More short story reviews, because everyone loves short stories and everyone loves reviews.
From Dangerous Visions:
Gonna Roll the Bones by Fritz Leiber: Leiber is best known for his witty sword & sorcery tales, but here he takes on Devil Went Down To Georgia-style yarns, as a broke problem gambler duels a mysterious gentleman dice slinger at a casino that's right out of a Ralph Bakshi film.
I have fond memories of a storytellers' convention that my Mom took me to when I was a kid, and I can imagine this story being offered up in such a setting, although hopefully without the gratuitous racist slurs. One odd choice Leiber makes is to use pairs of descriptive analogies, one conventional, the other science fictional; for example, lights pulse "like sick fireflies or a plague-stricken space fleet." I found it distracting in a story that is rooted in oral fantastical traditions, but has no other science fiction content. Leiber's reasoning, as he explains in the afterword, is that SF is now sufficiently relevant and familiar that it might as well be used as a seasoning in non-SF writing. I suppose slipstream writers can toast Leiber as a pioneer.
Anyway, the payoff of the story suggests that the protagonist's wife is the power behind the devil's throne, because she resents her husband taking off to gamble all the money away when she works hard to earn that money, so she casts a witchy spell to entrap her man. Leiber implies that she's in the wrong for trying to bring such a spendthrift and wayward man to heel. On the evidence of this story I'm going to say that Leiber was a casually misogynistic racist who could spin an enchanting story. One for the Problematic Fave list.
Lord Randy, My Son by Joe L. Hensley: Not sure what it says about either Hensley or editor Harlan Ellison that Ellison tries, in his introduction, to inspire us to love Hensley by regaling us with an anecdote about Hensley getting away with reckless driving because he's chummy with the cops. Anyway, the story concerns a child (or perhaps a Childe) who is mentally handicapped, and since this is a science fiction story, you know what that means; he's got psychic superpowers. Hensley's prose is melodramatic but has a certain interest, simply by virtue of its ungainliness; it sometimes seems like an awkward translation. "Early tests on him had been negative, but physically there had always been a lack of interest..." This pidgin prose gives the story a quaint charm, but the story considers real-world violence and disease, and it knows how desperately the afflicted yearn for healing. The boy, it's suggested, will grow to be an angry healer who might also hurt people out of righteous wrath. Hensley's awareness of power's mixed capacity for good and ill may have been informed by his day job as a lawyer. His storytelling was clunky and cliched, but he had real insight into the way pain and power shapes our world.
From Calling the Wind:
Flying Home by Ralph Ellison: A Tuskegee Airman in training crashes his plane and is badly injured. He's discovered by an old African-American man who tries to comfort him until help arrives, but our protagonist is unwilling to bond with a country person. He's all too aware that black people get lumped together, and in his zeal to distinguish himself (did I mention that he's a Tuskegee Airman?) and earn equal standing in the eyes of a racist society, he dreads being associated with less exalted black people. In his injured state, he has hallucinations about the other man that are almost indistinguishable from racist stereotyping, and these phantasms foul up the old man's efforts to comfort our hero. By the end, though, the airman learns that an embarrassing friend is more to be cherished than the dream of respect from white supremacists who can only resent black excellence.
I've read a much-anthologized excerpt from Ellison's famous novel, Invisible Man, in which kids are paid to stage an absurd brawl for a white mens' club, and it had a similarly vivid quality in its depiction of physical suffering and shadowy racist overlords. I ought to read the whole novel. Ellison is a crisp and visceral storyteller, who ably dissects the most agonizing, infuriating cruelty.
Who's Passing For Who? by Langston Hughes: A clutch of Harlem Renaissance sophisticates goes out on the town but gets cornered by some well-meaning white busybodies. In 4 pages, Hughes packs enough switcheroos and revelations for a novel-length espionage thriller. Beyond that, it addresses the intersectional problems black women face in a racist patriarchy, and the constructed nature of race. Added to which, it's funny.
From Best American Short Stories:
That In Aleppo Once... by Vladimir Nabokov: A newlywed couple flees Nazi territory, but is separated in France. They rediscover one another, but the wife's account of her adventure keeps changing. Several of her stories involve cuckolding her husband, and may be designed to titillate him. It transpires that she is telling other stories to other people; tales of spousal abuse that complicate his attempts to find her when she disappears again. On the other hand, the man is narrating this story, and you can never take a bitter tale about an unreasonable ex at face value; also, the woman intimates that she may, in fact, "live several lives at once." I'd never perceived the connection between Nabokov and similarly shifty literary beguiler M. John Harrison before, but it's so obvious now. Liminal states and shifting timelines feature in both authors' work, along with lush, inventive prose.
