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December 1999
 
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James Sallis
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Books
by James Sallis

Beast of the Heartland by Lucius Shepard. Four Walls Eight Windows. 292 pp. $10.95.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore. Spike/Avon. 304 pp. $23.00.

Death of a Tango King by Jerome Charyn. New York University Press. 242 pp. $21.95

For most of us laboring in the vineyards, it's all just wine. And one has to wonder, at this late point in the empire, to what degree tribal economies still obtain. What profit is there, in a world so given to science-fictional imagery, in speaking of science fiction as a world apart? Has the genre as meaningful entity, like country music, vanished in its appropriation by the mainstream, sharp edges swaddled in bunting, the subversive nature at its heart co-opted (as America vitiates by absorption every revolutionary urge) by market forces? Is some of the best new work coming from outside the genre, or sideways to the genre, or (rude metaphor that it is) slipping in from behind? Where's that list of microbreweries?

Four Walls Eight Windows, a small "literary" press given to what used to be called avant-garde fiction, has of late increasingly devoted itself to publishing provocative science fiction: Octavia Estelle Butler, Rudy Rucker, Paul Di Filippo, Michael Moorcock. Lucius Shepard's Beast of the Heartland, a reissue of 1997's Barnacle Bill the Spacer, collects work by one of the finest short-story writers working within science fiction. His title story is a premier example of how mainstream literature may be written with a science- fictional sensibility---so much so, that this straight character study of an aging, near-blind boxer, originally published in Playboy, was soon after reprinted in Isaac Asimov's.

Mears has a dream the night after he fought the Alligator Man. The dream begins with words: "In the beginning was a dark little god with glowing red eyes . . . " And then, there it stands, hovering in the blackness of Mears' hotel room, a twisted mandrake root of a god, evil and African, with ember eyes and limbs like twists of leaf tobacco.

The reader recognizes at once that he's in the hands of a master. An intensely lyrical writer, Shepard turns out sentences beautifully, recreating those regions where individual and world collide: physical sensation, perception as it struggles towards cognition, language itself. He has a fine vision of the violence inherent both to society and the human soul, of "the ancient, vicious ways" it is our eternal, doomed dream to change. "Barnacle Bill" deals with the reawakening of just such ideals in one violent man, and with the knowledge that good is not always accomplished by those we would think of as good men.

Shepard's fascination is with people at various string-ends---the end of mankind itself, with the earth destroyed and colonization an abject failure, in "Barnacle Bill"; the end of talent and social usefulness in "Beast"; the end of all "Human History" in the story of that name, in which our narrator writes:

We need Wall and Kiri now, we need their violent hearts . . . [but] there'll soon come a time when we don't need them any longer, and maybe that's all we can hope for, that we'll learn to choose our leaders differently, that we won't end up apes or Captains.

"It's there all the time, the tarry stuff that floors your soul," Shepard writes in "Beast"---and that's the stuff that Shepard's people build their homes, their very lives, from.

*áááá *áááá *

Most readers will know Christopher Moore for his hip takes on horror themes in Practical Demonkeeping, Bloodsucking Fiends, Coyote Blue and Island of the Sequined Love Nun. Moore puts his novels together in the manner of all great comic routines, cobbling them up out of outrageous situations, broadly drawn characters, cascades of small jokes building off one another, tower getting higher and wilder all the while, wobbling and promising to self-destruct, shower us with junk. He writes funny, very funny, about what might be pretty grim stuff, yet never loses an essential kindness and deep humanity. Moore has said of Steinbeck, his favorite writer, that Steinbeck wrote about flawed people with great affection and forgiveness, and that this is what he himself aspires to. Moore loves his people, and we do too.

He also loves his monsters, and this time out the monster is Steve, a centuries-old sea serpent drawn to the sadness of Pine Cove, California (scene of Moore's first novel), where the town psychiatrist has taken everyone off psychotropic drugs without their knowledge, and to the slide guitar of his old enemy, bluesman Catfish Jefferson. Steve first tries to mate with a fetching gasoline truck, having a hotter encounter than he'd anticipated, then takes refuge in what we slowly come to realize is a herd of house trailers, shape- changing into a rough approximation of one but failing to get it quite right.

Meanwhile, local madwoman Molly Michon has just been released by Theophilus Crowe (avocation constable, vocation pothead) after sinking her teeth into a man's calf at the Head of the Slug saloon. She's working out in her old movie costume of Kendra, Warrior Babe of the Outland, tossing her sword and doing backflips, when she sees the mushroom cloud from the exploded gasoline truck.

