Tales by a fantasist who would rather be fishing.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 18, 2007


A Howard Waldrop Reader

Selected Short Fiction, 1980-2005

Old Earth. 311 pp. Paperback, $15


By Howard Waldrop

Small Beer. 253 pp. Paperback, $14

Howard Waldrop is not only admired and loved for his brilliant short stories, he is also deeply envied by a sizable percentage of the male population. Forty or more years ago, Waldrop simply decided to live a life where he could do what he most enjoyed -- write strange and original fiction, watch B-movies, listen to music, spend time with friends and do a whole lot of fishing. While the rest of us were busily sacrificing ourselves and our dreams to the bitch-goddess Success, Waldrop was sipping a beer and enjoying an old Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoon or standing happily in a cold river with a fly rod in his hand. Sometimes, of course, he might toddle over to the University of Texas library to read up on the dodo, Piltdown Man or some other odd byway of learning or popular culture. Then, when the time was right, he'd sit down at somebody's kitchen table and produce -- usually in just a few intense days -- a story like "God's Hooks!" in which Izaak Walton and John Bunyan go angling for the monster Leviathan in the Slough of Despond.

Since the 1960s, Waldrop has written dozens of short stories, appeared multiple times in anthologies of the year's best science fiction or fantasy, won and been nominated time after time for major awards in the field. And yet he's not anyone's conception of a typical sf writer. If Philip K. Dick is our homegrown Borges (as Ursula K. Le Guin once said), then Waldrop is our own very American magic-realist, as imaginative and playful as early García Márquez or, better yet, Italo Calvino. For, like the Italian fabulist, Waldrop never repeats himself and is a pasticheur par excellence. He can sound like a Texas cracker or a graduate student in ornithology, like an aging '60s dropout or a young boy in Africa, like a broken-down robot in the far future or an antique Roman. In one tour de force, "Heart of Whitenesse," he actually channels Christopher Marlowe, Philip Marlowe and Joseph Conrad's Marlow all at once.

Over the course of his career, Waldrop's annual income has broken into five figures exactly twice. (As he notes ruefully, but without self-pity, $4,000 doesn't go as far today as it once did.) For eight years, he lived in a shack in Washington state without a telephone -- for the first three of those years without a stove or refrigerator. After all, he was there for the fishing. He doesn't use the Internet, though fans maintain a Web site for him. He still types up his stories and mails them to editors in an envelope. To some people, Waldrop has sacrificed too much for his simplified way of life, never marrying or having children or being able to afford health insurance. Yet glance at his photograph in Things Will Never Be the Same or meet the easygoing author himself at a science fiction convention, and you can't help but think, "This is one happy guy."

In Things Will Never Be the Same, Waldrop has chosen 16 of his best short stories and written a new afterword to each. The book opens with the multiple award-winner "The Ugly Chickens," in which a chance remark on a bus leads a young researcher into backwoods Mississippi to discover the real fate of the dodo. It closes with a tale of alternate realities, "The King of Where-I-Go," somehow combining the polio epidemic of the early 1950s, the famous ESP experiments at Duke, and a man's love for H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. As usual, Waldrop generates a lot of his narrative electricity by conjoining seemingly unlikely thematic material. In "Flying Saucer Rock and Roll," he blends UFO scares, the 1965 New York blackout and a singing competition between two doo-wop groups, the Kool-Tones and Bobby and the Bombers. "The Sawing Boys" retells the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale "The Bremen Town Musicians" in the style of Damon Runyon, setting the story in the Kentucky backwoods. "The Lions Are Asleep This Night" imagines an alternate Africa in which young Robert Oinenke composes an Elizabethan-style drama about the "tragicall death of King Motofuko."

The best Waldrops tend to mix the humorous and wistful. What if robotic versions of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, designed for an amusement park, were the last creatures on Earth? What if the Martians landed in Pachuco County, Tex., back in the late 19th century, and a kind of Slim Pickens character was the sheriff in charge of keeping the peace? What if Chiron the centaur grew old and during the reign of Julian the Apostate needed help to make his way back to his original homeland, the as yet undiscovered America? (In a neat touch, Waldrop's narrator refers to Christians and their idiotic schism as being a danger to "decent gods-fearing folk.") In "French Scenes," he even reveals how young Parisian filmmakers, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, interpreted American gangster movies. When Neville Brand in "Riot in Cell Block 11" gets shot at with a Thompson submachine gun, he yells: "Look out, Monty! They got a chopper! Back inside!" But what the Cahiers du Cinema people hear is "Steady, mon frère! Let us leave this place of wasted dreams."

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