RAY BRADBURY: Sci-fi and studies of everyday Americans
Early in his career, when sales of his short stories to magazine editors were few and far between, Ray Bradbury decided to write at least one story per week, every week, and mail it to a likely publisher. That way, he figured, the odds were in his favor that at least somebody would purchase his stories.
That was then; and in the years before, during and since Mr. Bradbury published such American classics as “The Martian Chronicles” (1950), “Fahrenheit 451” (1953) and “Dandelion Wine” (1957), he has continued to write a story every week. Do the math: One short story per week over the course of 60-some years. And today, at age 88, he shows no signs of slowing down.
What moves Mr. Bradbury to create new stories and novels? The spirit that informs his work, including his latest collection, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” is summed up in a passage from a letter he wrote many years ago: “The thing that drives me most often is an immense gratitude that I was given this one chance to live, to be alive the one time round in a miraculous experience that never ceases to be glorious and dismaying. I accept the whole damn thing. It is neither all beautiful or all terrible, but a wash of multitudinous despairs and exhilarations about which we know nothing.”
The despair and the exhilaration, the glory and the dismay, the miraculous gift of life given to this strange creature flawed by sin but made for eternity: The human being. That is the focus of the imagination that pervades these 21 stories and one poem(!). In the first story, titled “Massinello Pietro,” Mr. Bradbury describes the title character, a St. Francislike man who surrounds himself with animals and is consumed with the knowledge that in life he is in the midst of something worth celebrating. Pietro muses: “The world was full of statues much like he had been once. So many could move no longer, knew no way to even begin to move again in any direction, back forth, up, down, for life had stung and bit and stunned and beat them to marble silence. So then, if they could move, someone must move for them.” There is much of Ray Bradbury in Pietro. “Friend,” says one character to Pietro, “I wish I had your pep.”
Mr. Bradbury is widely known as a science fiction writer, though sci-fi forms only a portion of his interests — though it is admittedly a highly significant portion. To a great extent, he is a small-town man, raised long ago in the smalltown Midwest — Waukegan, Ill. to be precise, the barely disguised place called Green Town in the novels “Dandelion Wine” and “Farewell Summer” (2006) — and his stories often reflect smalltown characters and their ways. Both science fiction and studies of everyday, anonymous middle Americans appear in “We’ll Always Have Paris.”
First, as to his fiction of other worlds and the uncanny: In “Ma Perkins Comes to Stay,” a story set during the Golden Age of radio, a callous businessman too consumed by his work to notice the concerns of anyone but himself gradually discovers, to his growing horror, that the characters of various radio dramas are taking on flesh and blood to his long-suffering wife and business colleagues — and to himself. Another story, “Fly Away Home,” is set within a new colony of men on Mars. In fresh, skillful execution, this tale could easily be an outtake from “The Martian Chronicles,” making its first lonely appearance only now, nearly 60 years after the novel’s publication.
Other stories in this collection belong more properly to the dayto-day foibles, accomplishments, struggles and impulsive actions of everyday people. An elderly couple, whose memories are entwined in the village of their youth, wander away from their retirement home and into the comforting small-town set of a Hollywood movie lot in the story “Remembrance, Ohio.” Not all memories of one’s small-town youth are good ones; some are cripplingly bad. In “Apple-Core, Baltimore,” Mr. Bradbury has two aged chums visit a local cemetery where the headstone of a schoolyard bully is subjected to harmless abuse by the conflicted long-ago “best friend” of the dear departed.
Indeed, Mr. Bradbury gives some thought to death in his celebrations of life. In one of the most moving stories included here, “The Reincarnate,” he muses on the plight of the spirits of the dead, their search for a reconnection with the living, their resentment of those who yet live and the role of patient resignation in finding their fulfillment in joy. “Pater Caninus,” perhaps inspired by the real-life story of a dog that visits a nursing home and uncannily, quietly, visits and comforts patients who will die soon, is a story of the death of pride in the narrator, and is a most accomplished tale.
In a manner somewhat unusual in short stories by this author, several stories deal frankly but tastefully with human sexuality. “Un-pillow Talk” portrays a man and a woman, longtime best friends, who are shocked to discover that they’ve become caught up in the moment and gone too far for their friendship to continue as such — and their attempts to recalibrate their memories so that it doesn’t happen again. And in two — the story “We’ll Always Have Paris” and “Come Away with Me” — Mr. Bradbury has his male narrators describe their brief, half-tempted encounters with gay men.
Not all the stories collected here hit the mark at dead center. A few stories end abruptly and have almost a sense of being story concepts rather than finished stories. But then, even a second-tier story by Mr. Bradbury is head and shoulders above that of many writers — even much younger writers — working today.
As noted above, the author has included one poem with this collection, and it appears at the conclusion. That short piece, “America,” is a Whitmanesque celebration of Mr. Bradbury’s native land; and it encourages America’s citizens to cease being so overly critical of her flaws and instead focus upon her promise.
Mr. Bradbury’s friend Earl Hamner, author of “Spencer’s Mountain” and creator of the long-running television series “The Waltons,” once said that through good storytelling that touches the human heart, “we can ennoble and enrich our viewers and ourselves in our journey through this good time, this precious time, this green and wonderful experience we call life.” Good storytelling of that sort abounds to overflowing in “We’ll Always Have Paris.”
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.