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.