Friday, July 8, 2011

FFB: long stories: Ray Nelson, "Turn Off the Sky" (1963); William Campbell Gault, "Deadly Beloved" (1956); Stuart Dybek, "Four Deuces" (2011)

Three novelets and/or novellas this week, from old favorites...including one I've been meaning to read for more than thirty years, the Nelson.
"Turn Off the Sky" appears to be the first professionally-published fiction of Ray Nelson (who has also signed his fiction R. Faraday Nelson), and first and so far I think only has appeared in the August, 1963, issue of F&SF, getting a pretty striking Ed Emshwiller cover illustration, and sharing cover-space with Asimov (the pop-science columnist for F&SF; he and editor Avram Davidson didn't get along very well; previous editor Robert Mills, who had asked Asimov to start the column, was referred to by Asimov ungrammatically as the Kindly Editor; typically, Davidson took this as a cue to refer to himself as the Cruelly Editor) and Heinlein (whose influence on Nelson in this story is strong, and whose not atypically flawed fantasy novel Glory Road saw the second of three parts of its serialization in this issue)(typically flawed in that it had started well and with typically pointed Heinleinian asides, about the Vietnam War and other matters, that helped ground it in reality, only to see those asides take over the story and remake it into a dull lecture about Heinlein's worldview, not too far along). Davidson mentions in his long headnote that he'd read the Nelson four years before, and had been looking for an opportunity to help it into print; Nelson was already a well-known or Big Name Fan, having been active as a cartoonist and writer for fanzines for some years, and credited as the inventor of the propeller beanie as the shorthand indicator of sf fannishness in those cartoons (this has since gone well beyond sf fandom to be a nearly universally-recognized mark of the enthusiastic geek in all sorts of geekish subcultural portrayal). Nelson was also already well-known in fandom for his sharp observation, and sophisticated take on matters both within and outside the subculture, and that's reflected in the story as well.

It's a very much Beat sf story, when there were relatively few such in evidence (William Burroughs was just beginning to publish his own within the several years previous, and Fritz Leiber, Damon Knight, Davidson, Heinlein and a few others, particularly Theodore Sturgeon, were first exploring the Beat subcultural tendencies, tentatively yet for more than mere outre background, as many of their peers had been doing); the influence of Jack Kerouac on the approach and the content is at least as strong as Heinlein's, even if Heinlein is name-checked at one point. In an affluent, post-scarcity social-democratic world state of the not terribly distant future, among an often shallow and conformist but influential bohemian fringe, a youngish African-American pacifist anarchist named Abelard Rosenburg interacts with greater or lesser degrees of disillusionment with his fellow bohos, and escapes from an increasingly hostile party (a "clean" musician was being forcibly introduced to opiates, with little Rosenburg could do to help him, in a stinging satire of countercultural peer pressure) and meets his dream woman, Reva, on the subway. Reva engages him intellectually, emotionally and sexually, but is too much a free spirit to choose to stick with Abelard initially; she vanishes after a day or so till a fortuitous reunion at a coffee shop, when she's in the company of a FSU (or "fuck shit up") pseudo-anarchist would-be terrorist who goes by Little Brother (whether this was further inspiration to Cory Doctorow's much later work is unknown to me); Little Brother, who admires Lenin and Trotsky (those murderers of anarchists and enemies of anarchism) more than anyone else, is all barely-contained id, and attacks Abelard, losing Reva to Abelard as a result. Reva and Abelard enjoy a bit of an idyll, but Little Brother isn't through with them yet.

A clever and mostly engaging tale, with indicators of Early Work apparent here and there (such later work as "Nightfall on the Dead Sea" was much more thoroughly assured, if also less ambitious), and worth the effort to procure the back-issue; not long after, F&SF would publish the Nelson vignette "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," which would much later serve as the basis for the rather less mordant film They Live!. I would've loved "Sky" that much more when I was thirteen, when the not altogether dissimilar John Varley novella "The Persistence of Vision" was blowing my doors off. Following the Nelson in the issue is a Calvin W. Demmon vignette, Demmon being another fannish writer who contributed mostly clever and disturbing vignettes to Davidson's F&SF and later fiction to Ted White's magazines, but is underappreciated; such similar writers as Samuel Delany and Chet Anderson and Richard Brautigan and Thomas Pynchon were just beginning to publish at about the same time, and the still-new Carol Emshwiller and Joanna Russ to begin to take on similar matter.

