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Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon, 326 pages

Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle
Born in New York in 1939, Peter S. Beagle graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. His works include the novels A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn and The Folk of the Air, as well as non-fiction books and the screenplay for the animated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The Last Unicorn became an animated film in 1982. He lives in Davis, California.

Peter S. Beagle Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Return
SF Site Review: Mirror Kingdoms
SF Site Review: We Never Talk About My Brother
SF Site Review: A Fine and Private Place
SF Site Review: The Line Between
SF Site Review: Giant Bones
SF Site Review: A Dance For Emilia
SF Site Review: Tamsin
SF Site Review: Giant Bones

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

We call it voice: the distinctive character you find in the work of certain authors. It is something inherent in the choice of words; the way that successive works circle around the same concerns and sensibilities; the sense that, time and again, even in the guise of different characters, you're hearing the same person talking to you.

Peter Beagle has a readily identifiable voice. It is weighed down with loss and regret; the voice of someone all too aware of the approach of death yet who regards it, if not with indifference, then with acceptance; it talks more easily about the past more than the future. And that voice is fully in evidence in this latest collection of stories. They are stories of memory, filled with sentiment that just occasionally slips over into sentimentality. The tone is warm and embracing, they are easy to read and we emerge from each story with that touch of sadness that has been a hallmark of Beagle's fiction ever since his brilliant debut novel, A Fine and Private Place. In places, the voice works perfectly, particularly in two stories that seem to reach back into Beagle's own childhood. "The Rock in the Park" tells of two teenage boys in the Bronx in the 1950s, who happen to encounter a family of centaurs in a remote part of Van Cortlandt Park. The meeting with the centaurs is sweetly done, but what stops this being a sugary confection is the real part of the story, the small details about what it was like to be that age in that place at that time.

If "The Rock in the Park" is the best story in the collection, "The Rabbi's Hobby" runs a close second. This is another story closely tied to Beagle's childhood environment, the Bronx in the 1950s, this time concerning a Jewish boy being coached for his bar mitzvah by a local rabbi. For a long time, indeed, this comes across as a straightforwardly realistic story, and the fantastic, when it slowly starts to disturb the edges of the frame, is handled with beautiful subtlety. The rabbi collects old magazines, and the two of them become fascinated by the face of a young woman in an old magazine cover, but the more they try to discover about this enigmatic woman, the stranger the story becomes.

The closer these stories come to realism, the more solidly placed in a recognizable world, the stronger the stories seem to be. It is when Beagle goes for the overtly fantastic that they seem weaker. "What Tune the Enchantress Plays" is yet another tale set in the world of The Innkeeper's Song, a world he has returned to repeatedly over the years and where he clearly feels comfortable. Yet it is a conventional world that doesn't seem to stretch him as a writer, and too often, as here, the stories take us in directions that never really surprise us. This one has a framing narrative that is redundant, since it adds no significant twist to the tale, and at its heart is a story that seems to run along well-worn tracks as a young witch takes a crash course in magic in order to rescue her love, and then finds that her real opponent is her mother.

Somewhat better is another return to older material, "The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon," which features Schmendrick the Magician from The Last Unicorn. Perhaps it comes across as better because the attention is on the character rather than the setting, though Schmendrick is here required to go through his familiar bumbling routine in a story of lost love that teeters perilously close to the sentimental. Of course he doesn't have to retread familiar material to cling to safe ground.

"Children of the Shark God" plays with the mythologies of the South Seas, about which he clearly knows very little, and is also an overt homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, but it is also a story that religiously ticks every box on the list of elements in a typical Beagle story that nothing comes as a surprise. Like so many of the pieces collected here, it is satisfyingly well done, you never feel let down by a bad story, but neither do you feel really excited by something different or unexpected.

The title story, "Sleight of Hand," is another that seems to tick all the familiar Beagle boxes. A woman, torn apart by the deaths of her husband and child, sets out on an interminable car journey on which she apparently meets death, but her bargaining for the lives of her loved ones recalls a haunting encounter from her childhood. Childhood memories, loss, the approach of death, and a little low-key magic to wrap it all up: is there any archetypal Beagle trope that isn't included in this story? That it works as well as it does is more down to the strength of the writing than anything else, but this is clearly an example of an author working well within his comfort zone.

(Beagle clearly thinks his comfort zone extends to comedy. On the evidence of "Up the Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" and "Oakland Dragon Blues," I beg to differ.)

The thing about this collection is that he only knowingly steps outside the comfort zone twice. Disappointingly, neither is among the most thrilling pieces in the collection, but it is interesting that he is aware of how much he sticks to the same narrow path. Though, when he says, in the introduction to "Vanishing," that it "remains further out of my normal range and comfort zone than any other story in this collection," the only possible reaction is: huh!?! The central character is old and dying; the story takes him back to a key moment in his younger life; there's a chance to change the past, and everything hinges on loss and sentiment. Okay, the setting is a ghostly version of the Berlin Wall, which isn't exactly familiar territory for Beagle, but the voice is pure and clear, and apart from the fact that it is not very well written this story would appear to be well within the comfort zone, just rather uninteresting.

More of a challenge is "Dirae," because this is actually an attempt to change his voice, going for something sharp and impressionistic, a jagged staccato style instead of the usual well-rounded sentences. In the introduction, Beagle says that it is not "pre-read for you," an interesting choice of words suggesting that this is somehow raw and, by implication, that his usual storytelling manner is somehow pre-digested. Certainly the style seems to bother people; he reports that the editors of the volume in which it originally appeared urged readers to "take the early pages slowly, and with patience, because they aren't easy reading." And he reiterates this warning. Which is nonsense: the opening pages demand to be read quickly because that is the best way to get the impressions that the words are meant to convey. Nor is it particularly difficult, any half-way competent reader will know what is going on pretty much from the outset. And while the style is interesting (largely because it is so different from what Beagle normally does), the story it tells is fairly conventional, and the heady pace with which the tale opens isn't sustained throughout the story.

Rather sadly we are left with the conclusion that Beagle is at his best when he sticks to his comfort zone, when he keeps to the same soothing voice he has made his own over the years. Certainly attempts to vary the formula, like "Dirae," work less well than those stories that keep rigidly to the style he has perfected over the years. The style doesn't need to be used for straightforward fantasy; it works perfectly well, for example, in "The Bridge Partner," a noirish tale of the murderous relationship that develops between two women bridge players. Nor does he have to present the fantastic straightforwardly, one of the better stories in this collection, "La Lune t'Attend," is an interestingly perverse take on werewolves in New Orleans. But as long as the comfort zone entails playing to the gallery, I imagine, there'll be enough of the Innkeeper's World or Schmendrick or other conventional fantasies to keep the fans happy.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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