Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

For many years, it was standard practice every summer at the home of Your Correspondent to read Dandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).  Somehow, we had fallen out of the habit for the last decade or so, and it was with some trepidation that we recently revisited the book.  Will it hold up?

Dandelion Wine is the story of two brothers growing up in Green Town, Illinois.  The older boy, Douglas Spaulding, is 12, his brother Tom, 10.  The year is 1928, and the narrative is not a single story so much as a series of vignettes that illustrate the summer. 

In the course of the book, Doug and Tom solve no crimes, have no adventures, see little action in the traditional sense.  But it is a formative summer, nonetheless.  First, Doug realizes that he’s alive.  This is a stupendous realization, bringing color and a sense of wonder to all things.  But, he also realizes that some day he will die, which lead to revelations of another sort.

The boys also befriend Col. Freeleigh, a near centenarian who remembers the Civil War, Pawnee Bill and the buffalo, and the mysterious death of magician Chung Ling Soo.  (Look it up.)  They meet an old lady who may never have been young, a neighbor who vows to build a “happiness machine,” and Doug’s best friend moves across the country, out of his life forever.  Grandparents die, new tennis shoes are bought, and feuding neighbors resort to mail-order magic to settle differences.

One reads through Dandelion Wine, thinking that none of it flows in any coherent sense, and then, boom, summer is over and we see that the events of the book fit together in a panoramic mosaic.  It is a startling literary achievement.

So, visiting it again after so many years, I have to confess that I come away more impressed by Bradbury’s work than ever before.  This is a beautiful, lyrical novel, and Bradbury may have been the 20th Century’s finest prose poet.  It is a book to be read aloud, each word savored and tasted.

Bradbury, of course, built his reputation on his stories of science fiction and fantasy.  He was already a household name when Dandelion Wine debuted, but it was a radical change for the author in that it is not a work of the fantastic.  There are no spaceships, illustrated men, monsters, dinosaurs, Martians or ghosts in Dandelion Wine.  Despite the lack of such flummery, the book is suffused with magic; parts of it read like an outright incantation, as if every word brings the reader closer to the experience of being young.  If you want to know what Bradbury the man was like, read Dandelion Wine.

The book met with glowing reviews from the mainstream press, but the harshest critics of the tale came from the science fiction community, who perhaps felt that Bradbury, in writing a “straight” novel, was abandoning the genre.  This is ridiculous, of course, as Bradbury only wrote science fiction and fantasy in the broadest sense of the terms.  In reality Bradbury was a magical realist – he sees magic everywhere, and thinks the simply act of living a miraculous thing.  If science fiction and fantasy were the tools to best help him achieve his type of lyric prose poetry, fine, but he never really cared about the general conventions of genre fiction.  (Bradbury also had a profound – and wise – dislike of machines and technology, thinking that human connections and interactions are more important.  This is heresy to the science fiction community.)  It is this genius for being himself that enabled Bradbury to escape the ghetto of genre fiction, and assume the deserved mantle of serious writer.

One more observation.  I remembered a book that was beautiful and touched with sadness.  Now, after rereading it again a decade later, I see a book that is sad and touched with beauty.  It is not the sadness of personal tragedy or the particular hardships in life.  Rather, it is the sadness that only comes with the realization of loss.  The great theme of Dandelion Wine is change: it seems we start out in Arcadia, and every summer, every change of our lives, takes us further away from this golden ideal.  To Bradbury’s mind, it’s all downhill from 12 on, and, who knows, he may be right. 

Below is a brief excerpt from Dandelion Wine, one of my favorite passages.  Here, Doug, Tom and some of the neighborhood kids are corralled by Mr. Tridden, the trolley man, who tells them that the trolley is closing down…

At noon the motorman stopped his car in the middle of the block and leaned out.  “Hey!”

And Douglas and Charlie and Tom and all the boys and girls on the block saw the gray glove waving, and dropped: from trees and left skip ropes in white snakes on lawns, to run and sit in the green plush seats, and there was no charge. Mr. Tridden, the conductor, kept his glove over the mouth of the money box as he moved the trolley on down the shady block, calling.

“Hey!” said Charlie. “Where are we going?”

“Last ride,” said Mr. Tridden, eyes on the high electric wire ahead. “No more trolley.  Bus starts to run tomorrow. Going to retire me with a pension, they are. So-a free ride for everyone! Watch out!”

