Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Aging Like A Fine Dandelion Wine

Old Man Winter’s been seriously crotchety in this neck of the woods lately, so it’s somewhat fitting that I’ve finished reading Ray Bradbury’s newest novel: “Farewell Summer”. I mentioned the book in passing a couple of postings ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. (good luck on that!)
The story is set in Bradbury’s fictional Green Town, Illinois, a construct that seems to go beyond mirroring the author’s childhood home of Waukeegan, painted so lovingly, as such an ideal of small town America that it is an offering on the alter of that belief by some ancient Greek philosophers that everything in this world is a mere shadow of its perfect form existing on some other plane of existence. And this isn’t our first trip to Green Town. Many label the book as the sequel to 1957’s “Dandelion Wine”, but Bradbury tells us “Farewell Summer” is more than that, it’s really an extension of “Dandelion Wine” that was amputated by editors due to length and needed decades to mature into its own complementary being. Some critics have gone to lengths to contrast the tones and characterizations in the two novels, but I feel that to be fair, given the long decades that this siamese twin half of the tale has been growing on its own, it must be evaluated on its own, as part the larger family of Bradbury’s Green Town work. For this isn’t the second time we’ve been to this little community. Whether or not the name is used explicitly, we can tell just by its description that the town has been a character in a number of other Bradburian yarns where child-gods romp in endless summers and just around the corner it pulls on a cloak of red and brown leaves and tattered carnival posters to become an October Country full of magic and ghosts lurking around quiet corners trying to live their un-lives as best they can. Here, bracketing the town, there is the ravine, full of mystery and adventure. At its far end, nursing its solitude but keeping close enough to town to lure the bold is the haunted house, home to old Moundshroud in “The Halloween Tree” and other members of The Family in “From the Dust Returned”. With each new short story or novel, Green Town has grown more real. In “Farewell Summer” it reaches an aching apex of solid nostalgia for a way of life that is becoming more and more like the spirits up the hill in the haunted house – existing but in such a tenuous way as to disappear into dust with the slightest whiff of the winds of modern life.
As the novel itself matured in Bradbury’s mind, on his pages, in his files over the decades, “Farewell Summer” is itself about maturity. It is about the journey of Doug Spaulding, who leaves childhood pretty much against his will and takes his first faltering steps toward manhood. Doug begins the tale as one of a pack of boys playing in their Neverland of a summer that’s stretched into October. Girls are hardly a blip on their radar as they charge about, blasting their cap guns. The structured learning environment of school is barely a factor either, mentioned only in passing. Doug is almost pre-literate: getting his knowledge from the words of his grandfather, who is nearly a god with his stock of lore and omniscience when it comes to the goings-on of the boys and the town. In fact, while the books of grandfather’s library are mentioned frequently, and Doug is often called upon to look up an assortment of facts in them, it is always grandfather who passes along knowledge and wisdom verbally. Grandfather knows what is and isn’t, what is and what should be.
Doug begins a war against the town’s old men in the opening pages of the novel by firing his capgun at one of the codgers and causing him to die of a heart attack. Even though the boy assumes the rank of General and leads his chums against the enemy throughout most of the novel, this status as leader is not the catalyst that starts Doug toward maturity. The boys’ raids of theft and vandalism against the elderly are based on childish theories that they can stop time, remain as they are forever and incapacitate their enemies. They entertain wild theories about their opponents, even going so far as to insist that the old fellows on the school board are in fact evil aliens. Where Doug makes his real moves toward maturity are his actions after these attacks, where he has to return the chessmen and repair the clock, and through this begin to give up childish self-centredness and begin to understand older people – to understand other people in general and why things are as they are. He begins to gain empathy and perspective.
Then there’s the climax event that seals the deal for Doug: his first kiss. As he advances on the haunted house, Doug is preoccupied with childhood terrors of what ghastly entities might lie within, and with the classic boyish concerns of “I dare ya” brinksmanship, wondering if the girls are as good as their word and if they’ve shown up too. But young Lisabell drags him into manhood (or at least the wannabe manhood of teenagerdom) by taking the initiative and planting a kiss on him. From that point on, there are no questions of whether he just heard a scream within the haunted house. No, instead it’s as though he has climaxed, after a fashion, sinking dazed to his knees. A brief taste of more important mysteries.
This experience is augmented by his revelation in the tent full of glass jars displaying human fetuses at different stages of development. Doug is propelled forward when he looks into the eyes of the stillborn baby suspended in formaldehyde and begins to get an inkling of understanding that to stay young forever is to be trapped and somehow freakish. He begins to learn one must constantly change and grow to be alive.
And in the end, part of this maturity is the ability to come to terms with his archrival, old Calvin C. Quartermain, leader of the old boys club, sit down for a drink and a quiet talk about life.
Maturity is a central theme in the actions of Quartermain too. True he has lived a long life and has worked hard to succeed in his financial endeavours, but old Calvin is trapped in the same timelessness as Doug in the beginning. To him, the greatest importance is always in looking back at the past. Quartermain makes frequent reference to the American Civil War (and does not understand that war’s implications on his own conflict with the boys for the seeming control of the town). To Quartermain, what is and what will be, what is young and energetic instead of old and steady must be crushed, or at least tightly controlled. He relishes his power as a member of the schoolboard, the ability to shorten holidays as a countermeasure to the long summer. He flies into a rage when his friend Braling dies in the wake of Doug’s capgun assassination and when he himself is knocked over by the boy’s bike, or machine as he calls it. The ensuing battle that takes place over the course of the novel illustrates that Quartermain too is very much a boy. He doesn’t take the adult road and try to understand the boys for what they are and deal with the situation maturely. No, he wants to meet them head-on. He shows that he has not matured at all over the course of his long life when he ignores his friend Bleak’s initial advice to pursue a course of moderation.
