Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction December 1992
By Orson Scott Card
Boy's Life, Robert R. McCammon (Pocket, paper, 578 pp, $5.99), audio
abridgement read by Richard Thomas (Simon & Schuster Audioworks, 2 cass 180
When I drive long distances, I often pick up audiotapes of books so I can, in
effect, have someone read me a story while I drive. That's how I came upon the
works of Martha Grimes and Tony Hillerman, for instance; that's how I "read
Prairy Earth by William Least-Heat Moon and came to know Olive Ann Burns's
wonderful Cold Sassy Tree.
Usually, though, I confine my listening to "out-of-genre" books, and to
authors whose works I don't know. Robert R. McCammon's writing I have
known for some time, ever since he first started popping up with short stories in
anthologies and Alan Rodgers's wonderful old Night City magazine. I admired his
work then, and said so, and have said so since. And because he has developed a
large following, I felt no need to read his novels for review -- with exceptions, I
generally try to read for this column books that aren't going to be recognized
immediately by a large audience.
But as I headed out for a trip to Myrtle Beach, there wasn't anything that
really tickled my fancy outside the genre. And there was McCammon's Boy's
Life. The title reminded me of a brilliant work of autobiography by a mainstream
author, which was both encouraging and off-putting; and it was read for audiotape
by Richard Thomas, who did a fine job of reading Cold Sassy Tree; I figured,
What can I lose?
I lost nothing, folks; I gained much. Even in its abridged audiotape
presentation, Boy's Life is far more than a mere horror story; rather it is worthy,
both in ambition and execution, of pushing its way out of a genre whose purpose
is to arouse a single emotion and into the lives of a broader audience, the one that
seeks character and meaning, vision and the wide range of human feelings.
What McCammon has wrought is, not a story of horror, but a story of
hunger, love, and death in a small southern town, where the river contains a
dangerous and hungry serpent that is propitiated by annual blood sacrifices, and
where the narrator is a kid who rides his bike all over town and takes piano lessons
in the home of a matched set of quarrelsome old ladies and, oh yes, gets caught up
in a murder investigation that almost gets him killed.
The fantasy and the reality of decades-ago life in the deep south merge in a
way that reminds me of Bradbury without the rhapsodies. From the bone-chilling
scene where the narrator watches his father, a milkman, run from his truck and
leap into a bottomless lake, trying to save a man hand-cuffed inside a sinking car,
to the terrifying scene in a flooded-out cabin where the river serpent bites a dog in
half and then comes after the narrator and his younger black companion,
McCammon shows that he hasn't lost a speck of his talent for horror. But this is
horror, not for its own sake, not because the author thought of something really
icky and built a story around showing it to us, but rather horror as a part of a larger
story, as a part of life.
After listening to the tape and being moved and exalted by the story, I
bought the book and skimmed it, realizing that to turn Boy's Life into a three-hour
read, the abridger had to chop the book to bits, leaving out an astonishing amount.
Like a movie adaptation, the audiotape did not really do justice to what
McCammon wrote. The book is even better, richer, more full of details of life and
with far more story than any three-hour tape could possibly contain. But this does
not mean the audio version is "bad," any more than the film of Gone with the
Wind is "bad" because it leaves out half the book. More than ever before, the
experience of these two versions of McCammon's story has shown me that
reading a book aloud is a different medium with its own possibilities. The audio
version is more of a mystery novel -- who killed that man in the car? -- than the
book as a whole, which is so much richer than the mystery is only one of the
threads instead of the main structure. But it is an excellent story, no less so than
the longer, fuller life created in the book.
Strange Device of the Sun and Moon, Lisa Goldstein (TOR, 1992)
Goldstein is one of our best writers. Indeed, with Tourists and A Mask for
the General I came to the conclusion that she simply was the best writer in our
field today, bar none. Her view of reality is so quirky but true, her
characterization so sympathetic yet brutally honest, her writing to extravagantly
clear, that I honestly thought she couldn't write a bad book.
Well, I still believe that. With all the mistakes in the making of Strange
Devices of the Sun and Moon it should be a bad book, and it still isn't. And while
it is not the polished, perfect work that some of her previous books have been, it is
still a book that rewards you well for the reading of it, and it is still a book that
affirms Goldstein's talent.
The setting is Elizabethan London, just before Shakespeare. There are
really two stories spinning along at once: The story of Christopher Marlowe, poet,
dramatist, and spy, who slips easily from the world of palace intrigue back into the
free-for-all society of London writers; and the story of Alice Wood, a widowed
bookseller struggling to maintain her independence in a world that does not know
how to deal with a female doing business in her own right.
It is the story of Alice Wood that you want to read, for hers is the tale that
reflects Goldstein's imagination instead of just her research. Alice had a son, you
see, who disappeared, but in the course of the story he comes back, and fancies
himself king. This is treason, of course, and because various factions want to
make use of him, he comes to the attention of the government. However, there is
a far deeper game being played, for this boy is not king of England, but rather the
heir of the king and queen of Faerie, and a terrible battle is looming in which this
young man's role will be pivotal. Who will possess him. Not Alice Wood, for he
is not really hers -- her own child was stolen from her in infancy, and she reared
this prince of Faerie as a changeling in his place.
It is a delight to read Alice's story as she discovers the reality of Faerie,
fights off an attempt by a one-time friend to marry her or destroy her, develops a
friendship with a woman who, by any definition of the era, is a witch, and deals
with the presence of a large and sometimes surly brownie in her house. Goldstein
deftly gives us the feel of Elizabethan speech without beating us over the head
with forsooths or lifting ludicrous quotes from Shakespeare or Marlowe and
planting them whole in places where blank verse does not belong. And while she
never gives us much of a personal stake in the struggle within Faerie, it is still
interesting when seen through Alice's eyes.
The mistake in this book, the reason why a lesser writer would have failed
utterly, is that Goldstein seems to have fallen in love with her research.
Christopher Marlowe takes up fully half the pages of this book without ever
amounting to anything -- unless you already know a great deal about him and so
would feel a great admiration for the clever way that Goldstein accounts for his
death. But unless you bring attitudes about Marlowe to this book, you will find no
particular reason for his story to have been included. He has no deep personal
goal, beyond survival, that drives him; he has no hopes or plans that we can
identify with; rather he lurches along, responding rather prosaically to whatever
wind is blowing. This may be realistic, of course, but it is hardly the stuff that
great novels are made of; Marlowe doesn't even have some kind of epiphany that
shows us why we have spent so many pages reading about his life. Marlowe
seems to be in this book solely because the author fell in love with him and then
neglected to put within the pages of this novel anything that would evoke that
same response in us. His emptiness was so frustrating that I found myself
constantly tempted to skip ahead to the next Alice section; I even found myself
hoping that Goldstein would at least tie him in with the authorship of
Shakespeare's plays, dumb as that would have been, just so there would be some
reason for having read so much about him. No such luck. Shakespeare is barely
mentioned, and Marlowe, who has his hour on the stage, is given nothing
important to do, so that when he leaves in a quick little death scene, we hardly
A flaw? Yes, and a serious one -- but Strange Devices is a Goldstein
novel, and therefore even with flaws is well worth reading. The story of Alice
Wood is strong enough to carry us through; and now that Goldstein has worked
out her mini-affair with Marlowe in the pages of this book, we can expect her next
book to be aspark with the lightning of her inventiveness instead of being
dampened by such humid study.