In an essay entitled, “Falling Upward, or Walking Backward into the Future,” Ray Bradbury describes how as a twelve-year-old boy he outwits the Chicago Century of Progress to get more than his quarter’s worth:
...when you stepped onto a moving platform that slid you into a 10-million-years-ago Past where pterodactyls kited and Tyrannosaurus rexes shrieked, the world’s first animatronic terrors, enough to fill my day and haunt my prepuberty dreams. My problem was, the damned moving platform circled you swiftly past the nightmares and out in four minutes! But I had no surplus quarters. One ride was it! Panic. Madness. What to do? How to focus the beasts and save the terror? By walking backward. Amid the nightmare kites and bloody carnivores, I simply turned—and walked backward! So that—watch! I stayed in one place! (collected in Bradbury Speaks, pp. 54-55)
The essay ostensibly describes the initial inspiration that led to Bradbury’s singular tunnel vision of the future. It is typical of most “Bradburianisms,” a wondrous evocation of youthful exuberance that, if you really start to think about it, doesn’t quite make sense. On the one hand, true, we all end up in the future by staying in place—no matter what we do, time moves on, we get older. On the other hand is the odd contention that you can best see into the future by tricking yourself to stay in an imaginary past you never truly experienced. How do you go forwards by going backwards?
While perhaps literally oxymoronic, the metaphor does aptly summarize Bradbury’s career. As Thomas Disch observes, “If the golden age of science fiction is twelve, it follows that SF writers will be successful in proportion as they can maintain the clarity and innocence of wise children ... Ray Bradbury [owes his popularity to his] Peter Pannishness” (The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, pg. 5).
If the Bradbury oeuvre is distinguished by its author’s ability to “never grow up,” as the song goes, it is perhaps fitting that, this late in his long career, his most recent novel, Farewell Summer, is a mediation on the bittersweet passages of the polar ends of life, adolescence, and old age. Billed by the publisher as a “highly anticipated sequel to Dandelion Wine,” the book may make fans may a bit nervous; an artist in his twilight years returning to a subject that spurred success as a young man may be a sad attempt to regain lost glory with diminished powers.
Rest assured, this is not the issue here, if only because Bradbury hasn’t written a new novel so much as revised one he started five decades ago. Much of Farewell Summer was composed contemporaneously with the material that become Dandelion Wine (1957). The earlier book is a “fix-up” that collects a series of short stories, for the most part previously published, that take place in Green Town (Bradbury’s re-imagination of his own small hometown of Depression-era Waukegan, Illinois) featuring the exploits of Douglas Spaulding (Ray himself?) and his young band of co-conspirators as they peer behind the curtain of adult behavior and ponder its mysteries. Bradbury had earlier achieved success transforming a series of related stories into a sort of novel story with The Martian Chronicles (1950). Farewell Summer was originally intended as Bradbury’s first cohesive, standalone novel.
Why it didn’t quite turn out that way (Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is considered part of the so-called “Green Town” trilogy with these two other works, though the characters are different, became his first published novel in 1962) depends on who you talk to. In the afterword to Farewell Summer, Bradbury (and you would think he should know), contends that the novel was actually intended to follow what became the Dandelion Wine story arc as a complete book tentatively titled Summer Morning, Summer Night. “When I delivered it to my publishers they said, ‘My God, this is much too long. Why don’t we publish the first 90,000 words as a novel and keep the second part for some future year when it is ready to be published'” (pp. 207-208). While this was during a time when the publishing business had yet to discover the “fat fantasy novel” in which such a word count would hardly be overly off-putting, Bradbury also acknowledges that the Summer Night part of the book that has now finally appeared in print was written “when I was very young and had no knowledge of novels and no hope of creating a novel that was sensible. I had to wait for years for material to accumulate” (p. 208).
In Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce tend to support the latter explanation—a young author’s inexperience in the form—more than the idea that the original manuscript came in too long. Eller and Touponce maintain that Bradbury was initially contracted to write a novel that would serve to break him out of the category of short-story science fiction writer. When Bradbury had trouble delivering the novel, his editor suggested reconstructing some of the already published Green Town related short stories as an introduction to whet public and critical appetite. A letter from Walt Bradbury (no relation) enthuses that, “This is vitally important because ... this was to be not only an interim book before the novel, but a curtain raiser, by its nature to the novel and thus it is a logical planned production in your career—rather than ‘just another Ray Bradbury collection'” (p. 230).
While it may have been the intention to integrate the Green Town tales first as part of, and then later as a set-up to, what would be original novel-length material, Bradbury never completed the project and instead put his energies into creating Something Wicked This Way Comes. I have no way of knowing what Bradbury in his old age has done to “fix” the manuscript of his youth, though it seems to track with the story Eller and Touponce describe. Dandelion Wine takes place in 1928 and describes a dream-like childhood tinged with magical occurrences that lead to an awareness of adult concerns while insisting on retaining its childish illusions. Farewell Summer finds Douglas entering puberty the following year, in 1929, but resisting the idea of growing up. The story takes place not in the waning days of August, but rather in late October, during a particularly long Indian summer. So while the days are warm, nightfall comes soon. The title refers to the flowers that look like autumn rust at this time of year.
Douglas and his chums declare “war” (the novel’s three main chapters take the names of key battles during the American Civil War) against Calvin Quartermain (who made a brief appearance in Dandelion Wine) and the other old men on the school board, overseers of that institution famous for breaking the spirits of young men. At one point, the boys launch an offensive against the town clock under the impression that destroying the mechanism will somehow stop time in its tracks. Of course, even in Bradbury land, this is an impossibility, and the boys must correct their error to allow time to proceed unhindered. Eventually, during a young girl’s birthday party, Quartermain and Douglas become reconciled and, in the penultimate chapter, both confront their fates: the end of virility for one man, the attainment of it for the other. Back in 1950, the way this scene is played may have been slightly risqué; today it might seem a bit silly. It is, however, quintessential Bradbury.
You don’t need to be an English major to figure out the rather obvious symbolism. Based on the original manuscript that Bradbury revised, Eller and Touponce maintain, “It seems unlikely that Farewell Summer can stand on its own as a complete novel ... it does not at this point have the serious linguistic textures of Dandelion Wine (provided by its rich exploration of poetic language in reveries of the material imagination) or much development of its central theme, the war between young and old, which is over far too soon and without much complication.”
Well, maybe. Someone asked me what my initial impression of the novel was when I had just finished it. I shrugged and said, “It’s what you’d expect.” And, it is. But, thinking about it more, my blasé reaction may have more to do with my now being closer to Quartermain’s age than Douglas Spaulding’s. I read Dandelion Wine when I was 15 and was enchanted by an adolescence I wasn’t having, and would very much like to have had. As I’ve gotten older, Bradbury doesn’t hold the magic for me that he used to; that Ray can still get into his own head of fifty years ago, which in turn was looking twenty years backwards then trying not to fall off the moving platform, is perhaps symptomatic of my loss of powers, not his.
David Soyka wrote this review because he read The Martian Chronicles in the fifth grade; after that, everything changed.