We have to assume that Speck came first, with “Speck’s Idea” published in 1979.
“Overhead in a Balloon” was published five years later (both stories in the pages of “The New Yorker”, where the majority of Mavis Gallant’s stories appeared before they were bound into collections).
So we have to assume that Mavis Gallant wasn’t convinced of Speck’s take on his gallery assistant, that she wanted to get to know Walter herself.
Speck, readers learn in this collection’s first story, spent half of his time envisioning the final act of firing his assistant Walter. He hasn’t completed the act, however.
In turn, when readers spend time in Walter’s mind, we learn that Walter spends half of his time abandoning his employer (or in seeing him held hostage or otherwise suffering, no longer a threat to Walter in any case).
Speck is awake and planning; Walter is asleep and dreaming.
Neither man admires the other, both men fantasize about their relationship ending: the relationship carries on.
And what is the root of their discontent?
For one thing, they do not view the gallery business from the same perspective.
Consider this scene:
When Aymeric brings his portfolio to Speck, in hopes that Speck will consider hosting a show of Aymeric’s paintings, Speck is immediately dismissive. Meanwhile Walter is determinedly gesturing and nudging, ultimately dismissive of Speck’s dismissal. (Later when Walter and Aymeric meet to discuss how Walter might help Aymeric with his portfolio, nothing comes of Walter’s good intentions.)
Speck is in charge; Walter is the assistant. Neither has as much influence as he “deserves”, not in the art world, not even with one another.
In one instance, we have Walter, needing to take time out of his day to address Speck’s shortcomings as a gallery host, to assure Aymeric that his paintings matter.
But Speck had to address Walter’s shortcomings in the previous story: “Walter, perhaps by mistake, had invited Blum-Weiler-Blochs instead of Blum-Bloch-Weilers. They came in a horde, leading an Afghan hound they tried to raffle off for charity.” (One part of the family is influential, the other is artsy: now we know one group raffles off dogs. Presumably a later story in this collection will feature the hound.)
So there are administrative matters dividing them, but other differences between the men too.
Things at the gallery have progressed since “Speck’s Idea”, however, improvements which “cost Walter’s employer a packet”:
“It happened that one of the Paris Sunday supplements had published a picture story on Walter’s gallery, with captions that laid stress on the establishment’s boldness, vitality, visibility, international connections, and financial vigor.”
Readers who witnessed the struggles in “Speck’s Idea” are pleased to hear this news. But ultimately this story is not really about the gallery or about Speck. Mavis Gallant moves on and readers must move on as well.
“Walter, assistant manager of the gallery, was immediately attracted to Aymeric, as to a new religion – this time, one that might work.”
No chore to move on, then: Walter has found a new religion in Aymeric. What promise! And even though Walter is dismissive of many artists’ work, Aymeric’s work is an exception:
“I hate art, too,” said Walter. “Oh, I don’t mean that I hate what you do. That, at least, has some meaning – it lets people see how they imagine they live.”
And, then, still moving on, Aymeric introduces Walter to Robert, Aymeric’s cousin who shares a floor in an apartment building with Robert’s aging mother (and, eventually, Robert’s sister, Monique).
Which is fortunate, because if Aymeric was the new religion, then it is Robert who becomes the new Aymeric, which means that Robert is the new religion. (Speck does mention that Walter is between religious systems. Perpetually, it would seem.)
“He could sit listening to Walter as if he were drifting and there was nothing but Walter in sight. Walter told him about his employer, and the nice Dominican, and how both, in their different spheres, had proved disappointing. He refrained from mentioning Aymeric, whose friendship had so quickly fallen short of Walter’s.”
Throughout the story, Walter is dreaming and Robert is flipping through the pages of his dream dictionary, eager to interpret the dreams for Walter (of betrayal, repeatedly of betrayal).
Fortunate again, that even in the absence of religious faith, there is a dream dictionary. And a prophet who can page through the index of the text. Who can point out a path through the wilderness.
“All the apartments connected; one could walk from end to end of the floor without having to step out to a landing. They never locked their doors. Members of the same family do not steal from one another, and they have nothing to hide.”
And fortunate that all these people are together, navigating the uncertain terrain. Robert’s mother is putting a cushion in the oven. Walter is making summer plans. There is a snuff-box that one person cannot locate and another person cannot admit to possessing. (Speck knows more than you would expect.)
There is cacophony. “He could hear music, a vacuum cleaner, and sparrows.”
There is stillness. “Balloons were quieter than helicopters. Swaying in silence, between the clouds and the Burgundy Canal, he had been able to reach a decision.”
But what is decided?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in Overhead in a Balloon. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “Luc and His Father”.