Mutants, she thought. Where there were mushroom clouds, there were mutants, the curse of Kendra's nuked-out world.
Although Molly and Steve, more or less from the moment Steve rolls onto his back and purrs, find their way to a tender relationship, both know the relationship is doomed and in the end, without regrets, and with considerable tenderness still, go their separate ways. There are many fine, funny moments here, as well as broad swings like a breakfast special of "Eggs-Sogoth" and this description of the cafe owner:
Howard Phillips might have been forty, or sixty, or seventy, or he might have died young for all the animation in his face. He wore a black suit out of the nineteenth century, right down to the button shoes, and he was nursing a glass of Guinness Stout, although he didn't look as if he'd had any caloric intake for months.
With his off-kilter world view and lovable, loony, loopy characters, Moore often reminds me of another fine comic novelist, Peter De Vries. Like Moore's other books, and De Vries's, Lust Lizard is about unlikely heroes. Moore gives us, as does all the best comic writing, something beyond jokes, caricature, spinning plates and crazy-tilt towers, something intangible that vanishes whenever we try to look directly at it: some sense, perhaps, that we're still able to rescue from the ever-increasing detritus of our culture a decent, simple humanity.

*áááá *áááá *

I'm not at all certain how many readers of this magazine will be familiar with Jerome Charyn's work. He has published a wild array of books---two popular, sui generis series of mysteries, literary satire like The Tar Baby, the amazing "conjured autobiographies" Pinocchio's Nose and The Catfish Man, literary novels, a memoir of his mother and of growing up in New York City---with an array of publishers. His latest has been brought out by New York University Press.

Death of a Tango King's direct antecedents are War Cries Over Avenue C and Paradise Man, novels in which one of Charyn's several styles, or modes, came most fully into its own. A particular kind of supercharged language drives this mode, language pushed almost to the level of hysteria, words, perception and emotion snapping and pulsing audibly, palpably, along the wire. Charyn is a great walker, and it shows in his prose. Phrases or sentences eat up miles and chapters; more happens between paragraphs than in most others' whole stories; entire scenes collapse, as though sucked into black holes, into a single image. This mode aims for hyperreality, for an almost unbearable intensity. I am not interested in impersonation, Charyn has said in rejection of mimetic art, I am interested in hallucination---in finding the magic.

Touched first by Faulkner then powerfully by Gabriel García Márquez, Charyn wants the complex textures of life itself, the overlay of mind and world, wants to create a text that becomes itself a kind of life; he yearns to write the endlessly rereadable book. He is, too, a self-admitted ("in some crucial way") moralist, writing of characters whom language will not necessarily save or redeem, but whom it can nonetheless, in some manner, deliver.

Death of a Tango King may not be science fiction but definitely lands feet-first within the bounds of fantastic literature. Science fiction readers will find themselves immediately at ease, I suspect, with the novel's peopling of spies and assassins, its paranoia, its confrontation with otherness and evocation of an alien society. (In Charyn every society is alien.) It contains many of the key elements that bring us to science fiction in the first place.

This may be the only paranoid novel to rival Pynchon. Yolanda, shanghaied as a spy because her cousin Ruben is king of a drug cartel, trains in a scale cardboard model of the city he controls. The drug lord himself is a succession of doubles. The agents she is going in undercover to contact will know her (she is told) because her résumé has been given to them all. Have you ever met Ruben? Yolanda asks on the way in.

"Many times. But you cannot always tell his doubles from Don Ruben. They rob for him, they marry chicas in Ruben's name, they die for him. It has become an entire industry, being Ruben's double. Ten or twenty are born each day."
And elsewhere:
Men appeared on the floor of the rumbeadero in white scarves and high- heeled shoes that were favored in the barrios. They didn't present themselves as a small family with one face. But she could tell that these were Ruben's doubles. . . . It was hard to believe that such men would have died for Ruben, or anyone else. They were benefitting from all the doubles around Ruben, and had become the doubles of doubles.
Paranoia, like religion, like surrealism---and, yes, like science fiction or fantastic literature---insists that there is a world behind or to one side of this, the sensible, one. For the paranoid that world is one of terror and suspicion where dearly-purchased footholds shift without warning to beartraps and clang shut. For the religious that world is the real one of which this is but a pale shadow. For the surrealist there is terror too, but also, always and most importantly, a strange and alluring beauty.

The science fiction reader, the reader of fantastic literature, engages and rediscovers his world in reading away from it; finds his face in that of the other. My friend Larry Block, long a devotee of ethnic foods, one night after a week of Ethiopian, Tibetan, Afghan and Moroccan cuisine, turned to wife Lynne and said: "You know, I want something different tonight. I want Martian food."

Something different. New spices, new tastes.

We're ready to order now.

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