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by James Sallis

The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, Del Rey Impact (Sept 1999) $11.95.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, Del Rey Impact (Oct 1999) $11.00.

In 1968, freshly repatriated to New York from London where I had edited New Worlds, I was consulted by a paperback publisher who wanted to create a science fiction list. Wanting also to remain within the tradition, he planned to spend as little money as possible to accomplish this, so in his office one afternoon we spoke of books that might have been overlooked and readily available. I went back to my apartment, sat down at the table where I worked, and with no hesitation wrote: The Man Who Fell to Earth. Published as a paperback original five years earlier (I told the publisher at our meeting the next day), this book had been little noticed and was out of print. It was also, I told him, among the finest science fiction novels ever written.

Each work of art, every book, is a doomed balancing act, the creation of a fulcrum by which the world momentarily may be lifted and brought to rest, tottering. From the textures of daily life and the formlessness of individual lives, the writer or painter attempts to model the world entire—in Baudelaire's words, to rescue from the quotidian frenzy one clear look at truth's enduring face. Near-sighted and far-sighted eyes acting in concert, with luck, to bring the whole thing into focus.

Science fiction and fantasy, the literature of the fantastic, may be uniquely suited to such double vision. Not only has it embraced an agenda abandoned by much other fiction—to place a framework around man's place in the universe—but also its very forms lead easily to mystery, fabulation and parable, the play of archetypes. For that reason, many of us who began writing in the Sixties believed with Michel Butor that science fiction, speculative fiction, might provide a contemporary mythology, pulling together all of literature's grand old themes while also revealing profoundly new ones.

We also believed that the civil rights for which we struggled, those now being bled away from us, would thereafter prove inalienable. And that rock music wasn't some commodity to be packaged by businessman and sold by the yard, but a force to change the world.

These were a few of the fictions we lived by.

And the fictions we live by were exactly what Walter Tevis wrote about.

Two images:

A man walks in the streets of a small town in early morning. Everything he sees about him, everything he encounters, is strange, unfamiliar, frightening. Trying not to think about what he is soon to do, he sits on the bench outside a small store called The Jewel Box to rest. Minutes later, he sees his first human being.

Legs straight out with khaki trousers flapping, metallic brain joyful in its rush towards what it has so long ached for, Robert Spofforth falls at last from the top of the Empire State Building; falls lovingly, mankind's most beautiful toy, towards the ruined streets of Manhattan below, to embrace them.

The first is from the initial page of The Man Who Fell to Earth, at the beginning of Thomas Jerome Newton's long and painful apostasy, the second (with its echoes both of King Kong and of Hester Prynne on the scaffold at the start and end of The Scarlet Letter) from the final page of Mockingbird, where robot Spofforth at last achieves his lifelong ambition.

The power of Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun, what I have to call their greatness, rests in the many levels on which they may be read: their many-sidedness, the simultaneous balances they achieve, their appetite for not only the visible, palpable world but all the worlds we dwell in. They are at once fables, parables, social satire, contemporary myth, and genre science fiction—adventure stories of a kind. They are also simultaneously, as is much of our greatest literature, comic and tragic. Pitting the individual in opposition to society, they are romances; chronicling the individual finding or failing to find place in society, they are novels. Like most great work, Gulliver's Travels, or Don Quixote, they're uniquely of their time and of all times.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, on its surface, is the tale of an alien who comes to earth to save his own civilization and, through adversity, through inaction, through loss of faith ("I want to. . . . But not enough"), fails. Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of the Fifties and of the Cold War. Beneath that as an evocation of existential loneliness, a Christian fable, a parable of the artist. Above all, perhaps, as the wisest, truest representation of alcoholism ever written.

Mockingbird collapses the whole of mankind's perverse, self-destructive, indomitable history, cruelty and kindness alike, into its black-humor narrative of a robot's death wish.

It was as parables, "more or less what I do in science fiction," that Tevis himself thought of his books. The Man Who Fell to Earth was "very disguised autobiography" of his forced relocation as a child from San Francisco, "the city of light," to rural Kentucky, of his dire childhood illness, most of all (as Mockingbird was "about my coming out of alcoholism") about his becoming alcoholic. Yet—and this is their specific, indefinable genius—the novels function perfectly as science fiction.

Tevis didn't think of himself as a science fiction writer. He read and loved science fiction as a teenager, he had published stories in genre magazines, but his first, hugely successful novel, published four years before Man, the one that made him as a writer, was The Hustler. And when he came to it, he wrote science fiction (here, again, his specific, indefinable genius) as though he were inventing it, as though it had not been written before. Tevis wrote, as Jonathan Lethem notes in his introduction for the current Del Rey reissue of Mockingbird, "with a sort of beautiful literary amnesia . . . refusing genre," drawing novels of character and fable from the tired, much-used forms, turning the worn glove inside out to reveal again the all too human hand within.

*     *     *

Briefly then, the facts, the life, from which this autobiographical fiction gathered.

