeah, I have to agree with Jr. I don't see what's so brilliant about the story, especially given that the heavy majority of the "inferences" drawn by Mr. Welt are baseless nonsense.
One of the few that makes sense is Welt's conclusion that the distance in question was nine miles, fairly precisely, because nine is not a round number in the way ten or a hundred is; but Welt is broadly full of shit in almost everything else he says.
First inference: the speaker is aggrieved.
Groundless. "The speaker" could easily be an omniscient third-person narrator describing (or, what is much the same thing, a less-than-omniscient human retelling a story (s)he heard about) someone else's nine-mile walk.
(Kemelman's narrator, meanwhile, concedes that that inference is "really implicit in the statement." The hell it is. It would seem the story wouldn't work so well if the narrator weren't such a pushover.)
Next inference: the rain was unforeseen, otherwise he would have said, âA nine mile walk in the rain is no joke,â instead of using the âespeciallyâ phrase as an afterthought.
Baloney. The rain could be entirely foreseen, at least so long as the walk wasn't. If I go driving outside of Madras during the annual monsoon and my car breaks down nine miles from wherever I need to be, "A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain" is a perfectly understandable thing for me to say, even though there wasn't the slightest thing unforeseen about that rain.
(Again, the narrator gullibly buys it: "itâs pretty obvious." Pfft.)
Then there's the notion that the speaker (presuming, as already noted unnecessarily, that the speaker and the walker are the same person) "is not an athlete or an outdoors man." At this point the narrator finally grows a spine: "That would be all right under ordinary circumstances ... but there are other possibilities." You don't say.
âYes,â and Nicky was sarcastic, âand the speaker might be one-legged. For that matter, the speaker might be a graduate student writing a Ph.D. thesis on humor and starting by listing all the things that are not funny. See here, Iâll have to make a couple of assumptions before I continue.â
âHow do you mean?â I asked, suspiciously.
âRemember, Iâm taking this sentence in vacuo, as it were. I donât know who said it or what the occasion was. Normally a sentence belongs in the framework of a situation.â
"Well, tough noogies, Welt. This is your silly challenge; you dared the narrator to come up with a medium-length sentence that you couldn't draw a bunch of extended-but-legitimate inferences from, not a medium-length sentence that you couldn't draw a large number of extended-but-legitimate inferences from as long as you were allowed to add a bunch of unfounded premises to it. A one-legged 'walker,' a linguistics student writing a paper on what 'no joke' means, a soldier hiking in the jungleâdamn right, those are potential contexts in which the sentence in question makes sense and yet frustrates your ability to draw reasonable inferences from it. They are reasons why you lose, Welt."
Kemelman needs to get somewhere different, though, so his narrator folds again. ...And so on.
It's hard, at least for me, to suspend disbelief when the story's resident genius is allowed to get away with silliness after silliness. That Welt ends up deducing what he deduces provides somewhat of a hint (a la the mathematical proof of God's existence described in Sagan's novel Contact) that Welt's universe is the creation of an omnipotent beingâthe one named Harry Kemelman.
That was wonderful!
I now have to buy a deerstalker hat, a calabash pipe stuffed with coarse tobacco, and hang about cafes eavesdropping on patrons. So many unsolved crimes, so little time. ;D
I'm sorry you didn't like the story, but I don't find your criticisms at all persuasive. Welt and the narrator are just playing an intellectual game. There's no bet here, so it does not make sense to refer to Welt winning or losing. Moreover, Welt's insistence that some assumptions be made regarding the context of the sentence seems perfectly reasonable, and the assumptions Welt makes are really pretty innocuous. The narrator is not “folding” by granting them, he was just curious to see where things would go. Are you really suggesting the story would have been more plausible if the narrator had shut down an interesting conversation with a friend by saying, “No, I will not grant you even the slightest assumption regarding the context of the sentence. I reject your attempt to give a plausible context because I can think of wildly implausible contexts in which your inferences would be unreasonable,”?
And Welt does not say he is going to infer absolute certainties from the sentence. After all, as far as he knows at the start of the story (later revelations notwithstanding) this is just a completely made up sentence that no actual person actually said. The whole point of the exercise was to show that it's easy to draw inferences that seem perfectly reasonable and yet have no connection to reality. As Kemelman makes clear at the end of the story, the fact that in this case the inferences actually are connected to reality is part of the fun.
