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wMonday, December 01, 2003

BRAIN STILL FRIED: So here's another review. There's a slight chance that it showed up in the most recent Mars Hill Review, but I doubt it. It was spiked from Christianity Today earlier this year:

Looking Back

by Jeremy Lott

I think it was in seventh grade, in a particularly tiresome "health and wellness" class, that I saw it: a big sign under the caged, portal-shaped wall clock that read "Time will pass, but will you?" At the time, it was an annoyance, but, as a summation of life's most important questions, it's not bad.

Worthiness and loss are the twin themes woven through One More for the Road, legendary author Ray Bradbury's latest collection of short stories. The title story features the Great American Novel that got away, and most of the tales are told from the perspective of older characters looking back. The recurring questions -- Did I pass? Did I matter? Was it worth it? -- are not asked with the disposition of their souls in mind. Rather, most of the characters wonder if they've left a legacy that will survive them.

That's not an easy question to ask and the answers are often unsettling. In "Quid Pro Quo," through the agency of a time machine a young writer who "reads like the bastard son of Emily Dickenson out of Scott Fitzgerald" confronts his future, washed up self -- and kills him out of spite. The narrator breathlessly explains that life is "A deal you make with God. He gives you life and you pay back. No, not a gift, a loan. You don't just take, you give." "Autumn Afternoon" features an elderly woman weighed down by a past that she can't even remember. "One-Woman Show" is about a diva whose quest for a legacy exacts a terrible price.

The question of legacy takes an even sharper turn in those situations where it should not, for God's sake, have been pursued. "My Son, Max," my personal nomination for most politically incorrect story of the decade, relays an explosive dinner conversation between two older parents and their grown-up only child. At a previous dinner, the young man had come out of the closet. Now, it is the father's turn to upset the dessert cart. With his one son being "in effect, dead" to him, and his wife beyond her child-bearing years, Mr. Robinson announces that decided to have a son by his secretary. As he explains it, "twenty years from now -- bam. Immortality. More families, more children. God's in heaven, all's right with the world!"

All is not bitterness and darkness, however. My two favorite shorts share in common a look at one's impact from the other side of the grave and a corresponding gentleness with respect to the dead. In "Tête-à-Tête" we see a constantly griping elderly couple in life and then the widow's attempts to deal with the loss, with a surprising and touching resolution. Likewise, "The Nineteenth" is a Field of Dreams-like meeting between father and son on the golf course. Bradbury explains that the story was "one more love offering to my father" -- an attempt to put his old man's tenacious ghost to rest.

Novelists, said Walker Percy, "are a devious lot to begin with, disinclined to say anything straight out, especially about themselves, since their stock-in-trade is misdirection…" But Bradbury is more straightforward than most, and he seems to have grown less guarded with age. He explains in the afterword, "Metaphors, the Breakfast of Champions" that many of the stories sprang directly out of his own life and that many of his characters' fears, desires, and enthusiasms are his own.

Indeed, the stories in are almost as interesting for what they don't cover as what they do. Step in to the average mainline church on a Sunday morning or sit in on daily mass. What one will likely find is a wave of gray heads. Yet, in One More for the Road, the characters are near the end of their lives -- evaluating their significance, wishing they had done certain things differently -- and not a one takes comfort in his faith.

When religion comes up in a conversation between Herman Melville and the time traveler ("Be you a Christian?"), the Bradbury proxy brushes it off by saying "God counts me in." The only time that organized religion crops up is as comic relief in "The Laurel and Hardy Alpha Centauri Farewell Tour," as a angry mob in the twenty-second century, intent on killing the somehow still extant Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy for violating God's laws by not dying.

But these are nits. Readers won't have to agree with how Bradbury answers the questions he poses in order to appreciate his honesty. One More for the Road is a fun collection of yarns and reflections by a great (or near-great) writer.

posted by Jeremy at 4:05 PM