RAY BRAD­BURY: Sci-fi and stud­ies of everyday Amer­i­cans

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

RAY BRAD­BURY IN 1996.

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