Tevis was born February 28, 1928, in San Francisco. When he was ten, his family went off to live with the father's sister in Kentucky, leaving Walter, who had contracted rheumatic fever, behind in a hospital. He remained there, wholly alone, for a year before joining the family. He attended school, feeling always the outsider, in Kentucky, and, following service in World War II (two years as a carpenter's mate), went on to the University of Kentucky, where he earned his bachelor's and master's in English. He then embarked on a teaching career, first at various Kentucky high schools, later, from 1966 to 1978, at Ohio University.

Published to great acclaim in 1959, The Hustler became a film classic in 1961. The Man Who Fell to Earth, rejected by Harper's, was published as a paperback original by Gold Medal in 1963. In conversation with Daniel Keyes, Tevis claimed that this rejection led to his lengthy writing block; editor Pat LoBrutto, who worked with Tevis on Mockingbird and subsequent books, doesn't think Tevis made so much of it. At any rate, Tevis had become a confirmed drinker ("It's about my becoming an alcoholic. I sobered up to write it," he said of Man), and for the thirteen years he taught in Ohio, he wrote little or nothing.

Tevis also told Keyes that he'd always dreamed "of being a New York writer, of being in the center of the literary scene," and in 1978, three years after he quit drinking, Tevis moved to the city. Mockingbird came out in 1980, his story collection Far From Home the following year, both The Steps of the Sun and The Queen's Gambit in 1983. The Color of Money, a sequel to The Hustler written for quick money, also came out in these last years. Paul Newman bought the property, commissioning a screenplay from Tevis; for the 1986 film, however, both screenplay and novel were junked.

By his own admission, Tevis still had problems writing. He'd also begun confronting autobiographical materials more directly, in a kind of self-dredging that doesn't always imply salvage, and that can prove as wrenching to the reader as to writer. In stories of the period we often see Tevis peering out at us from within.

Whiskey had left him unable to answer the telephone or open the door, in Michigan. That had been two years ago. Whiskey had left him sitting behind closed suburban blinds at two in the afternoon, reading the J.C. Penny catalog and waiting for Gwen to come home from work. Well. He had been free of whiskey for a year and a half now. First the hospital, then A.A.; now New York and Janet.

He'd continue this transmutation of life in Mockingbird, his parable of coming out of alcoholism, and in The Steps of the Sun, whose early passages rehearse his own childhood of pain, illness, and alienation (and which is, overall, a parable of adolescence). The darkening cities and expended populations of the first, the impoverished, pre-ice age earth of the latter—these are the landscape of their author's own post-alcoholic mind: worlds to be retrieved, reconstructed, reinvented, reborn.

Though sales for Mockingbird were disappointing, in subsequent years the book has been much praised, taking its place alongside Man as a classic. Thus far Steps hasn't elicited as much attention as the others even though, as André- Francois Ruaud points out in a rare essay on Tevis for France's Bifrost magazine, it's among the most original and successful science fiction novels of the '80s. It is also Tevis' first wholly optimistic book. In its successor, The Queen's Gambit, he turned again from the fantastic to the realistic mode, offering in its stone-brilliant story of a driven, alcoholic female chess champion who achieves redemption (much as Mockingbird paired with Man) a positive retelling of The Hustler.

Walter Tevis died of cancer in 1984, the year after his last two, redemptive books were published, age 56. He had experienced, observed, brought to others and to himself great pain, terrible abjurations; his books gave it all up, took our hands to lead us through the backwash. And yet, like his protagonists, he had borne up under it all, survived, endured.

"It is very bad for people to find substitutes for living their lives," he said in what may have been his last interview, wondering if this might not be his abiding theme. Even if late in life, he said, he had found great joy in it: "I'm really pleased that the grass is green. I didn't used to be."

*     *     *

Through it all, out of it all, blows this dark, strangely comforting wind, this threnody of loss. It is, for many reasons, a small body of work, and one of rare unity.

Einstein remarked that in his life he'd had only one or two ideas. Many fine writers are like that, I believe, making a lifetime's agenda of drawing out the universe implicit in those ideas. So the strands that run and interweave in Tevis's work: alcoholism, the gamesman/artist (pool player, chess player) in whom ambition and wound pull like twin suns, the adolescent's eternal alienation, prisons of self and society, bleak futures, Christ figures, redemption.

Again and again Tevis mounted voyages to the alien, inhospitable planet of self, to bring back odd rocks, strange growths, colors not seen in our nature. Again and again he seized metaphors and wrung their necks, making them give up secrets others had not obtained, could not obtain. There he stood balanced, about to fall. He was, as Lethem writes, "a master manipulator of archetypes, an artist capable of delving into the zeitgeist while nevertheless remaining on his own pure search for himself." His work is unique, with that element of infinite rereadability Nabokov held the hallmark of great literature. Like his characters, though passed through perilous times, disregard and rejection, waking with the day-after, too-late taste of booze, stale smoke and failure upon them, Tevis's work will endure.

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