Anyway, this story is from the 40s, a decade before Nabokov became famous for another story about an unreliable narrator's road trip with a partner who vanishes, reappears, cuckolds the man, and leaves him in (deserved) agony. I used to fret that Nabokov, despite his protestations and apparently wholesome life, might indeed have harbored erotic interest in little girls, based on how often the theme does appear in his work, but now I wonder if cuckolding was more his thing. Anyway, some marvelous writers leave me thinking that the kind of work they do is achievable to someone such as myself. Nabokov is not one of them. I could no more write at his level than I could lay one of the stars in the sky like an egg.
The Interior Castle by Jean Stafford: A young woman has been badly injured in a car accident, and she secretly luxuriates in the isolation of her bedridden condition. She is stuck in place, but cheerfully free to roam the interior castle of her mind. This bounded freedom is assaulted by the condescending but well-meaning surgeon whose advances into the woman's wounds she perceives as akin to sexual assault, so much so that I'd apply a trigger warning to this story regarding sexual assault, even though no actual rape occurs. It's just a surgeon trying to heal a patient, but patriarchal domination of helpless women's' bodies are very much the subject here.
It's a fitting companion piece to The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic story about a trapped woman finding escape in "hysteria." It is also, in its concern with the life of a woman's mind, a distant relative of Little Selves by Mary Lerner, which I wrote about here.
From The Outlaw Bible of American Literature:
Interview With Tupac Shakur by Larry Hester: To my shame, I've heard very little of Shakur's work, but after a coworker at the box factory told me, for the fortieth time, that he wasn't mad at me, I finally listened to Shakur's I Ain't Mad At Cha. It's an extraordinary grappling with wounded love. The thoughtfulness, spikiness, and social engagement in that song comes through in this interview, too, which show a man trying to do good work in the community without relying overmuch on religious faith. Shakur's respectful quarreling with the Five Percent Nation introduced me to that remarkable movement and its influence on hip-hop culture, not least through its nomenclature. The next time I break it down or drop some science, I'll know whom I'm appropriating.
Tarantula by Bob Dylan: Dylan spins anecdotes that seem like daffy improvisations; absurdist riffs on outlandish friends and worrying correspondences between his art and random tragedies. Dylan didn't need that Nobel for poetry the way so many gifted but unsung current poets do, but he is a wordweaver indeed, and as nimble on the page as on wax.
Miles by Miles Davis: This begins with a filthy and hilarious story about just how much trashy behavior you can get away with when you're Charlie Parker, and closes by demonstrating just how pervasive and damaging white supremacism is, even amongst the kind of people who ought to know better.
The Doggfather by Snoop Dogg: Snoop explains, on the basis of his drug-dealing days, that getting high, or wanting to, is a human universal, so wars on drugs aren't winnable.
On that topic: when I lived in Alabama, every election (owing to a quirk of the state's constitution) we'd have to vote on whether a few counties I'd never been to would remain dry or not. I always abstained from voting on these, since I figured it was none of my business how those counties comported themselves. I changed my mind after reading about the meth problem in some Alabama counties. I compared two maps: one of dry counties, and one of meth-afflicted counties.
You guessed it. A near-complete match. So from then on I voted in favor of changing dry counties to wet, the better to lift them out of bondage to meth.
James Brown, the Godfather of Soul by James Brown: Brown explains how several of his songs were born out of social concerns, and how his prudent politics came into conflict with militant voices. He notes the irony that most of the kids singing on "I'm Black and I'm Proud" weren't black, but while H. Rapp Brown (one of James Brown's militant critics) might see that as proof of selling out, James Brown sees it as an amusing artifact of the haste with which performers must sometimes be recruited.
Once, in the 90s or so, I was hanging around at a music festival after a James Brown concert. I happened to pass an African-American man in his 60s or so, sitting with his family on a bench and looking blessed. He looked me dead in the eye, and announced: "I feel good."
Viva prudent, principled, moderation, fused with thrilling show business.