OCTOBER 1, 2012
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with the fiction of Neal Barrett, Jr. came in late 1993, during my sophomore year in high school, in rural eastern North Carolina. My mother had a subscription to Asimov’s Science Fiction that year, and I picked up the November issue and flipped to a long piece called “Cush,” because from the first lines I could tell it was set in the South. “Cush” made me a Barrett fan for life.
I didn’t re-read that story until I received Barrett’s hefty new collection from Subterranean Press, Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. I’m pleased to say that “Cush” holds up. It’s set in the deep south, among poor farm folk, and begins at the funeral of family patriarch Uncle Fry — who surprises everyone by sitting up in his coffin and returning to his old life (more or less; he never quite regains his former intellect). At the same time as his remarkable resurrection, a disfigured baby in the family named Cush — his mother, known as Crazy Pru, explains that it’s a perfectly good name, from the Bible — begins gushing blood from every pore. Cush doesn’t seem notably the worse for his experience (not that he was too good to begin with), and as he grows up, bizarre things continue to happen: the exhausted soil in the farm becomes impossibly fertile; his mother settles down and loses her madness; Uncle Fry lives well into his second century; and Pru keeps getting unlikely financial windfalls, among other things. Meanwhile, Cush gets worse and worse physically, every miracle offset by some new degeneration in his physical condition. Then the worshippers start arriving, people of every creed and faith, drawn by an odd compulsion to visit the farm. Cush’s ultimate apotheosis is not exactly a surprise, but that hardly matters. Barrett’s characters are strange and believable individuals; his writing is alternately lush and brutally straightforward, as the story demands; and the plot moves forward with moments of wonder, humor, and great emotional truth.
It’s a fine story — a story that only Barrett could have written. But the most interesting thing is: Barrett never wrote another story much like it. That’s the thing about Neal Barrett, Jr., the essential quality. He’s never settled into a groove — or, to use the more derogatory term, a rut. His career has ranged all over science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime fiction, and more, but even within a given subgenre he almost never writes the same kind of story twice. You rarely know what you’ll get when you start to read one of his stories, which makes every collection a continual revelation.
Science fiction has its beloved tropes, or “power chords” as Rudy Rucker calls them — big images and ideas that SF writers have used as the premises for all sorts of stories. Tropes such as First Contact, Time Travel, Alternate History, Robots, Alien Invasions, the Apocalypse. Barrett merrily embraces such narrative hooks, but never in the ways you might expect, and his approach to those big ideas usually comes from a strikingly unusual angle.
Take one of his most famous stories, the time-travel tale “Perpetuity Blues.” The main character, Maggie, never travels through time herself — except the way we all do, forward at a rate of second per second — but her life is changed utterly by someone who does (probably). Young Maggie, with an absent father and a dead mother, lives with her poor and not-very-nice aunt and uncle in Marble Creek, Texas, where the resident eccentric is a man named Oral Blue who claims to be an alien. Perhaps because she’s an outsider herself, Maggie befriends Oral, listening to his outlandish tales of travel through time and space, and accepting a strange gift — which later seems to save her from the unpleasant attentions of a male classmate. She grows up, decides to be a writer, leaves her horrible home, and suffers various tragedies and successes in the big city — in many ways, it’s a compressed social novel of life and art in America. Except: Oral reappears, and the mystery of her missing father becomes more mysterious, and extremely unlikely things begin to happen. Events don’t fall into any sort of logical or coherent pattern, though, and the resolution isn’t particularly neat, leaving lots of room for ambiguity and interpretation. For a story whose miracles are probably rooted in alien technology, it is often incredibly dreamlike. “Perpetuity Blues” is ultimately the story of an ordinary life punctuated by extraordinary moments, and one of Barrett’s most human and moving works.
Barrett often twists our expectations about post-apocalyptic tales, too, most notably in “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus,” about a group of itinerant entertainers in a future wasteland, traveling from one brutal armed settlement to another, trading their services for supplies. Except, here’s the thing: it’s not a grim tale of desolate misery. It’s funny, from the slogan emblazoned on their trailer — “Sex*Tacos*Dangerous Drugs” — to the balding, sad-sack barker Del being revealed as a “Wimp” model android, to the most dangerous settlement our heroes visit, Fort Pru, home to deadly insurance salesmen who go “bare to the waist except for collars and striped ties.” Ginny herself runs the show (and ostensibly provides the sex), while Del handles negotiations, and their third member, bio-engineered humanoid Possum Dark, sits on top of the van with machine guns to handle security. Barrett takes all the ingredients of a brutal survivalist tale and stirs them into a story that’s laugh-out-loud funny and even — amazingly — rather sweet by the end, holding out the possibility of love in the wastelands. “Radio Station St. Jack” gives us an entirely different apocalypse, where a disc jockey-slash-priest fights a losing battle to maintain civilization and culture in an atomized future where roving marauders tear down nearly any settlement that springs up. The story is arguably marred by an overly ambiguous ending, but it also showcases Barrett’s deft blend of humor and humanity.
His take on alternate history is highly original, too, especially in the great “Sallie C.,” an alternate-history melange set in the desolate West, at a hotel run by famed lawman Pat Garrett (here rather drunk, dissolute, and past his prime). Two brothers — Will and Orville — are also resident, though Orville spends most of his time out in the barn obsessively working on a bizarre mechanical contraption. A pair of stranded travelers get stuck at the hotel — the beautiful German Frau Rommell, and her young son Erwin, who takes to the desert so naturally he seems part fox. And somewhere upstairs lurks the decrepit Mr. Billy, whose true identity should be readily apparent to anyone who knows Garrett’s most famous act. This isn’t alternate history on a grand, “What if the Nazis won the War” scale, but an intensely personal and quirky story about the possibility of redemption and the persistence of wonder. Barrett brings together an unlikely cast of famous characters and performs the difficult trick of making them into real, relatable individuals.
Other standouts in the collection include “In the Shadow of the Worm,” a work of interstellar science fiction reminiscent of the work of Cordwainer Smith with its larger-than-life characters and bizarre cosmology; the Twilight Zone-esque nightmare “The Flying Stutzman,” about a traveling salesman doomed to ride the airways seemingly forever; the amusing madcap comedy “The Stentorii Luggage,” about an infestation of deadly pests in a futuristic hotel that caters to diverse alien races; the surreal and intoxicating “Nightbeat,” a dreamlike sort of police procedural; the clever, straight-up crime story “Tony Red Dog”; “Survival Course,” a man-vs.-machine story that reads like a more humane version of “The Cold Equations”; and more, and more, and more.
It’s not a perfect book. There are some pieces here that don’t stand among Barrett’s best, though arguably they do help showcase his vast range. “To Plant a Seed,” from 1963, is clever anthropological science fiction, but the character Arilee, a level-nine “Mistress” who travels from outpost to outpost to provide sexual services to (presumably exclusively male) “Planet Wardens,” is dated enough to grate on modern sensibilities. The short play “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” is likewise a disappointment, at least when contrasted with the more masterly takes on post-apocalypse that Barrett gives us elsewhere in the book. I also wish there were story notes by the author, but that may be a personal quirk; I like that kind of ancillary matter to provide context or insight after I’ve read the stories.
But I don’t want to end on a down note; this is an impressive (and big!) book by one of our most prodigious talents. Other Seasons contains multitudes and contradictions, just like the author’s astonishing mind.