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December 2000
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by James Sallis

In the Upper Room And Other Likely Stories, by Terry Bisson, Tor, May 2000, $24.95.

Perpetuity Blues And Other Stories, by Neal Barrett, Jr., Golden Gryphon Press, 2000, $21.95.

There is in science fiction and fantasy (in any genre, I think) a strong pull

between the commercial and creative, a pull that largely defines the vagaries of the field from pulp inception through New Wave inundation to current marketing tactics: on the one hand, a decided inclination for brand names, familiar tastes, comfortable packaging; and on the other, a yearning for maverick status, a drive to plunge headlong and reckless into no man's land, to read (or write) things never read and written before.

Forever a close call out there on the edge, once you've left civilization and all Aunt Sallies behind. Loath to take chances with the novels upon which he or she relies for income, the genre writer probably elects to dock ship not too far off formula. With stories, though, the investment is smaller; they permit indulgence, exploration

-- and because of this, much of the most creative work gets done in the short-story form. Most stories, even those by stone pros, are written amateurishly, written because the writer can't resist the attraction of an idea, because he or she wants relief from the sheer plod of a novel just completed or in progress—or from simple love of the form itself.

Often in thirty-five years as writer and as critic I've wondered if the short story may not be fantastic literature's natural form, if in fact we might not best limn these alternate worlds of which we're so enamored, best adumbrate them, in synecdoche. Basically it's the Chekhovian versus the Tolstoyan approach: educe these worlds entire, or sketch them, evoke them, from the glint of moonlight off a broken bottle, footprints on the beach, one episode from a single life.

At novel length, paradoxically, it seems to me, the literature of the fantastic can prove self-limiting, cart dragging horse, hooves in the air, along. The author gets swept up and along by the very reach of his or her enterprise. Having patched together this bold new world from straw, mud, and keen intelligence, the novelist's all too often left with but two possible outcomes: the world must be destroyed, or it must be returned at length (after 300 pages, after 780, after three bricklike volumes) to some implicit status quo. Lashing themselves to the mast for short passage, stories are able to sail past. They present that same bold new world in cross-section; elude disfiguring G-forces that pull towards plot, theme, and scope; retain close hold on character, social interaction, moral consequence.

Here, we have collections from two writers with much in common. Terry Bisson and Neal Barrett alike earn the bulk of their living from novels yet remain committed to the short story. With notable exceptions their novels have been commercially driven, piecework such as space operas written for $1000 paperback-original advances on Barrett's part, novelizations of movies and the like on Bisson's. Bisson's recent books include a GalaxyQuest novelization and completing the unfinished sequel to Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz; his story and homonymous collection Bears Discover Fire have become classics. On Barrett's populous bench are the classic novel The Hereafter Gang, Through Darkest America, and a series of fine mysteries. Draw up anybody's list of the best sf stories being written today and both their names will be on it, probably more than once.

*     *     *

The stories of Terry Bisson's In the Upper Room, for all their clowning and literary mugging, and in a culture shamelessly pandering to youth, are stories for grown-ups, stories concerned with loss, with what has passed from us and shortly will, stories that try to recapture a world where things made sense.

In "There Are No Dead," for instance, men whose lives have gone fatally astray are able to return to childhood and begin again, endlessly. Written in straight dialog

-- a mode for which Bisson has a penchant—and seemingly light-hearted, the stone brilliant "Smoother" says in five pages everything about change and our acceptance of it that can be said. "Dead Man's Curve," "The Edge of the Universe," and "Get Me to the Church on Time" are all very funny stories about averting the sort of cataclysmic change that's forever moving towards us glacierlike (as in "Smoother") or waiting to fall like a grand piano from above, about returning to things as they were.

There's another element of conservatism here as well. Bisson's humor bypasses what may well be the dominant tone of our time—irony, with its assumptions of futility, of apartness—for older comic forms predicated upon potential and potency. Charmingly, Bisson's stories derive from a conceit that mankind, even if in ways we can never understand, exerts direct and defining influence on the world. In one story, the end of the universe is averted by the protagonist's striking a 2x4 against a beaded car seat; in another, universe's end gets ushered in by the snuffing-out of a million-year-old flame which is, essentially, the Logos. Here and elsewhere, Bisson's stories remind me of lines from one of Mark Levine's poems, where "the stars begin to fall, and though everybody is waiting/for a terrible surprise, it hasn't come yet, not just yet."

Charmingly, too, because like all great storytellers and salesmen, Bisson is a con man. He talks you in, soothes you with his voice, gets your confidence up before unloading his bag of goods. Never a second thought as you walk down the hallway, avuncular arm on your shoulder, these amazing tales spilling into your ear. Just so, everything here starts off believably enough—coming home at long last to Brooklyn with Southern girlfriend in tow, listening to Coltrane, putting in another routine day at the office or relaxing after one—and by the time things do turn strange, when Bisson just out of sight tweaks the quotidian half a turn south, the hook's well sunk.

