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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Matched Pair

So last month I told you that I read pretty much at random (which, I expect, is probably true for most of us). This, I suggested, is the reason why there may be no rhyme or reason to my ramblings here -- why I may choose two completely unrelated works and discuss them in a frequently vain attempt to find some vague connection between the two.

But since I don't want to become too predictable, this time I deliberately picked a couple of books that are most definitely related.

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942)
Robert A. Heinlein

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag Robert A. Heinlein (7 July 1907 to 8 May 1988) was awarded the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Do I even need to tell you about him? He was extremely prolific and influential with a career spanning more than 4 decades, and he won several major awards including no less than 4 Hugos for best novel. Probably Heinlein's most famous works are the Hugo-winning Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), as well as (largely thanks to the film adaptation) Starship Troopers (1959).

6xH The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag was first published in the US magazine Unknown Worlds in October 1942. It was included in a collection of the same title, published by Berkley Medallion (1959), and later reissued by Ace (1983). This collection was also published by Pyramid Books under the title 6xH (1961 and 1969).

This short novel is only one of many, many books from Heinlein, and it is hardly his most famous. Odds are, the name Robert A. Heinlein is not unfamiliar to you; but Jonathan Hoag is probably not the first thing that pops into your brain in connection with that name. As one of the "Big 3," along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Heinlein built his reputation in the pulp era as a writer of hard SF -- or at least what was termed so at the time. (I also recall an era when Aerosmith's music was termed heavy metal. Time moves on, and definitions shift.) However, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag has always been rather difficult to classify. Which, in turn, can make it a challenge to market. It has elements of SF, horror, and detective mystery. And it's a damn fine piece of fiction.

The story opens with Jonathan Hoag in a doctor's office in 40s Chicago. At Hoag's request, the doctor has just run a lab test to identify whether a substance that Hoag has discovered under his fingernails is in fact blood -- Hoag even fears it will be identified as human blood. But the doctor informs him it is not blood. He refuses to say exactly what the brownish substance is, but his manner implies that it is something far worse. What? What could possibly be worse? And why doesn't this Hoag fellow know what's to be found under his own fingernails?

Next thing, Hoag approaches a private investigator and asks to have himself followed in order to find out what he does during the day. You see, Hoag is an amnesiac. Upon his rehabilitation and release from a care facility, a job was found for him. Now he lives alone, goes out in the morning, and his entire day is a blank until he comes home at night. He has no idea what he does for a living, but he gets well paid for it. And somehow he gets scary brownish stuff under his fingernails...

Much of the rest of the story revolves around Randall, the PI, and his wife and partner. Randall and Mrs. Randall have a relationship that is rather reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett's characters, Nick and Nora, from The Thin Man stories, made famous by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the film adaptations. The Randalls are an appealing couple, obviously very much in love with life and with each other, as well as being a competent detective team. They speak in that charming 40s banter that sounds so quaint today. They drink, of course (it's 1942 here, folks!), although not nearly as much as Nick and Nora seem to in the films. Anyhow, Randall takes the case, strange though it is, because Hoag is paying very handsomely. And as the Randalls learn more about this fellow Hoag, and get more deeply involved in the case, some extremely unlikely events begin to occur, challenging their ability to find any sort of rational explanation, let alone help them solve the case.

Doesn't sound much like what you'd expect from a Grand Master of Science Fiction, does it? Well, there are some elements in there that are if not sfnal then certainly fantastical. Tell you what, let's just call it speculative fiction and leave it at that.

From the way people speak, the husband/wife dynamic, and other stylistic elements, this story reads like it was written in the 40s. Because it was. But if you accept it as a product of that era, it's an excellent story that works brilliantly. Right away it reaches out and grabs the reader by the attention, and refuses to be shaken loose until the very end. The mystery, the tension, and the creepiness all build nicely to a powerful climax that is spooky, thought-provoking, and somewhat amusing (at least that's how I found it).

At something near 120 pages, it's a very short novel, particularly by today's standards (it's about the length of a single chapter in the latest Steve Erikson novel, for example). In the edition I read, it was collected with five of Heinlein's shorter works, which were also worth reading, but which I'm not going to discuss here. I just wanted to point out that it's short, but all the more powerfully concentrated as a result. It's a chilling and effective tale. Definitely still worth reading even 65 years later. And I wouldn't even have been aware of it if not for Jonathan Lethem.

The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom (1995)
Jonathan Lethem

How We Got Insipid Jonathan Lethem was born 19 February 1964 in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of seven novels: Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Amnesia Moon (1995), As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), Girl in Landscape (1998), Motherless Brooklyn (1999), The Fortress of Solitude (2003), and most recently You Don't Love Me Yet (2007). His collections include The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye (1996), Kafka Americana (1999) with Carter Scholz, and Men and Cartoons (2004).

