By Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 18, 2007
THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME
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."
In "Heart of Whitenesse," which Waldrop himself seems to view as his most compacted and densely allusive work, Christopher Marlowe is sent up the frozen Thames on a secret mission to kill Dr. Faustus. Following a few preliminaries, it opens:
"I'd come up from the covers and poured myself a cup of malmsey you could have drowned a pygmy in, then dressed as best I could, and made my way out into this cold world.
"Shoreditch was dismal in the best of times, and this wasn't it."
My own favorite story is "Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?," which manages to capture what life was like for a teenager in the 1960s -- and then caps this by depicting members of the high school class of 1969 as they prepare for their 20th reunion. This anthem for a lost generation climaxes with the band Distressed Flag Sale reuniting, for one night only, to play the legendary "Life Is Like That." Years before, a riot broke out at a mammoth concert in Miami and the band members were busted -- just before the song's world premiere. It was never heard by anyone. "We were gonna play it that night, and the world was gonna change," says a now middle-aged and very drunk band member, "but instead they got us, they got us, man, and we were the ones that changed, not them." But now on an evening suffused with mono no aware-- and Waldrop uses the Japanese term for nostalgia and the sad passage of the years -- the band finally launches into "Life Is Like That" and brings this story to a thrilling, perfect '60s climax.
That recurrent sense of what might have been pervades Waldrop's fiction, though his most famous excursion into alternate history, "Ike at the Mike," isn't included in Things Will Never Be the Same. For that -- and for "God's Hooks!" and the amazing post-holocaust Indian tractor-pull story "Mary Margaret Road-Grader" -- you'll need to pick up Howard Who?, the author's first collection now reprinted by Small Beer Press. In truth, you really do need both these books. Why? Because in "Ike at the Mike," Sen. E. Aaron Presley, mulling over whether to make a bid for the presidency, attends a White House dinner honoring the great old jazzman Ike Eisenhower. Later that evening, sipping whisky alone in his study, the charismatic young senator wonders about the course of his own life and what might have been.
Italo Calvino once said that he was "known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself." Much the same could be said of Howard Waldrop. You never know what he'll come up with next, but somehow it's always a Waldrop story. Read the work of this wonderful writer, a man who has devoted his life to his art -- and to fishing. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.