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Going Home Again
Howard Waldrop
St. Martin's Press, 223 pages

Art: Thomas Cole
Going Home Again
Howard Waldrop
Howard Waldrop received a Nebula Award for his novelette "The Ugly Chickens." Best known for his doomed heroic figure, Jetboy, in the anthology series Wild Cards, he has also written the stories collected in Howard Who?, All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past and Night of the Cooters. He has two novels, The Texas-Israeli War (with Jake Saunders) and Them Bones.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

One of the best things about science fiction is that it often provides a home for writers that just don't fit in anywhere else. Granted, some of those writers either couldn't or didn't care to write in a style and of a subject matter that would have gotten them into the mainstream literary magazines. But others have been truly gifted writers for whose talent there was no other outlet. Philip K. Dick's mainstream novels, full of the same philosophical musings and reality twists as his science fiction, sat unpublished while the same ideas done up in the trappings of SF sold. It's hard to imagine R.A. Lafferty becoming a writer after retiring from an engineering career without the existence of science fiction. Howard Waldrop is another singularly individual writer who writes complex, beautiful short stories, many of which reveal alternate histories of a truly unique nature. Unfortunately, he produces them barely faster than most authors turn out novels. Where else but in science fiction could he earn even a part of the acclaim he deserves?

Going Home Again is Howard Waldrop's fourth short story collection. It contains nine stories published from 1992 to 1998. Not only are they the best stories Waldrop has written over that time span, they are pretty much the only stories he has written, along with continuing work on two novels, one already 26 years in the making. As he observes in the introduction, "This is not the way to make lots of money." It is, however, the way to write many-layered stories that reward the reader willing to pay attention to every word that appears on the page.

The two best examples of this in the book are "You Could Go Home Again" and "Flatfeet". The former tells the story of a Thomas Wolfe who survived illness and brain surgery. Wolfe struggles to re-capture his lost memories and to create a new life for himself as Fats Waller plays with the ship's band. Embedded in the story are the reasons why World War II didn't happen, why dirigibles are flying around the world, why Japan is hosting the 1940 Olympics, and how the Technocrats came to power in the USA, Inc. "Flatfeet" is a Keystone Cops caper with monsters and silly chase scenes and somewhat obscure messages on postcards being relayed to the Chief from an off-stage character. Then when you learn that the paintings on the jail wall are by Thomas Cole and that the book one of the characters is reading is Oswald Spenglers' Decline of the West, the story takes on a whole new set of meanings.

Attention to detail is a hallmark of all the alternate histories. "The Effects of Alienation" gives us Peter Lorre, Zero Mostel and Madame Brecht struggling for the cause in a small cabaret in Nazi-occupied Zurich. "Household Words: or The Powers-That-Be" portrays Charles Dickens on tour, reading from his most popular work, in touch with the problems of his time, though they are somewhat different than the Charles Dickens of our past.

Three other stories also illustrate what makes Waldrop such an incomparable writer. "The Sawing Boys" mixes a down-home music festival with four zoot-suited prohibition-era gangsters and their girl. The culture clash and authentic slang keep the story highly entertaining, even without knowing which real-life figures the characters represent. "El Castillo de la Perseverancia" is a Mexican pro-wrestling story, with demons, fair maidens, old heros coming out of retirement, and reincarnation. It's a total hoot. Finally, "Occam's Ducks" is a reverential look at a real parallel universe, the black film-making community of the early 20th century. Unknown to white audiences then, and unknown to almost all audiences now, black cinema produced westerns, musicals, horror films, kid's movies, and all the rest. Waldrop, as always, perfectly captures the spirit of the time.

Howard Waldrop packs more insight, invention, meaning and just plain fun into a short story than most authors manage in a complete novel. The risk Waldrop runs is that occasionally the reader reaches the end of a story and can only think "What the heck was that all about?" If this happens, my recommendation is to read the story's afterword, watch, read, and listen to the half-a-dozen movies, books, and records that Waldrop routinely cites to explain each story's origin and meaning, and read the story again.

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson's last foray into the world of theater was a one-act play adaptation of Howard Waldrop's short story "Ike at the Mike." It was performed at Minicon 26 in April, 1991.

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