83 years ago today the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe died in a Baltimore Hospital, so that means today is Howard Waldrop’s 75th birthday. (Wild Cards! fans will know 15th September 1946 for Jetboy’s doomed attempt to defeat Dr. Tachyon in ‘Thirty Minutes Over Broadway’. It was a Sunday not a Tuesday.)
Howard Waldrop is usually described as a writer whose work (almost entirely shorter fiction) is indefinable. I disagree. John Clute uses the term desiderium to describe Waldrop’s Science Fiction. I disagree, in part. It is said, including by Waldrop himself, that he never writes the same story twice. This I almost agree with.
The stories of Howard Waldrop are predominantly characterised by their use of historical figures, settings and events; and by literary and mass media figures, settings and events; and the combination of the two. They become a curious riff on the alternate history as most often attempted. It is in this respect that Clute proposes that:
Waldrop’s “nostalgia” for the icons and lifestyles of the 1940s or 1950s is not nostalgia at all. A better word to describe this complex emotion, one which deeply characterises his work, is desiderium — a term which may be defined as a state of intense longing for something that never literally existed, but should have. (Pardon This Intrusion, 2011, p220)
This works until we look at exactly who those figures Waldrop adopts are. With very few exceptions they are writers, actors, musicians, performers of every kind. Those who aren’t, are filtered through the lens of old movies and TV series. People who adopt a persona or have it imposed upon them.
In his first notable solo publication, ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ (1976) silent movie era cowboy actors William S Hart and Bronco Billy Anderson fight nosferatu in 1920s Bremen. The vampire is ultimately defeated using a an armband ripped from a German corporal. “On its red cloth was a white circle with a twisted black cross.” The Germans adorn the dead vampire with a Star of David like the one Hart wore ‘when he played Ben-Hur on Broadway.’ The alternate timelines of a Waldrop story are not usually better worlds, despite the title of his collected stories Other Worlds, Better Lives, but different and individual.
ISFDB tells me Waldrop has published around 80 stories to date, but if you haven’t yet had the thrill of a Howard Waldrop story where do you begin? There’s an obvious choice, one I have thrust on many a friend in the past, but I’ll come to that shortly. Here are
ten a dozen (it was a tough job choosing) of my personal favourites, in chronological order of publication.
1. Mary Margaret Road Grader. (1976) A feminist love story of sorts set in a post-automotive future where Native American-esque groups celebrate and compete in tractor pull events. There is a nostalgic final line, but the story is about the little things we do, and the strength of our myths. ‘Changes in history come easy, you know?’ feels like the most significant line in Waldrop’s early oeuvre.
2. The Ugly Chickens (1980) The obvious one. The dodo story. If you know Waldrop you know this one. A researcher uncovers evidence that dodos survived until Depression-era Mississippi. Obviously it’s nostalgic, who wouldn’t want to believe the dodo wasn’t extinct, but that’s not what the story is about. As with so many other Waldrop stories here he writes with compassion about the little people that big History forgets.
3. Ike At the Mike (1982) Possibly the archetype for people who try to write a fun Waldrop-like story. (Trust me I’ve done that.) Jazz legends Eisenhower and Patton, Senator Presley, Ambassador Pratt… Waldrop sometimes looks like he’s taken a lucky dip approach to history, but the details tell otherwise. The details are about how we got here. The details reveal multiple jonbar points, global and personal, and close reading shows that they’re not what we might wish for.
4. Flying Saucer Rock’n’Roll (1985) When Rock critic Charles Shaar Murray once said that if he edited a rock’n’roll anthology half of it would be by Howard Waldrop he probably had this story foremost in mind. A doo wop singing competition over territorial rights in 1965 New York, tied in with the UFO craze of the time, and, no spoilers, a major historical event.
5. Heirs Of the Perisphere (1985) Almost all Waldrop stories are set in a version of the past, ‘Mary Margaret Road Grader’ being the notable exception. This one is set 1500 plus years from now but is about the 1939 World’s Fair, Disney world and the permanence of cultural icons beyond the apocalypse. And about friendship.
6. French Scenes. (1985) Arguably this story, like ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ earlier, takes place within a movie. Waldrop loves movies for what they tell us about what we are. This is small town Texan nouvelle vague.
7. Night of the Cooters. (1987) Two things, Bill Hicks observed how UFO sightings always happened to “small groups of rednecks in Southern towns” and I always wondered why major SF events only happened in one place. Howard Waldrop’s Martians didn’t just land on Horsell Common but some landed in rural Texas.
8. A Dozen Tough Jobs (1988) Oh Brother, where is the movie of this novella? The Labours of Hercules transposed to 1930s Mississippi. Houlka Lee is a convict sentenced to work for Boss Eustis for a year. Told by fellow servant I.O.Lace the Labours are secondary, barely on the page in some cases, because the subject is how people treated each other in the Depression and why things happened. See also ‘The Ugly Chickens’
9. Fin de Cyclé (1989). J.G.Ballard wrote ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ in the 60s. Waldrop writes about the Dreyfuss Affair as a velocipede race. And again it is about the impact on the individual rather than the global.
10. You Could Go Home Again (1993) This is why Thomas Wolfe’s death in 1938 was my opening line. It’s the story that Clute cites as example of desiderium and the one I consider exemplar of Waldrop’s Romanticism. There is much to say about this story of Wolfe recuperating from the surgery he died during in our timeline. He is travelling by airship home from the 1940 Tokyo Olympics when he meets two British military men, Ross and Norway, and is entertained by pianist Fats Waller. Aside from being packed with typical Waldrop obscure references and touchstones, this story shows me what all those other actors and characters are doing in his work. Yes, there’s a poignancy about Wolfe not remaining his former personality which could be desiderium but more importantly I think, there’s a demonstration in the choice of the five characters of how imagination works, how the individual works, of almost Coleridgean thingifying. It’s a masterpiece.
11. The Sawing Boys (1994) Fairytale retellings became popular in the 90s. Waldrop used The Musicians of Brementon to pastiche Damon Runyon in a tale about the non-linear spread of mass communications. Or so he says.
13. Heart of Whitenesse. (1997) The road trip (or airship) is another Waldrop device for scenery settings. On this occasion an ice ship up the frozen Thames with Christopher Marlowe channeling Philip Marlow and as the title implies, Conrad’s Marlow too. Such are the layers and recycling of history that fascinate and inspire Waldrop. Not what could have been but why it was how it was.
14. US (1998) Three views of the same event. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr in 1932 where the baby lives and grows up. Three views therefore of the US in the 40s, 50s and 60s. None of which are nostalgic.
So that’s Waldrop. Writing not simply about what could have been, not with a longing, but about why it didn’t happen with compassion and tenderness. As the author himself said his reason for writing ‘The Effects Of Alienation’ was ‘to find out what effect Hitler winning World War II would have had on Peter Lorre.’ Not how the world would have changed. Using the mythologies of public figures to decode the mythology of our times without regret, without the wishful thinking of nostalgia. Instead tying the threads of history together.
In his most recent published story ‘Till the Cows Come Home to Roost’ (2018) Waldrop links the frontier feuds of the Lincoln County War with 50s Hollywood and a famous literary feud of the 70s. Threads that pull together to show how and why, not simply could have been. This is the thread that makes Waldrop definable. An alternate approach to history.