"The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom (Hommage Heinlein)" was first published in the magazine Full Spectrum 5 and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. The story "How We Got Into Town and Out Again" first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, September 1996. Together, these two stories comprise How We Got Insipid (2006) from Subterranean Press.

Normally my "overlooked" selection is something old enough to have had a chance to become thoroughly forgotten, or even (gasp) to have fallen out of print. Not this time. How We Got Insipid was only published last summer by Subterranean Press -- but in a limited edition. It collects two short stories, "How We Got Into Town and Out Again" and "The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom (Hommage Heinlein)." I love Subterranean Press's editions (I'm a sucker for cloth binding, which they seem to favour), and this is another one of their very handsome little books. The first story is an odd piece that blends VR tech with dance-a-thon mentality in some crazy post-apocalyptic setting. The rather existentialist narrator is the peanut butter that holds this particular sandwich together. He tells his story in a stoically clueless manner that is quite endearing. Ultimately, though, I'm not sure I found any real point to the story. As the author suggests in an afterword, it may have been a product of a particular time. Anyhow, I didn't want to talk about that story; I just wanted to focus on "Jonathan Hornebom."

"The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom (Hommage Heinlein)" is, as the full title implies, an overt parody of Heinlein's The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. But parody-tribute-homage, I think, rather than outright mockery. Lethem's story is much lighter in tone; there is a great deal more humour. It's also considerably shorter and more frantically paced. Lethem himself refers to both works in this collection as "short novellas" or "compacted novels." For "Jonathan Hornebom" this definition certainly has the ring of truth; it's a work that has so much packed into it that the seams are so strained the stuffing is about to come tumbling out. I almost wish he'd rewritten it as a longer work for this edition. Almost. Because, you see, it's still a great story.

The parallels to Heinlein's Jonathan Hoag are obvious, but it's a different enough story to make it very much worth reading in its own right. Lethem's character, Hornebom, already knows his profession -- he's a painter. But like Hoag, he has blank periods he cannot remember, and strange things are happening during those periods. Someone is making very disturbing alterations to his paintings; could it be the artist himself, acting during his blackout periods? Hornebom hires a PI to tail him and/or stake out his studio. This time the PI is a woman, and her love-interest/assistant is an art history grad student who gets tangled up in the case.

When Harriet, the PI, follows Hornebom, she finds that he spends his blackout periods at the museum, staring intently at an exhibit of an odd Max Ernst work. When she stakes out his studio, she is disturbed to find it in the basement. What kind of painter, she wonders, would choose to work in the basement rather than an airy, light-filled upper room. Even more disturbing is the bird-headed man she finds painting in the dark.

This story is so bizarre and so much fun that I would have been grateful to the author for the sheer entertainment of it. That it pointed me to Heinlein's classic tale was a delicious bonus.

But you may be wondering why is Hornebom's profession insipid? It's because he's famous for painting nothing but weepy-eyed children, clowns, kittens and puppies. However, now someone is making additions to his works that so masterfully imitate his own style they could be by his own hand. Are they? And if so, why the bird head? And what's the involvement of Max Ernst, Aragon, Breton, Tzara and the surrealist movement? I could tell you, but then I'd have to turn you into a bird.

Overlooked and Under-hyped

The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is something of a classic -- but a classic tale of what, exactly? Being difficult to categorize, it's one of those stories that tends to slip between the cracks. It's really great; publishers were aware of that, because a couple of them used it as the title story for a collection of Heinlein's shorter works. But it's been over 20 years since a new edition came out. Definitely overlooked.

How We Got Insipid is a limited edition of two previously uncollected stories, each having narrowly missed inclusion in one of Lethem's previous short story collections. "The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom" even managed to catch a World Fantasy Award nomination, based on its inclusion in the galley proofs for The Wall of the Sky, the Wall of the Eye; it didn't make it into the final version of that book, and it didn't win the World Fantasy Award. Yep, this one has been overlooked too. If you don't want to miss out, it's still available.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh has been in "light summer reading" mode for the past month. In addition to the works mentioned above, his reading included a stack of graphic novels: Brooklyn Dreams, Volumes 1-4 by J.M. DeMatteis, illustrated by Glenn Barr (1995), Ocean by Warren Ellis, illustrated by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story (2006), The Order of the Stick, Books 0 and 2 by Rich Burlew (2005, 2006), Girls, Volume 1: Conception by Joshua Luna and Jonathan Luna (2005), I Am Legion, Book 1: The Dancing Faun by Fabien Nury, translated by Justin Kelly, illustrated by John Cassaday (2004), as well as some other stuff that was too dreadful to mention. Other light summer reading included Khai of Khem by Brian Lumley (1980, 2006), Seven Touches of Music by Zoran Zivkovic (2006), The Pastel City by M. John Harrison (1971), Fuckin' Lie Down Already by Tom Piccirilli (2003), and The Midnight Road by Tom Piccirilli (2007). For weightier fare and a modicum of education he turned to The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987, 2005).

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