Picture H.L. Mencken on speed and you'll have a sense of Harlan Ellison's style.
Brash, arrogant, funny and provocative to the point of insulting, Ellison is the kind of guy who's an ardently vociferous feminist -- yet manages to break away to judge the 1983 Miss Tush of the Year Lingerie Beauty Pageant.
His explanation?: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Clearly, this is a man to be reckoned with.
Ellison, for those whose summertime reading is of either the Jackie Collins or John Updike ilk, is best known as a brilliant and award-winning writer of "speculative" fiction. (He loathes the phrase "science fiction.") Stories like "I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream," "A Boy and His Dog," and (my favorite) " 'Repent, Harlequin!,' Said the Ticktockman" have won Ellison a diverse and worshipful cult following on college campuses throughout the country. His short story collections (his writing is too intense to last through a novel) win admiring reviews and sell steadily.
His talents also embrace television. He's won several Writers Guild Awards scripting teleplays for "Star Trek," "The Outer Limits" and the like, and he's now involved with Steven Spielberg's new television series "Amazing Stories."
But don't stop there. Ellison also has a knack for criticism and the essay. His semi-autobiographical introductions to the stories in his collections are always good reading and his paperback assortment of television reviews titled "The Glass Teat" is a mini-masterpiece of pop culture.
As the name implies, "An Edge in My Voice" features a born-to-make-trouble Ellison quick to sink his needle-sharp fangs into anything that annoys him. Alternating wit and venom (but more venom), Ellison does for the 1980s what Mencken did for America's Booboisie in the '20s.
This latest package of Ellisonia spans the hodgepodge from scientific creationism, film director George Pal, the New Right, splatter films, Saturn's rings and video games to the aforementioned Miss Tush of 1983. (I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that Shallon Ross was named the winner.)
It's a guided tour through the life and times of Harlan Ellison with commentary by same: don't expect much humility, but the view's not bad at all. Sample: "Claude Lelouch's films seem as empty as Phyllis Schlafly's head or Reagan's rhetoric to the NAACP convention; and I don't give a damn if Spielberg didn't explain how Indiana Jones could hang onto that Nazi sub's conning tower for 2000 submerged nautical miles, because I love everything about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like you I go to the movies to be dazzled, enriched, entertained and uplifted; and to give myself over with the trust and innocence of a ten-year-old."
Originally written in the early 1980s for such fairly obscure publications as Future Life and the Los Angeles Weekly, these columns/critiques/meanderings may reek of ego and self-indulgence, but they are very, very funny and very, very entertaining.
Gifted with a wicked sense of humor and tone, Ellison is a writer whose style and intensity compels attention. Sure, there's occasionally some whining and petulance in there (especially in his correspondence with readers), but the guy makes you want to read on.
Like a Mencken or a Ben Hecht (he is more out of that tradition in commentary than the Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe New Journalism mode), Ellison has that blend of world-weary cynicism and puppy-dog friskiness that inexorably sucks readers in. It doesn't matter that you say to yourself "just who the hell does this guy think he is!" -- the point is that you're being skillfully prodded and poked into going along.
Admittedly, Ellison is an acquired taste for some people. He can really grate on the reader -- after all, at 50, Ellison is a little old to be playing enfant terrible. On the other hand, it seems too soon to consign him to e'minence grise status. Ellison cultees will snap this book up in a nanosecond; people who don't like smart-mouthed writers with a flair for caustic repartee are advised to steer clear.
But people curious for a different and provocative perspective on life in these United States in the first part of this decade should risk the purchase price. Ellison is a first-class tour guide.