Time grows tight, so I will note for now that William Campbell Gault's "Deadly Beloved" is a Joe Puma story, wherein Puma is, typically, as quick with his fists when he needs to be and as attractive to women who are game as most of his peers in fictional private detection in the 1950s, but Gault never lets the tropes take over the story, nor force him to be less than verisimilitudinous; Puma knows better, as a former boxer, than to pick fistfights he's likely to lose, and is acutely aware that not every woman is actually attracted to him, even when some of them might pretend to be. The web of jealousy surrounding the murder of a mildly philandering unsuccessful actor (and all but gigolo) is reasonably well worked-out here, but the characterization of Puma and the other characters, even when they could just as easily be straight stock ciphers, is the biggest draw. I haven't yet checked if this Manhunt novelet (October, 1956) has been collected or anthologized, but Richard Moore is kind enough to remind us in comments that it's included in Bill Pronzini's collection of Gault short fiction, Marksman and Other Stories (Crippen and Landru).

Stuart Dybek's "Four Deuces" is the longest piece of fiction in the current issue, 13, of A Public Space, and I haven't quite finished it yet, but it's a fine example of Dybek's way with character and pacing, as well. Rosie, the owner and widow of the co-owner of the Chicago bar which shares its name with the story, gives an account to a customer of how the bar came to be, and her late husband's obsession with Rosie's apparent ability to pick winning horses, which led up to the bar's purchase; the story is all in the form of her side of the conversation.

All three stories are perhaps linked in my mind in part because of the diversity of ethnicities of the characters running through them; ameliorated tragedies (and love stories), all, too.

I first read Nelson with "Nightfall on the Dead Sea" (1978) and "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" (1963) in, respectively, new and back issues of F&SF in 1978.

I first read Gault with his pulp-magazine auto-racing short stories in anthologies and at least one of his YA baseball or basketball novels in the mid-1970s (sports fiction was his first love, and if there was anyone better at it, I don't know of them...though a few about as good).

I first read Dybek with "Horror Movie" in the first F&SF I ever actually saw, January 1976, which leads off with Joanna Russ's "My Boat."

For more of today's books (most of them, at least, books!), please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Gerard said...

There you go, Mason, I increased your FFB stats by one.

Richard Moore said...

Gault's "Deadly Beloved" was included in the Crippen & Landru collection MARKSMAN AND OTHER STORIES (2002) edited and with an introduction by Gault's friend Bill Pronzini.

The collection includes four stories from Manhunt, five from various pulps including Black Mask, and three others from various digest mags.

Like you I first knew Gault through his sports fiction. His juveniles were among the most popular in the high school library. His sports fiction went all the way back to the pulps when it was a major category for magazines.

Many Gault fans prefer his stories about Joe Puma to his better known series featuring Brock (The Rock) Callahan.

Last month I picked up several of the old sports novels and look forward to seeing how well they hold up.

I met Gault around 1980 and we corresponded for many years. He was lovably ornery fellow. When his friend Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald) introduced Gault to his wife Margaret, Gault said "Well, I'm glad to finally meet the best writer in the family."

Jerry House said...

Nelson is certainly underappreciated. I understand he taught writing to Anne Rice, pre-INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE.

Alas, Joe Puma...I was sad to see him killed off later so that Brock Callahan could solve his murder.

Anonymous said...

Not interested in the Nelson, but I have the Gault collection Richard mentions, unread, and may have to crack it now.

Richard Moore said...

I should have mentioned that the MARKSMAN collection includes six Joe Puma stories from Manhunt, Ellery Queen, and Mercury Mystery Magazine. All were originally published 1956-57.

There is also a touching Afterward by Bill's daughter Shelley.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Gerard. You primed the pump!

Thanks, Richard...I figured there was a good chance that the story was in MARKSMAN or another collection (my copy of MARKSMAN arrived just before the last move, and it's in one of the boxes still). And for the further memories! Gault and Joe Gores are going to be among the people I will be sorry I never met, for quite some time.

