Joe Fassler in The Atlantic:
For Ethan Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish” is a masterwork. The protagonist is a businessman named Woody Selbst who’s unsure of how to mourn his con artist father. Pop didn’t just abandon the family when Woody was a teenager. He tricked his son into becoming an accomplice in his escape—a cruel ruse that permanently thwarted Woody’s ambitions in the process. In our conversation for this series, Canin explained that his favorite part comes at the very end. As Pop pulls off one last con on his deathbed, Woody’s coming-to-terms is expressed in a simple final sentence: “That was how he was.” We discussed how Bellow infuses five ordinary words with such uncanny power; why endings should make us feel, not think; and what “A Silver Dish” teaches about dialogue, plot, and character.
…I think Bellow’s the greatest American writer of his century, personally. When I read him, I’m in awe. One of my favorite works is the great short story “A Silver Dish,” a story not too many people seem to know. It ends with, for me, one of the most memorable lines in fiction:
That was how he was.
There are five words in that sentence, each one essentially meaningless: That was how he was. Two of them are the same word: “was” and “was.” Hardly any sounds even, in those words, there’s no tilt, no break, no angle to the rhythm—just tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Of all those words, only “he” and perhaps “was” have any sort of meaning. “How” is technically an adverb the way it’s used here but feels more nounish to me, in the sense that I get a little visual spark when I read it, entirely from what has come before in the story. The whole sentence uses only seven distinct letters, and contains only 15 letters total: three a’s, three h’s, three w’s, two s’s, two t’s, an o, and an e. It’s an amazingly restrained line from Bellow, who was a poet of the first order. I think he was intentionally restricting his palette. Compare it to some of his other great sentences, like the famous first line of The Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
You can open that book up to page 400 and find the best sentence you’ve ever seen. It’s an astonishing, volcanic eruption of ideas and language.