Like Doug, Quartermain requires the constant voice of a more mature person to start to bring him around. Bleak’s ability to state the wise course of action as obvious makes him the same kind of god-figure for Calvin that grandfather is for Doug – minus the reverence (until the end when Quartermain is shocked to realize how much Bleak understands that he doesn’t).
The old man also needs a series of actions, both his own and those of others to help him grow up. He intends the birthday party for Lisabell to be a trick to make the boys uncomfortable, but it turns into a platform for learning for himself when Doug demonstrates generosity and maturity by serving Quartermain cake. He is confronted with a boy who is thinking about the needs of someone other than himself. He is confronted with a boy who is willing to make a nice gesture to the enemy. Quartermain then has to figure out what that says about himself and his own actions and how he ought to respond. In hosting the party though, Quartermain is doing something nice for Doug (even if neither realizes it at the time), by pushing the boy into the orbit of a girl, a move that will create the opportunity for Doug to slingshot towards adulthood. And is there something weirdly intimate going on here on a metaphorical level between Quartermain and Doug too? The girl gives the boy an electrifying first kiss (later), changing his life; the boy gives the old man a piece of cake (which he could have kept for himself) shocking Quartermain with the generosity and creating an opportunity for each to see inside the other. Each act involves a gift of something that changes the other person. I’m not saying that there’s an implied May-December romance between Quartermain and Doug, that would be reading too much into it, rather that the parallels of the two incidents seem to be say that there needs to be some sort of personal gesture from another person to kickstart one’s development as a mature human being.
And by setting up the tent full of fetuses, Quartermain again creates a learning environment for Doug and himself begins to understand he may need to change. This later becomes (through yet another conversation with Bleak) an acceptance of the fact that death is a part of life and must be accepted as a part of one’s personal growth in order to have some degree of inner peace.
For Quartermain, his maturity is finally cemented when he gives consideration to Bleak’s suggestion to reach out to family instead of merely dismissing the subject, but most importantly by offering Doug a glass of lemonade on the porch – sharing a drink, the symbolic breaking of bread that binds the two and unites their experiences - uniting the old with the young and taking on the role of grandfather himself by talking about life and passing along what wisdom he has gained from it.
We also see the maturation of the characters reflected in their setting: as the old and young reconcile, the overly long summer (lasting well in October, we’re told) finally begins to give way to a quick autumn and the promise of winter, traditionally a time of reflection when action is necessarily subdued. And the town itself leaves its childhood behind: as Doug waits at the haunted house for Lisabell, he sees, just for a minute, filmy white figures fleeing out the front door – the ghosts have gone. The rite-of-passage of the first kiss has forced the terrifying mysteries of the dark parts of the physical world to yield to the new perils of the adult heart. In some ways, the ghosts, clinging to this world, yet forced to leave by a new power greater than themselves (growth), are like Quartermain’s friend Braling, afraid of death yet kicked into it by the sudden noise from unbridled life. And aside from their status as metaphors for a static life, just as ghosts in and of themselves, though only the briefest of moments is spent on this evacuation of these undead refugees, there’s something poignant about it – there are sacrifices with the loss of childhood, Doug will never see them again, and the ghosts themselves, being in a world that no longer needs them, are without a home and purpose.
In the end (literally), the only thing about “Farewell Summer” that I’m not entirely comfortable with is the passing-of-the-torch of manhood and life from Quartermain to Doug through their penis conversations. I understand what Bradbury’s trying to illustrate: that Quartermain’s loss of his nightly erection is the loss of the last bit of his vitality; that his best years are gone; that he too will shrivel into final impotence and nothingness and that for Doug this is his new ascension into power. None-the-less, it’s a little weird having an old man talk to his penis (I’m reminded of a line from the movie “Innerspace” where Martin Short’s character is having a conversation with the bionaught Dennis Quaid inside him while standing at a urinal. Another man [Rip Torn, I think], obviously not hearing Quaid, looks over in disgust and says: “Play with it, pal, but don’t talk to it!”). Moreso when a boy then strikes up a chat of his own seconds later. A critic could argue the passing of the erection from one to the other has some disturbing metaphorical intimacy implications. In fact, this possibility seems to be hinted at in Sci Fi Weekly’s review of the novel. On the other hand, some would say that’s reading too much into the scene. I tend to agree that it’s an unsettling image, but I don’t think it was Bradbury’s intent to create something creepy. Rather, I suspect that, as stated above, the scene is merely supposed to illustrate that the loss of vitality in extreme old age heralds the approach of death and it is up to the individual to come to terms with that, while the transition to adulthood entails the discovery of sex, vitality, and the new worlds they accompany and create.
Ultimately though, this new vintage, “Farewell Summer”, a counterpart/part of “Dandelion Wine”, is a loving exploration of life, of the need to mature in many ways in order to fully live, set amid a bygone world. Bradbury shows he is still full of vitality in the poetic spirits he conjures.
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