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A Fine and Private Place
Peter S. Beagle
Tachyon Publications, 264 pages

A Fine and Private Place
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: 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 Richard A. Lupoff

Let me tell you a little story. This happened on a bright summer's afternoon in the late 60s. I was supposed to meet a friend in a cemetery in a town north of New York City, near the home of my Uncle Eddie Rehbeck, a World War Two veteran. My friend was delayed so I whiled away the time, sitting on a convenient tombstone, reading a book that I had tossed into my car that morning.

The book was A Fine and Private Place, by Peter S. Beagle. The opening scene was a cemetery in the Bronx, New York. As the story opens a talking raven arrives to deliver a stolen baloney to a man who has been living in the cemetery for the past 19 years. Mr. Rebeck. What, Rehbeck, Rebeck, who's counting. Shortly Mr. Rebeck meets Mrs. Klapper. Surely not the mother of Adrienne Klapper, onetime sweetheart of a college pal of mine. Mrs. Klapper is here to visit the grave of her husband, Morris. No, not my Uncle Morris from the Bronx!

This was really, really creepy. Somewhere in the great beyond, Carl Jung must have been jumping up and down with glee.

The cast of major characters is filled out by a couple of ghosts. I was prepared for George and Marion Kirby but no, those were Cosmo Topper's playmates. These ghosts, each of whom we meet on the occasion of his or her funeral, are Michael Morgan and Laura Durand. Michael, we learn, is a poisoning victim. His wife is accused of doing the dastardly deed, and we actually catch a glimpse of her, a while later, when she visits the cemetery in company of her lawyer, while they prepare her defense for her coming trial.

Michael and Laura and Mr. Rebeck talk about life and death and love, about the world, about their regrets, about the nature of Michael and Laura's ghosthood. In Beagle's book, ghosts are geographically restricted to the confines of the cemeteries where their bodies lie. They can flit around pretty much at will, but their memories of their former lives gradually fade, and once they are gone, so too are the ghosts. It's a brief and melancholy kind of afterlife.

Mrs. Klapper, in the meanwhile, deals with the everyday reality of a recently widowed Bronx Jewish housewife. She does her shopping, schmoozes with her neighbors, baby-sits assorted nieces and nephews, visits the grave of her late husband, meets Mr. Rebeck and strives mightily to convince him to abandon his strange existence in a mausoleum and return to the outer world.

The book goes on in this fashion, the lives (and afterlives) of the four principles weaving and interweaving while they talk, and talk, and talk. Now and then the raven drops in for another chat. The raven is a wisecracking philosopher. His wry observations leaven what might otherwise be a pretty morbid narrative. Michael's wife's trial gets under way and the raven brings bulletins of its progress. We learn that Michael's apparent murder was not quite what it seems, with portentous implications for him and his new flame, Laura.

The book is not like anything else I had read before or have read since. There may be a wee bit of Thorne Smith here, maybe a hint of Stephen King or of Anne Rice, but really very little of Smith and even less of the others. A Fine and Private Place is unique.

The new Tachyon edition is attractively designed and produced. It is allegedly revised to present the author's definitive text, but Beagle himself says that the revisions are confined mainly to fixing typographical errors.

In rereading the book recently -- for the first time in 40 years -- I was struck by how much I have changed and how little it has. I have become more aware of plotting technique, and was struck by Beagle's masterful ability to tell a fairly long story with only the most minimal of plots, and to do it so well and so compellingly. I have also become more aware of prose style, and the virtues of simplicity therein. Beagle's writing is full of poetical allegories, similes and metaphors, sometimes to the point of unintentionally comic overwriting, but usually to good effect.

Over a cold beverage and a hot bowl of chili, Peter Beagle recently told me how he came to write A Fine and Private Place. He was just 19 years old at the time, the length of time that Mr. Rebeck spent in that cemetery. He was working as a counselor at a boys' summer camp. Once the campers were settled for the night there wasn't much for the counselors to do. Those who had sweethearts at the girls' camp across the lake would borrow canoes and paddle across to see them. Peter had no such luck, he told me, so he warmed up his rattly little portable typewriter, cracked open a ream of paper, and starting writing a book.

We are all incredibly lucky that Peter had no girlfriend that summer.

Copyright © 2007 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff has written a lot of books, some of them actually pretty good. His most recent is Marblehead: A Novel of H.P. Lovecraft; the next couple will be short story collections, Visions and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix.

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