He ricocheted the brass handle, the trolley groaned and swung round an endless green curve, and all the time in the world held still, as if only the children and Mr. Tridden and his miraculous machine were riding an endless river, away.

“Last day?” asked Douglas, stunned. “They can’t do that! It’s bad enough the Green Machine is gone, locked up in the garage, and no arguments. And bad enough my new tennis shoes are getting old and slowing down! How’ll I get around? But … But They can’t take off the trolley! Why,” said Douglas, “no matter how you look at it, a bus ain’t a trolley. Don’t make the same kind of noise. Don’t have tracks or wires, don’t throw sparks, don’t pour sand on the tracks, don’t have the same colors, don’t have a bell, don’t let down a step like a trolley does!”

“Hey, that’s right,” said Charlie. “I always get a kick watching a trolley let down the step, like an accordion.”

“Sure,” said Douglas.

And then they were at the end of the line, the silver tracks, abandoned for eighteen years, ran on into rolling country. In 1910 people took the trolley out to Chessman’s Park with vast picnic hampers. The track, never ripped up, still lay rusting among the hills.

“Here’s where we turn around,” said Charlie.

“Here’s where you’re wrong!” Mr. Tridden snapped the emergency generator switch.  “Now!”

The trolley, with a bump and a sailing glide, swept past the city limits, turned off the street, and swooped downhill through intervals of odorous sunlight and vast acreages of shadow that smelled of toadstools. Here and there creek waters flushed the tracks and sun filtered through trees like green glass. They slid whispering on meadows washed with wild sunflowers past abandoned way stations empty of all save transfer-punched confetti, to follow a forest stream into a summer country, while Douglas talked.

“Why, just the smell of a trolley, that’s different. I been on Chicago buses; they smell funny.”

“Trolleys are too slow,” said Mr. Tridden. “Going to put busses on. Busses for people and busses for school.”

The trolley whined to a stop. From overhead Mr. Tridden reached down huge picnic hampers. Yelling, the children helped him carry the baskets out by a creek that emptied into a silent lake where an ancient bandstand stood crumbling into termite dust.

They sat eating ham sandwiches and fresh strawberries and waxy oranges and Mr. Tridden told them how it had been twenty years ago, the band playing on that ornate stand at night, the men pumping air into their brass horns, the plump conductor flinging perspiration from his baton, the children and fireflies running in the deep grass, the ladies with long dresses and high pompadours treading the wooden xylophone walks with men in choking collars. There was the walk now, all softened into a fiber mush by the years. The lake was silent and blue and serene, and fish peacefully threaded the bright reeds, and the motorman murmured on and on, and the children felt it was some other year, with Mr. Tridden looking wonderfully young, his eyes lighted like small bulbs, blue and electric. It was a drifting, easy day, nobody rushing and the forest all about, the sun held in one position, as Mr. Tridden’s voice rose and fell, and a darning needle sewed along the air, stitching, restitching designs both golden and invisible. A bee settled into a flower, humming and humming. The trolley stood like an enchanted calliope, simmering where the sun fell on it. The trolley was on their hands, a brass smell, as they ate ripe cherries. The bright odor of the trolley blew from their clothes on the summer wind.

A loon flew over the sky, crying.

Somebody shivered.

Mr. Tridden worked on his gloves. “Well, time to go. Parents’ll think I stole you all for good.”

The trolley was silent and cool dark, like the inside of an ice-cream drugstore. With a soft green rustling of velvet buff, the seats were turned by the quiet children so they sat with their backs to the silent lake, the deserted bandstand and the wooden planks that made a kind of music if you walked down the shore on them into other lands.

Bing! went the soft bell under Mr. Tridden’s foot and they soared back over sun abandoned, withered flower meadows, through woods, toward a town that seemed to crush the sides of the trolley with bricks and asphalt and wood when Mr. Tridden stopped to let the children out in shady streets.

Charlie and Douglas were the last to stand near the opened tongue of the trolley, the folding step, breathing electricity, watching Mr. Tridden’s gloves on the brass controls. 

Douglas ran his fingers on the green creek moss, looked at the silver, the brass, the wine color of the ceiling.

“Well . . . so long again, Mr. Tridden.”

“Good-by, boys.”

“See you around, Mr. Tridden.”

“See you around.”

There was a soft sigh of air; the door collapsed shut, tucking up its corrugated tongue. The trolley sailed slowly down the late afternoon, brighter than the sun, tangerine, all flashing gold and lemon, turned a far corner wheeling, and vanished, gone away. 

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