Friday, May 25, 2007
Recent Reads - Farewell Summer
When I saw that Ray Bradbury had a new novel out, I could barely wait to get it from the library. Here it was at last, the sequel to One of my all time favorite novels, Dandelion Wine. And for me, it came at a time when I was thinking about Bradbury anyway. Ten years ago this June my college roommate and I flew off to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. She had business being there, since she is a journalist. I had no business being there since I am just a reader. I went to hear William Styron, Sol Stein, Fannie Flagg, Jonathan Winters, Charles Schulz, and Ray Bradbury - plus hundreds of would-be novelists, children’s authors, feature writers, and screenplay writers. I can’t believe it was 1997, a lifetime ago, it seems. Time flies.
Anyway, after I heard Bradbury, a heavy man with white hair, thick glasses, and a wicked grin, talk about his experiences growing up in the Midwest, his reading, his writing, and his recent projects, I got in the line of people who wanted him to sign their books. I brought along my high school paperback copy of Dandelion Wine, a book that is saturated with youth, love of life, and a real appreciation of new tennis shoes. I wanted a new hardcover edition, but couldn’t find one, so I made do with the yellowing paperback. In his speech Bradbury said that as a writer he wasn’t always sure that what he wrote meant anything to other people, that writing could be lonely. He said that if you love and author’s work you should tell him. So, when I got to the head of the long line, I shoved my copy of Dandelion Wine toward him, and said, “Ray, I just love you.” I think I mumbled something about using a cutting from the book in a high school oral interpretation contest, or something equally idiotic, and he just looked at me. Finally he said, “What are you doing later?”
I never spoke to Ray Bradbury again, although I sent him a birthday card that year when he was well into his seventies, and expanded on my reasons for loving his writing - his sense of exhuberance, his ability to see and express the light and darkness in the human soul, his Midwestern sensibility, his use of words that are nothing short of poetry. To my surprise he wrote back a hand-typed letter, with a signed photo of him posing as Ahab (he wrote the screenplay for Moby Dick back in the 1950’s). So now ten years later, I was thinking of the man who wrote Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and Zen and the Art of Writing.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. I know that it is sometimes dangerous to revisit book I loved as a younger person; life changes our tastes and interests, and our memories betray us. I suppose I thought that this book would pick up when the previous one left off. In a way it does, the time (the 1920’s) and the place (Greentown) and the main characters (Douglas, Tom, Grandfather) are the same. The poetic language is still there, but the tone here is darker, the characters more haunted by fears and doubts. The themes are classic, love and death.
Much has been made in other reviews of the way the book is structured in three parts: Almost Antietam, Shiloh and Beyond, and Appomatox. It is, of course, the Civil War, only in this case the war is between the old fogies and the young whippersnappers. What we Baby boomers might have called The Generation Gap. Douglas and his young side against Calvin Quartermain and the graying forces of the status quo. The young boys don’t want to grow up, and the old boys don’t want to die. There are skirmishes (the boys swipe the old coots’ chess pieces) and battles (the boys try to stop time by stopping the municipal clock), but in the end: I’d better not say.
I think this book will appeal much more to people closer to Quartermain’s age than to those more like adolescent Douglas. The language is too metaphoric, the action to relaxed to grab younger readers. The notion that one must grow up, that time cannot be stopped and that death must be accepted is one that isn’t going to appeal to a lot of teenagers. The scenes of embryos in jars, and of blooming (and waning) sexuality may be disturbing as well. But for those of us who are marching steadily in our tennis shoes toward retirement and beyond, the book gives us much to consider about life.
Thanks Ray, I still love you.