Jerry, that might be the case, though I know that Rice was a student of Theodore Sturgeon's, a rather more financially successful and artistically inept one than Elizabeth Engstrom, who was the primary publishing graduate of Sturgeon's last formal teaching workshop on Maui, which I was too broke to attend at the time (even if I, as a young writer on Oahu, could've made the cut for admission). Of the three writers whose work I've tagged here, Nelson is the only one I've met, probably at the Philly WorldCon, where I doubt I impressed him much by mentioning I considered myself the fringest of fringe-fans, but nonetheless enjoyed the fannish and faanish work of his I'd seen as well as his pro fiction. I like Callahan about as well as Puma, but Puma seems a slightly more fleshed-out character, perhaps in part because of the greater ethnic sensitivity (in all senses; it simply doesn't come up as much with an 20th Century Irish-American character like Callahan) Gault brought to the character in the Puma stories.

You should, Rick...I have to wonder, what puts you off the Nelson so completely?

Todd Mason said...

Thanks again, Richard. I do have to dig it out...and MERCURY MYSTERY was one of the more underappreciated of cf titles.

George said...

Gault's YA fiction was a staple of my teenage years. Later, I found his detective novels. That Crippen & Landru collection is excellent.

Todd Mason said...

I liked the adult sports pulp stories better than the YA novels even as a kid, but they were all fine...and I've never been much of a sports fan (when I first came across Damon Knight's review of Gault's work in sf and sports fiction in IN SEARCH OF WONDER in 1979, it resonated clearly with me...Knight notes that Gault's sf is fair at best, but that WCG is "Hell on wheels" and essentially a genius in sports fiction).

C. Margery Kempe said...

I don't know these at all. I never read beyond the classics in crime fiction. A woeful hole in my education.

Todd Mason said...

And Nelson is mostly a fantasy and sf writer, professionally...and Dybek primarily has published in the better little magazines (though also in F&SF and Damon Knight's original anthology series ORBIT on occasion, among others). Hell, crime fiction was always a sideline for Gault till the YA market started to contract for some reason in the early 1960s, at least on Gault's end of it (the trailing off of the boomers?).

All worth your attention, I assure you...

Richard Moore said...

Gault always said that Fred Brown taught him to write SF stories when the pulps were dying in the early 50s. But they didn't come naturally for him.

His first mystery DON'T CRY FOR ME and his first juvenile THUNDER ROAD both arrived from Dutton in 1952. The mystery won the Edgar for best first novel and there was a Dell reprint the next year. Nothing after that. Meanwhile, he was still getting royalties on THUNDER ROAD thirty years later. So with two kids to raise, he concentrated on that.

An interesting sidelight, he was quite proud to find out from some library publication that his juveniles were among the most stolen from libraries. Those are my readers, he would say, bless them.

In many letters and a few bar sessions, Gault complained about the editors he had to work with in his last years turning out juveniles. At Dutton where he had been a big seller for 26 years, he suddenly had an editor barely out of college. He said she knew nothing about sports and nothing about teenage boys but was now telling him he was doing it all wrong.

He moved to Dodd, Mead for the last couple but was relieved to return to mysteries. I was with him at the first Milwaukee Bouchercon around 1980 and he was amazed to find how well remembered and regarded he was as a mystery writer after many years away.

J F Norris said...

Wish I had that Manhunt issue. I see Gil Brewer's name there on the cover. I'm drawn to the lurid, as you well you know.

Yvette said...

So interesting to read about all these authors and stories I've never heard of. Yikes! My only excuse is that I CAN'T read everything. It's another world out there. Very intimidating. I do love that Manhunt Mag. cover, Todd.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks yet again, Richard...I suspected my chronology for Gault was off, and didn't remember what specifically drove the move over into primarily CF writing. Dutton was doing all kinds of stupid things in the '70s (see the Borges/di Giovanni affair).

John--that is an achievable goal! However, the Brewer story is pretty slight.

Todd Mason said...

It'd probably be a much duller world if we could keep up with it all, Yvette. It's somewhat more impressionist (and arguably pro-feminist) than most MANHUNT covers, as I consider it!

Todd Mason said...

Oh, and as Richard notes, DON'T CRY FOR ME was Gault first mystery novel...he'd been writing short crime fiction in the '40s, as well as sports and other fiction for the pulps (his stories are the highlights of the DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE issues I have from the latter '40s).