Going Home Again

A celebrity, Daniel J. Boorstin has informed us, is someone who is famous for being famous. In the arts, however, there is what might be called the anti-celebrity: the artist who is famous for being unknown. Perhaps the most prominent of these in recent literature was Wright Morris, a mimetic novelist who died recently, and who could have earned a place in The Guinness Book of World Records for the paradoxical feat of being the subject of the most articles complaining that no one ever wrote about him.

The role of anti-celebrity exists not merely to give critics the chance to proclaim the superiority of their taste to that of the masses (of readers or of less enlightened critics) but also to call our attention to unappreciated writerly virtues. In Morris's case, for instance, it was the skill and grace with which he delineated characters many readers didn't find terribly interesting.

Howard Waldrop has long been a leading anti-celebrity in the sf field, going back at least to the title of his very first collection, Howard Who? He is an obvious choice for this role. He combines a lively imagination with the traditional literary virtues of characterization and wit. In retrospect, one can see his career unfolding and developing from two of his earliest stories, "The Ugly Chickens" and "Ike at the Mike." The former is the sort of thing that gets him known as inimitable, a tale of American dodos ornamented with real and imagined documentation, told in a charming narrative voice. The latter, equally good, may have been his most imitable work ever. Alternate history was an old idea, but "Ike at the Mike" was a milestone in the development of the Alternate Celebrity tale, "high concept" as the term is now used in showbiz, where one can no longer sell a new work by saying that it is just like an old work, but rather must say that it is the best of at least two old works. Senator Presley and the musical Ike begat at least half a dozen anthologies before the Alternate Celebrity subsubgenre finally burned out. Some of the stories were good, and some were not, but it is hard to imagine any of them being quite what they were without "Ike."

But for all of this skill and imagination, Waldrop has never been a popular writer. His books have tended to be published by small specialty presses and to sell poorly even when brought out by the big New York firms. (I hope the present work changes that.)

One can see reasons for Waldrop's lack of sales power. In a time when anything less than a trilogy is regarded with suspicion by the publishing world, Waldrop's two longest works, Them Bones and A Dozen Tough Jobs, are somewhere near the bottom word count limits for the Novel category. Worse, he has been accused, with some justice, of two of the greatest sins in the sf market: being depressing and difficult.

The former charge had more weight in his early career. Both "The Ugly Chickens" and "Ike at the Mike" ended on dying falls, as did most of the stories in Howard Who?, and when he joined in the communal effort that produced the Wild Cards series, no one was too surprised that he chose to write about the character who gets killed off at the very beginning. But at least since the joyous "Do Ya, Do Ya, Wanna Dance?" (1988), Waldrop has been almost as likely as not to cheer us up.

The "difficult" charge is a fairer cop. Like Connie Willis (in "A Letter from the Clearys") and Gene Wolfe (passim), Waldrop often manages to find the most indirect possible way of telling his story. He is also a particularly referential writer. Like C.M. Kornbluth's fictional fictionist Corwin ("MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie"), Waldrop seems to know at least something about almost every area of knowledge and more about some than almost any nonspecialist, and he puts this knowledge together in nonrectilinear ways, to the point where the reader might not be sure what is going on. Clearly, the problem varies from reader to reader. I can testify from personal experience that it is possible to enjoy his Thomas Wolfe story ("You Could Go Home Again" in the present collection) without having slogged through a Wolfe novel, but I would imagine it is even more fun for those more familiar with Wolfe, and much less so for those who cannot understand why Waldrop is referring to the author of The Right Stuff in such a formal way.

Going Home Again is a collection of Waldrop's fiction since Night of the Cooters (1990). The structural elements of the book are not without interest. There is a Foreword by Lucius Shepard, to some extent one of Waldrop's fellow anti-celebrities, which serves as a suitable introduction to the proverbial "man who needs no introduction": witty and charming in its own right, but probably not much help in telling those unfamiliar with the subject's work what they are missing. Then Waldrop himself, justly complaining of his lack of fame and remuneration, but perhaps helping to explain it by saying, "I think you people should have to do between 40 and 50 percent of the work when you read a story." That's the sort of thing that, when I hear it from a writer I don't know, inspires me to say, "And you want me to pay you?" but this is Waldrop, so I knew I would enjoy these nine tough jobs.

One innovation I like is that this is the first Waldrop collection to have story afterwords, rather than introductions. Rather than trying to tantalize us with hints, Waldrop can tell us, once we've read them, what the stories were about, filling in some of those vast areas of knowledge that he has explored in creating the work. There is at times an almost quizlike aspect to the afterwords. (I didn't guess who Jerry the Social Director was. Did I miss something or didn't he give enough clues?) All in all, though, I found the further information after the stories adding to the pleasure they had given..

It is this element of cumulative discovery that gives me a reason or excuse to refrain saying much specific about the stories. I will say only that they are about bugs, Mexican wrestling. Charles Dickens, morons, Mantan Moreland, musical saws, and other stuff like that, in some order. (You'll thank me.) It is a typical Waldrop collection, which is to say, delightful. His hand has not lost its skill, and even those of us who are familiar with what a Waldrop story is like will be surprised and pleased by particular developments.