Each link in Welt's chain is sufficiently plausible, and the manner in which he analyzes the sentence is sufficiently clever, to make the story very enjoyable. None of his inferences are silly or absurd, and they unfold in a way that is very natural. In my opinion, at any rate.
It's a great story.
The very best thing about it is that it is very instructive on how to write a story starting from the end - because it seems quite obvious that that is what he did
any criticisms of it will be to do with just how well or not he stitched the beginnings together to make them seem like they were random in heading in the already devised direction
I'm sorry you didn't like the story....
Oh, no need for that. You liked it, I didn'tâthere may be some "accounting for taste," but not much. I sort of liked Dude, Where's My Car?, so I'm in no position to demand that you cater to my literary preferences. I just won't be asking you for recommendations for fiction.
I find Nicky Welt cloying and absurd, but those adjectives certainly don't apply to Jason Rosenhouse.
Welt and the narrator are just playing an intellectual game. There's no bet here....
That's certainly not how I read it. Especially given the narrator's reference to the dust-up in the introduction ("I had made the mistake of departing from my prepared speech to criticize a statement my predecessor in the office of County Attorney had made to the press. I had drawn a number of inferences from his statement and had thus left myself open to a rebuttal which he had promptly made and which had the effect of making me appear intellectually dishonest."), the story makes it clear that there's some minor bad blood between the narrator and Welt: "That's no excuse."
These guys do have something at stakeâspecifically, Welt's performance is supposed to be a demonstration that his criticism of the narrator's earlier behavior has merit. And maybe it does, but the crazy chain of generally dubious inferences Welt engages in sure doesn't show anything of the kind. (Seems to me I'm playing the role of the former County Attorney in this exchange, while Welt and you as his proxy are cast in the narrator's role. "That's no excuse," Nicky.)
Welt's insistence that some assumptions be made regarding the context of the sentence seems perfectly reasonable....
"Some," sure. The "no joke" sentence is a string of English words, so it's fair to presume that the basic rules of English grammar, syntax, and definition apply. But in light of Welt's utter failure to demand a background context in his challenge (and the narrator's understandable failure to provide one), Welt's insistence on simply assuming away the soldier in the jungle, the one-legged walker, and the Ph.D. student studying humor have no grounds whatever. Those are all perfectly coherent and possible contexts for the sentence at issue; Welt (Kemelman) rejects them only because his boast can't handle them.
The narrator is not âfoldingâ by granting them, he was just curious to see where things would go.
Then it would appear that I would have done a better job at meeting the narrator's motivationâdefending his honor and deflating his bigmouthed critic ("That's no excuse" indeed)âthan the guy did himself. Some County Attorney!
Are you really suggesting the story would have been more plausible if the narrator had shut down an interesting conversation with a friend by saying, âNo, I will not grant you even the slightest assumption regarding the context of the sentence. I reject your attempt to give a plausible context because I can think of wildly implausible contexts in which your inferences would be unreasonable,â?
It's not denying "even the slightest assumption"; sentences are sentences, and meaning can therefore be inferred from them. (Same goes for non-round numbers such as nine.) But the notion that the contextual issues the characters raiseâsoldier, one-leg, Ph.D. studentâare "wildly implausible" seems to me absurd. There's nothing "wildly implausible" about those, and there's especially nothing implausible about the contextual issue I raised but the characters ignoredâthat there isn't the slightest indication that the speaker and the walker are the same person.
The narrator, for all the reader and Welt are aware, simply pulled that sentence out of thin air. Simply assuming away an third-party narrator or a soldier struggling through the jungle (two extremely common tropes in both literature and real life) is, in that context, utterly unwarranted.
Would the story have been more plausible if the narrator had stuck to his guns on those points? Well, yes, I think clearly it would. That would certainly have served the narrator's (mildly resentful) motivation far better than letting Welt walk all over him did. The story would have been a bit pointless and dumb if the narrator had represented his position the way a competent attorney would, and it certainly wouldn't have gotten Kemelman to his swell mystery-magazine denouement, but what can I say? Story logic and suspension of disbelief are harsh mistresses.
And Welt does not say he is going to infer absolute certainties from the sentence.
No, just reasonable inferences. And they're not. You simply can't reasonably infer that "the speaker is aggrieved" by a nine-mile walk when you don't even have a basis to believe that the speaker did the walking. Q.E.D., no?