Reminding us that American literature's greatness lies firmly rooted in the regional and comic, Bisson's voice is unmistakeable. The final, realist story, "Not This Virginia," tells of siblings taking a mother with Alzheimer's out for a Sunday drive. Here at the end of this book filled with strange stories, protagonists must negotiate an ordinary world that has itself gone, for one of them, terminally strange. The story seems a perfect tag for Bisson's writing, as does his description of "one of the first fax machines" from "The Edge of the Universe":

About the size of an upright piano, and not entirely electrical, it sat in the far corner of the office, against a wall where it was vented to the alley through a system of stovepipe and flex hose. I had always been reluctant to look behind its plywood sides, or under its duraluminum hood, but I understood from Hoppy (who had been called in once to fix it) that its various components were powered by an intricate and never since duplicated combination of batteries and 110, clockwork, gravity, water pressure, propane, and charcoal (for the thermal printer). No one knew who had made it, or when.

In Terry Bisson's mind, I think, that's a perfect description of the universe in which he and his characters find themselves. It's weird, and it works—more or less.

*     *     *

Neal Barrett's voice is not only unmistakeable; you realize after a sentence or two that it's been there all along at the back of your head. Like Bisson, he perpetuates a great tradition of American regionalist and comic writing. His humor, though, is darker, more recondite.

Bisson's introduction to Perpetuity Blues reflects the awe in which other writers hold Neal Barrett. Turn over any rock in Texas, as we all know, and you'll find a great writer. Brad Denton, Joe Lansdale, the incredible Howard Waldrop. Saints' names. None more saintly than Neal Barrett, who, I swear, if he has written a bad line in his life, slipped it past me.

Just as with Bisson's, Barrett's stories concern themselves with loss: loss of youth, loss of faith, loss of a world that makes sense, loss of worlds entire. He charms us, draws us in, tells a folksy joke or two—then, still smiling, jerks the rug out from under. In "Stairs" and "Under Old New York," women struggle to stay afloat in worlds where everything seems fatally exhausted, sinking, dying. "Highbrow" depicts a society so lacking in vitality that its entire economy is subsumed in building a monument to its hero, to the frozen past. At its heart a kind of symbolist poem, an almost but finally ungraspable fable, the story functions also as a satire of Marxist thought and of our own atomized, expand-or-expire society, beautifully demonstrating Barrett's conceptual brilliance and lapidary execution.

He has a genius for coming at stories obliquely, for writing from the inside, as though the story itself came out of the very society it depicts. This is never more apparent than in "Diner" with its Texas gulf setting, deadly grasshoppers, and absentee Chinese landlords. Others like "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus," though still charcoal-dark, are more purely adventure stories. There are also two exemplary Westerns here, "Sallie C." with its indelible images of Pat Garrett, the Wright brothers and Billy the Kid, and of the Desert Fox as a child in quite another desert; and "Winter on the Belle Fourche," wherein frail, determined Emily Dickinson sails off into the wilderness and back to cloistered Amherst much the richer for it.

Another element of Barrett's genius lies in his grafting of standard science-fictional themes to rigorously realistic characters and settings. As John Clute points out in a review, Barrett knows all the standard moves of science fiction, knows them so well and is so easy with them that he feels free to sidestep them at will, to play with them, sashay in close for a pas de deux and then go spinning away again. He writes, Clute says, "with a vertiginous, onrushing, superbly controlled, stomping intensity. And he is utterly ruthless in his understanding that the world we are now entering is downwards from America."

Again: stories for adults, sent out from a rigorously individual, uncompromising vision. Splice into that the fact of Barrett's working in a field at the margins of approbation and you begin to understand his relative obscurity in favor of writers unworthy to fetch from the mailbox and carry to him the $100 checks he probably got for these stories.

As I've said, Neal Barrett is incapable of writing a bad sentence, a bad line—or anything other than an outstanding story. Here is the opening of "Sallie C.":

Will woke every morning covered with dust. The unfinished chair, the dresser with peeling paint, were white with powdery alkali. His quarters seemed the small back room of some museum, Will and the dresser and the chair, an exhibit not ready for public view. Indian John had built the room, nailing it to the hotel wall with the style and grace of a man who'd never built a thing in all his life and never intended to do it again. When he was finished, he tossed the wood he hadn't used inside and nailed the room firmly shut and threw his hammer into the desert.

Night falls, my friends. But as it comes inexorably down, sit with me here by the lowering fire for a spell and listen. Not to words shored against the ruins, but to words which are themselves a part of the ruins. Therein their beauty. Therein, too, what remains of, what still can propell, our small acts of heroism. Those bits of magic and mystery that will not quit our world or selves.

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