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Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories
Neal Barrett, Jr.
Golden Gryphon Press, 256 pages

Art: Ron Walotsky
Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories
Neal Barrett, Jr.
Neal Barrett, Jr., of Austin, Texas, has written novels and stories in the fields of mystery/suspense, science fiction, Westerns, historical novels, YA novels and what some term "off-the-wall" mainstream fiction. His novelette "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" was a finalist for both the SFWA's Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, and his short story, "Stairs", received a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. In 1997, he served as Toastmaster of the 55th World Science Fiction Convention in San Antonio.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Regional writing is usually not the first thing that springs to mind when talking about science fiction. This is not too surprising. Setting in SF is generally imagined, and plays a different role in the story than it does in most other kinds of writing. There are few equivalents in science fiction of Mark Twain's Mississippi River, William Faulkner's South, or the northern plains of O.E. Rolvaag.

There are exceptions, of course. Clifford D. Simak's stories often reflected his life in Minnesota and Wisconsin. More recently, Paul DiFilippo has written a series of stories whose characters and setting are immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever lived in a small American town. Now comes Neal Barrett Jr.'s short story collection Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories, the best stories of which feature a familiar landscape full of diners, Wal-Marts, semis, and the quirky, usually good, sometimes malevolent people who inhabit them. It's also a world full of humour, poetry, dirt, magic, hope, despair, and the occasional alien.

A good example is "Cush." Set in the steamy backwoods South, the landscape is as real as the characters and their dialogue, especially Alma, Pru, and the baby Cush. More serious is "Diner," which relates the problems of a small-town Texas mayor in a US that has been decimated by a plague. Texas also provides a gritty backdrop for "Trading Post," the most straight-forward science fiction story in the collection. A small-time smuggler named Josh learns to deal with aliens who have taken control of Earth. All of these stories are remarkable for the way they use standard SF themes -- miraculous babies, biological warfare, alien invasions -- and play them out against real settings filled with regular, everyday people.

Two alternative histories also depend on the setting for much of their effect. "Sallie C" and "Winter on the Belle Fourche" are both Westerns. "Sallie C" is fun, but concerned almost entirely with how its rather improbable cast of characters ended up at a lonely Texas hotel. "Winter on the Belle Fourche" is a more complete story, one of the best in the collection. Mountain man John Hatcher rescues a young woman travelling on the prairie, Emily Dickinson, who has yet to find her muse. It's a finely crafted story with an ending that will annoy some poetry lovers and delight just about everyone else.

There are somber moments, such as "Class of '61" or "Under Old New York." But most of the collection displays a sense of humour that ranges from folksy in "A Day at the Fair" to "Highbrow," which can only be described as a surrealistically hilarious romance, set in the lovely town of Milhouse, California, where generations labour to build a fitting monument to their hero.

Finally, three stories featuring female characters give a good idea of the range of emotion and writing styles on display in Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories. In "Stairs" and "Under Old New York," Mary Louise and Hannah both struggle to live in worlds where everything around them seems to be dying. Yet the two stories are entirely different in mood and style. In contrast, Maggie McKenna in the title story makes it on talent and a little help from her friends out of Texas and all the way to success in New York. As the story puts it, "New York is such a knocked-out crazy wonderful town!" So are all the places Neal Barrett Jr. takes us to in Perpetuity Blues and Other Stories.

Copyright © 1999 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson has spent several winters near the Belle Fourche, and can almost feel the landscape in Neal Barrett Jr.'s story. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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