THE ESSENTIAL BRADBURY

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When the first edition of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews was published in June of 2010, I embarked upon an overly-ambitious project. I began a series on my blog titled “The Essential Bradbury,” where I intended on listing the 25 must-read Ray Bradbury short stories for any would-be Martian-neophytes. I listed out each story, its history, themes, and what made the tale top-shelf Bradbury. Over the next few years, I made it all the way to 18 stories! But, then, the old web site came down as Listen to the Echoes was published in a handsome new edition by a new publisher and, alas, I never completed the 25 “Essential Bradbury” stories.

So here I go again! Fans have been writing me, asking if I would re-post the old story suggestions and, at long last, finish the project. And so it begins. I figure I only have seven more stories to write about! I have reordered many of my choices. I will be counting down from 25 to number 1 over the next few weeks.

People often ask, "where should I begin when it comes to reading Bradbury?"

The long answer? In 2010, Everyman's Library republished The Stories of Ray Bradbury containing a staggering 100 of Bradbury's best short stories. Along with this, there is the equally voluminous Bradbury Stories, published in 2003, containing yet another 100 more short fictional gems. (Bradbury dedicated this last book, in part to me, an incredible, stirring gift.) Certainly, you cannot go wrong by reading either of these spectacular volumes. Bradbury is a master of the short story.  It is, in my estimation, his strongest creative form. His wife of 56 years, Marguerite, agreed with me. Yet reading 200 stories is, for many, an unrealistic goal.

So the short answer of where to begin with Bradbury is this list, right here. I will offer up a streamlined list of 25 of my own personal favorite short fictions by the master of miracles. These stories will embody all the trademarks of vintage Bradbury: the lyrical language; the fantastic, original, and memorable ideas; the rich metaphor; and endings that sometimes surprise, sometimes sadden, always instruct and entertain. This list will be entirely subjective. These are my favorites. They will reflect a wide range, from weird tales to social science fiction to quiet and contemplative tales of contemporary literature. These tales are pure and classic Bradbury—our modern mythologist.

#25 “THE FIRST NIGHT OF LENT”

Where to Find It: A Medicine for Melancholy, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published: Playboy, March, 1956

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Plot Synopsis: A young screenwriter at work in Ireland in 1953 discovers that his ever-reliable regular taxicab driver has become dangerous and impaired when behind the wheel. Nick, the village driver, escorts the young writer from Dublin to the Irish countryside and the estate of the young screenwriter’s director. Nick then waits at the local pub until the writer is ready to be driven back to the city. There is never a problem, until the first night of Lent. . . .

Critique: Any “essential” list of Bradbury short stories must include an Irish tale (as well as a Mexico story, a Mars story, and a Green Town story, for that matter). The problem is, of course, which Irish story? I choose this one for two simple reasons. First, Bradbury takes the lyrical quality of his voice and drenches it in a poetic and authentic Irish brogue.

Nick, now. See his easy hands loving the wheel in a slow clocklike turning as soft and silent as winter constellations snow down the sky. Listen to his mist-breathing voice all night-quiet as he charms the road, his foot a tenderly benevolent pat on the whispering accelerator, never a mile under thirty, never two miles over. Nick, Nick and his steady boat gentling a mild sweet lake where all Time slumbers. Look, compare. And bind such a man to you with summer grasses, gift him with silver, shake his hand warmly at each journey’s end

“Good night, Nick,” I said at the hotel. “See you tomorrow.”

“God willing,” whispered Nick

And he drove softly away.

The second reason I have selected this story for “The Essential Bradbury” list is that this is the first Irish story Bradbury wrote. It is his first creation, fresh-removed and newly-minted from his own actual experiences of living in Dublin in the autumn of 1953 and the winter of 1954, writing the screenplay for Moby Dick for film director John Huston. From a biographical standpoint, it is fascinating to read a work of short fiction that is, ostensibly, memoir. And with “The First Night of Lent,” Bradbury had discovered a trove of material that would continue to yield rich story, culminating in the publication of the 1992 semi-autobiographical novel, Green Shadow, White Whale, a minor-class

The Beginning of the Irish Stories: As Ray recalled, one night after he had returned from Ireland, he was in bed and a voice spoke to him

“Ray, darling!”

Ray responded, “Who is it?”

And the voice said, “It’s Nick, the cab driver who drove you back and forth from Dublin to Kilcock 80 or 90 times. Do you remember that, Ray? Do you?”

And Ray said, “Yes?”

And the voice said, “Would you mind puttin’ it down?”

So Ray Bradbury started writing his Irish stories, beginning with “The First Night of Lent.”

Historical Aside: A fascinating New York Times article on John Huston’s Georgian Irish Manor, ran June 12, 2012. Check it out here.

This is the very house where, in 1953, Nick the cab driver picked Bradbury up late at night, to drive him back to Dublin. This is the very house where Ray say with John Huston, late into the Irish night, as Huston went over Ray’s adaptation of Moby Dick.

#24 “THE SOUND OF SUMMER RUNNING”

Where to Find It: Dandelion Wine, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

The illustration by Amos Sewell that accompanied the original publication of “Summer in the Air,” in the February 1956 issue of  Saturday Evening Post .

The illustration by Amos Sewell that accompanied the original publication of “Summer in the Air,” in the February 1956 issue of Saturday Evening Post.

First Published as: “Summer in the Air,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 18, 1956

Plot Synopsis: At the beginning of summer, 1928, Douglas Spaulding sees a pair of brand new tennis shoes in a storefront window. His shoes are worn out, his feet feel heavy, and he is convinced that this resplendent pair of Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes will change his summer forever.

Backstory: Ray Bradbury on the origins of the story from Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews:

“I was on a bus going into Westwood a few years ago, and a young boy jumped on the bus, threw his money in the box, raced down the aisle, and threw himself into a seat across from me.  And I looked at him, and I said, ‘My god, if I had his energy, I could write a poem every day, a story every week, a novel every month.  What’s his secret?’  I looked down at his feet.  He had the brightest pair of new fresh tennis shoes on his feet.  And I said, oh, my god, I can remember when I was a kid, my father taking me downtown and buying me my first pair of new summer tennis shoes.  I went home, and I wrote the short story.”

Critique: This story is a shining example of Bradbury’s range as a literary writer. The man did not need an otherworldly landscape or elements of the fantastic to meditate on the human experience. Bradbury found magic in the every day, in this case, in a new pair of tennis shoes and the perspective of youth. The best Bradbury, in my opinion, is rooted in unforgettable story with a philosophical question at its center, all told in his singular, poetic style.

The Prose: Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer.