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December 2006
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James Sallis
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by James Sallis

The Line Between, by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 2006, $14.95.

The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford, Golden Gryphon Press, 2006, $24.95.

IN THE current spate of high fantasy novels, trilogies, and series, book after book trailing off to the horizon like Burma Shave signs, it becomes all too easy to forget the specific pleasures of classic fantasy and what drew us to it initially. That sense of otherness, of a world gone suddenly off-kilter, of unsuspected depths, signs and wonders. We are looking for escape, certainly—escape from the mundane, from what Heidegger terms "dailyness," that so slyly takes over our lives—but more than that, we're looking for intensity: seeking, not unreality, but a hyperreality. And if what we find seems somehow connected to currents deep within us, archetypes at once as familiar and as strange as our own blood, then all the better.

Peter Beagle's new collection, The Line Between, contains eleven stories, including "Two Hearts,"a much-trumpeted and wholly wonderful "sequel" to Beagle's The Last Unicorn, and my personal favorites, "Quarry" and "A Dance for Emilia," stories richer than many another writer's novels. In "Quarry," as in "Two Hearts," Beagle revisits a world previously created, that of The Innkeeper's Song, to tell the story of a young man in flight from three scary things: two killer trackers, and his own youth.

I never went back to my room, that night. I knew I had an hour at most before they would have guards on the door. What was on my back, at my belt, and in my pockets was all I took—that, and all the tilgit the cook could scrape together and cram into my pouch.
Beagle writes some of the best opening and ending lines around. And he has an amazing identification with adolescents, among whom he discovers his most convincing and sympathetic protagonists. I say "discovers" because one forever feels that the story is not so much being written by Beagle as it is somehow simply passing through him on its way to us.

Each story is framed by comments from the author, some of them a few lines, others running to half a page—and one giving credence to my remark just above. I immediately flagged it as something I wanted to take in to read to my students.

Looking back at "Salt Wine," I realize that almost every story I've ever written from a first-person point of view has been completely improvised according to the narrator's voice. It's a matter of trusting the source; of assuming that the storyteller knows what he or she is doing, even if I don't, and that the tale will structure itself and tell me when it's done.
Just that kind of relaxed unfolding, that unhurried, unharried discovery of the narrative, is evident in all of Beagle's work. There is, too, everywhere a gentleness and easy humor. His love for his characters and his joy in writing, like a light behind the page, shows through every word, every sentence, every line.

From "Gordon, the Self-made Cat" with its message that attitude is everything—almost; to "El Regalo," a Buffyesque tale of two Korean-American siblings discovering their powers; to the open-road adventure of "Quarry" and the melancholy of "Salt Wine" and "A Dance for Emilia," faultlessly Beagle reels us in, leaning in close, as though to whisper in our ears, to let his characters tell us important things.

At the end of "A Dance for Emilia," one of those rare stories that seems to be about everything that's important, a girl named Luz waits for baby Alex to wake and dances as she waits, a dance that quietly sums up at least four lives.

Luz was still dancing on the sidewalk when the taxi came to take me to the train station. I said goodbye as I walked past her, trying not to stare. But she danced me escort to the cab door, and I looked into her eyes as I got in, and as we drove away. And what I think I know, I think I know, and it doesn't matter at all.
Peter Beagle's writing here, as always, is replete with such passages, passages in which for the moment, as we read them, we float above our earthbound bodies and feel the mystery and the wonder of our lives break into blossom around us.

Jeffrey Ford, whose previous collection The Fantasy Writer's Assistant and novel The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque I reviewed in these pages, also got a free ride to class. Two or three pages into The Empire of Ice Cream, I knew I'd be backpacking this baby into the wilds of "CRW 272: Structuring the Novel."

This description from "Boatman's Holiday," for example, as Charon sets off on yet another journey across The River of Pain:

Beneath a blazing orange sun, he maneuvered his boat between the two petrified oaks that grew so high their tops were lost in violet clouds. Their vast trunks and complexity of branches were bone white, as if hidden just below the surface of the murky water was a stag's head the size of a mountain. Thousands of crows, like black leaves, perched amid the pale tangle, staring silently down.
Or this, of a mural at the neighborhood bar to which the narrator's father used to take him, from "A Night in the Tropics":
There were palm trees with coconuts and stretches of pale sand sloping down to a shoreline where the serene sea rolled in lazy wavelets. The sky was robin's egg blue, the ocean, six different shades of aquamarine. All down the beach, here and there, frozen forever in different poses, were island ladies wearing grass skirts but otherwise naked save for the flowers in their hair.
At the mural's bottom edge, "just before paradise came to an end by the bathroom door," the hand of an unseen watcher pushes aside the wide leaf of a plant to spy on the scene.

Nothing sensational there. Just good, solid, evocative writing—writing wholly in the service of the story. Which is what you find crackling and popping beneath your feet like gravel all the long way of The Empire of Ice Cream. Ford is among the major practitioners of what Michael Swanwick has called hard fantasy, literature of the fantastic that's original rather than conventional, challenging rather than comforting, fantasy that attempts to penetrate, by that subterfuge at the heart of all art, to the very heart of human nature and the nature of the world.

The centerpiece, of course, is the award-winning title story, Ford's take on the doppelgänger theme, a beautifully realized and written story essaying the blur the boundary between the sensual and authentic worlds. The protagonist of "The Empire of Ice Cream," the man whose fantasy becomes real, or whose reality becomes fantasy, is a musician, and artists of one sort or another abound in Ford's work, almost to the point of preoccupation with creativity and its manifestations.

In the passage above describing the mural, writer and reader are equally behind that painted hand pulling back the leaf to look on. Add to it the fact that this story is about an adult returning to the place of his youth and seeing it anew, and you begin to get some sense of the reflections and reverberations going on in Ford's work.

"Man of Light" is about an artist who creates his work of nothing substantial, but of light itself, and who makes of himself a mere bobbing head. Charon in "Boatman's Holiday" meets the author of his myth and becomes a collaborator, shaping the story he was once but a part of. The narrator of "Coffins on the River" is a failing writer. The previously unpublished "Botch Town" is a coming of age story, letting us look on as a child moves towards becoming a writer, the plywood toy town he has constructed on two sawhorses starting to reflect—and shape?—the actual town it shadows.

In a recent interview, Ford echoed Beagle on letting stories have their way:

I don't plan, don't take notes, don't have any idea where the thing is going. Writing fiction for me is the art of letting go, taking my hands off the steering wheel. If I second-guess and get nervous and try to start giving the guy in my head who writes the stories directions and advice on how to drive, there's a good chance the story is going to get lost or wind up in a ditch.
As with Beagle, the surprise and delight that Ford discovers in the process is amply communicated to the reader. The writer, like any artist, must always struggle against the gravity of skill, against doing again what he or she knows how to do—must accept (as Ford says here) "the wonderful burden of words."

If all that sounds a bit heady, it's not meant to. Beagle's and Ford's alike, these are first and foremost, and most emphatically, stories, good stories, some of them great stories, stories that open windows onto other minds, doors into other worlds.

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