I’ve been wracking my brain since last week, digging through the depths of melancholy to try to sum up in some kind of cogent fashion exactly what Ray Bradbury means to me. And i realize today that i can’t.
Because Bradbury is magic. Bradbury did things that no other writer i’m familiar with could do, and that’s a rare freaking gift. With other writers — even the best writers, the writers that mean the most to me and have influenced, challenged, and inspired me — i see patterns and reflections of greatness. I read Harlan Ellison and I read Neil Gaiman (as arbitrary examples), and i think to myself, “These are like minds, whose views of the world complement and even mirror each other’s from time to time.” I’m not saying that one is simply following in the footsteps of the second or that A is the more refined version of B. Just that in the way those two authors’ works resonate in my own mind, i can feel layers of comfortable connections.
Ray Bradbury’s work is bereft of comfortable connections for me. His work stands alone — and at the apex of an era of speculative fiction and fantasy when no single person should have been able to accomplish that feat.
And so i realize that there’s nothing i can say about Ray Bradbury that will do justice to his work. So instead, i’m just going to let his work say it for me.
A lot of Bradbury’s books play around with what might be called “magic”. The dark supernatural uncertainty of Something Wicked This Way Comes; the aching mythology of The Martian Chronicles. And sure, Dandelion Wine does have a touch of elemental enchantment to it, in its hints of witchcraft and the way that the connections between people and the world play out in the young protagonist’s eyes. Even so, it would be a stretch to call it a fantasy novel — but in the end, that doesn’t matter.
Because in the end, Dandelion Wine doesn’t just explore magic. Dandelion Wine is magic. And i know i’m going to spend the rest of my life looking for another book like it, and i’m pretty sure i’m going to fail.
• • •
It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now…
“Boy,” whispered Douglas.
A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.
But now — a familiar task awaited him.
One night each week he was allowed to leave his father, his mother, and his younger brother Tom asleep in their small house next door and run here, up the dark spiral stairs to his grandparents’ cupola, and in this sorcerer’s tower sleep with thunders and visions, to wake before the crystal jingle of milk bottles and perform his ritual magic. He stood at the open window in the dark, took a deep breath and exhaled.
The street lights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and again and the stars began to vanish.
Douglas smiled. He pointed a finger.
There, and there. Now over here, and here…
Yellow squares were cut in the dim morning earth as house lights winked slowly on. A sprinkle of windows came suddenly alight miles off in dawn country.
“Everyone yawn. Everyone up.”
The great house stirred below.
“Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!” He waited a decent interval. “Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!”
The warm scent of fried batter rose in the drafty halls to stir the boarders, the aunts, the uncles, the visiting cousins, in their rooms.
“Street where all the Old People live, wake up! Miss Helen Loomis, Colonel Freeleigh, Miss Bentley! Cough, get up, take pills, move around! Mr. Jonas, hitch up your horse, get your junk wagon out and around!”
The bleak mansions across the town ravine opened baleful dragon eyes. Soon, in the morning avenues below, two old women would glide their electric Green Machine, waving at all the dogs. “Mr. Tridden, run to the carbarn!” Soon, scattering hot blue sparks above it, the town trolley would sail the rivering brick streets.
“Ready John Huff, Charlie Woodman?” whispered Douglas to the Street of Children. “Ready!” to baseballssponged deep in wet lawns, to rope swings hung empty in trees.
“Mom, Dad, Tom, wake up.”
Clock alarms tinkled faintly. The courthouse clock boomed. Birds leaped from trees like a net thrown by his hand, singing. Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky.
The sun began to rise.
He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes, sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season.
He gave the town a last snap of his fingers.
Doors slammed open; people stepped out.
Summer 1928 began.