Feb 11 2005

Ray Bradbury

Through a series of stupidities, when I moved from Washington to Germany, I lost a fair number of books. Several hundred, I think, but it’s a little too sad to count them up. There was, and still may be, a list I made when packing.

An indulgent winter evening’s thought is which one I would most like to have now. It changes, of course, with time, but the one I would most like to lay my hands on is one that I never read.

The book is Green Shadows, White Whale by Ray Bradbury, and I wish I had it because it’s autographed. Back when I worked in bookselling, I accumulated a fair number of autographed books, but there are only three that really thrilled me: the Bradbury, Jimmy Carter’s story of his first election, and a galley by Carl Sagan (who was as gracious as can be in an interview and really was a true geek, but that’s another story).

Two of the three I got to meet in person, but not Bradbury, alas. His wife passed away in 2003, and the book I have in my hands now, One More for the Road, may well be his last.

He writes short stories better than anyone I can think of. When they’re on, every word advances the story, sets up the ending, not one out of place and not one too many. There’s wit, there’s snappy dialogue, but more than that there’s wonder and pathos and fate and exuberance and heartbreak and hope and surprise and compassion.

He’s famous for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, both of which landed him in the science fiction marketing niche, but both are full of rich metaphors and deft social criticism.

Even in his eighties, he surprises. The current book has a surprisingly sympathetic story of what it was like to be a gay man in the 1940s. There’s a bright blaze of rage at writers who waste their talent. There’s a wild romp through avant-garde cinema. And for a man who’s been writing about death since his twenties, there are several intimate looks at the final mystery. Death is no longer a Mexican carnival, a breath in the night, something wicked this way coming; now for Bradbury it is something like a companion.

Ever since I discovered The Illustrated Man squirreled away on my parents’ bookshelves and shivered, delighted and frightened by its creepy tales, I’ve been enthralled. Not everything is great — Dandelion Wine is best left in the barrel — but so much is so wonderful.

October is his month, Halloween his holiday, small-town Illinois as much his natural habitat as Mars or Los Angeles, and just when you think you know where the story is going, it goes somewhere else.

“The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” is beautiful, bittersweet, brings tears every time I read it. And who hasn’t had an affair like that?

All kinds of love shine through in One More for the Road, not least what he writes in his afterword to the collection

Then again, simply put, I have never been jealous of other writers, only wanted to protect them. So many of my most beloved authors have suffered unhappy lives or incredibly unhappy endings. I had to invent machines to travel in time to protect them, or at least say I love you. Those machines are here.

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