This week’s Fireball puzzle, “GRAND FINALE” was a meta, and a fairly challenging one at that. Subscribe, solve, read, you know the drill.
Constructor: Peter A. Collins
Theme: Meta puzzle which asks for a “common affliction hinted at by this puzzle”. The three longest Across answers look like they may be thematic, and in fact are:
- 17A: GREEN HORN – Neophyte
- 39A: SKY HAWK – Douglas A-4 attack aircraft, familiarly
- 60A: WILD BUNCH – 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah, with “The”
Less obvious are the eight proper names that appear in symmetrical positions in the grid:
- 5A: ETHAN – Impossible Missions Force leader Hunt
- 19A: OLIVIA – Pig in a series of children’s books by Ian Falconer
- 23A: IONE – One of the Nereids
- 30A: THOMAS – Eponym of a brand of English muffins
- 46A: HORTON – Character in “Seussical”
- 54A: LENA – One of the main characters in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”
- 58A: GRAHAM – Cracker developer Sylvester
- 68A: RALPH – “Happy Days” redhead
Six of these first names match up with the first group of words — if we add the”final e” hinted at by the title, we end up with ETHAN Hawke, OLIVIA Wilde, IONE Skye, LENA Horne, GRAHAM Greene and RALPH Bunche.
That just leaves THOMAS and HORTON. There are a lot of famous Thomases, but very few famous Hortons, and the only one whose surname ends in E is HORTON Foote. He and THOMAS Paine point to the correct answer — foot pain.
Ben: I was totally stumped on this one — you gave me the answer after I gave up, and I still needed to be pointed to THOMAS and HORTON before I worked it out. I wasn’t even 100% sure that GREEN HORN, SKY HAWK and WILD BUNCH were thematic, and I never noticed the first names. It’s quite a clever meta, though — well done.
Michael: I noted the ETHAN / HAWK connection while I was solving and didn’t think much of it. Once I was done, I stumbled around a lot, as is usual with metas (at which I kind of suck, esp. for someone who has as much crossword-solving experience as I do). But somehow the IONE / SKY and OLIVIA / WILD thing eventually stood out to me, so I *got* it … but didn’t really get it. This is because (rookie mistake!) I was doing it all kind of loosely in my head, and didn’t sit down and methodically see which names went with which answer parts. Only when I Actually Did This did I notice that HORTON and THOMAS were not claimed. Now here’s where I had an advantage over some (maybe?) — I know who HORTON FOOT(E) is. So the fact that “ailment” would be foot-related was obvious. I just couldn’t think of one that had the word “foot” in it. Athlete’s foot. Club foot. These didn’t fit the bill. And THOMAS … jeez, that’s too common a name for me to even begin to know what name is supposed to go there. But then somehow PAIN(E) leapt to mind. I am not *that* happy with the very vague concept of “FOOT PAIN” being the “ailment” at the end of all this, but I am very very happy to have solved the meta. I know people (incl. me) really struggled with it.
Ben: Meta grids are usually a little strained in terms of fill, and it was pretty clear that something elaborate was going on while I was solving, because I kept running into rough patches. REHEMS (49D: Converts to a long jumper, perhaps? — great clue), IN A PET (50D: Stewing), HOER (7D: One doing groundbreaking work?) and ALEAK (20D: Not showing watertightness) are the worst offenders.
Ben: That said, given that there are eleven theme answers here, I’m more impressed with the fill than I originally was. Almost every Down answer here passes through two themers, and the fill is still better than your average NYT themed puzzle. The cheater squares in the corners help with that (and were further evidence while solving of an elaborate meta).
Ben: Small touches that I appreciate — the two key names, THOMAS and HORTON, are placed symmetrically, and their last names are the same lengths. And the meta names are the only people whose names appear in the grid — there are a few that could be clued as names, most obviously DESI (4D: Member of the Indian diaspora), but none are. That’s elegant.
Michael: I honestly remember nothing else about this puzzle besides the meta. Oh, except ALEAK is godawful.
Ben: Not a lot of long fill that stands out, but I did like SURINAME (11D: Brazil neighbor) and PHONEMES (10D: Speech sounds) in the NE. Less impressed by BLOOMIE’S (37D: Rival of Saks), but it’s not that bad.
Ben: The best metas are the ones where, once you know the answer, you wonder how you ever missed it. This falls into that category for me. Well done.
Michael: If you didn’t do this past week’s “Matt Gaffney’s Crossword Contest” meta, you really really should. It’s a masterpiece. Way way way harder for me than this one (which does not mean it was empirically harder), but, for that reason, also much more satisfying.