Holy cats! Some kind soul willing to suck up the dizzying losses caused by printing an obscure writer’s obscure books has taken it upon him- or herself to bring R. A. Lafferty back into print. If you haven’t heard of Lafferty, do yourself a favor: read one of the paeans (1 | 2) to him out on the web or read the pure product itself, as represented by his story "Nine Hundred Grandmothers". If you didn’t find those at all interesting, thanks for trying them solely on my say-so, and please check back on Sunday for my next thrilling installment. R. A. Lafferty was one of the halfbaked geniuses that science fiction, more than any other literary genre, seems to throw out now and again (Philip K. Dick or Olaf Stapledon would represent the far end of the bell curve on this one; Lafferty, like fellow literary mutant Jack Vance, seems to be beating down his more atavistic urges in favor of making his stories enjoyable reads). I’ve never met the man (who retired in 1987, although he is apparently still alive as of this writing and living in a rest home in Oklahoma), and I’ve never read anything he wrote about the art of writing, but most of his stories seem to be attempts at replicating the dizzy dream-logic of tall tales, in which it’s perfectly sensible to strap on giant pats of butter and go skating on Paul Bunyan’s giant griddles. (Some of Tex Avery‘s best cartoons seem to be operating in a similar vein.) His work at his peak in the ‘60s and ‘70s was miles and miles away from what anyone else in the field was attempting; Gardner Dozois wrote that his novel Past Master and Joanna Russ’ Picnic on Paradise were, when he read them on a trans-Atlantic flight in the late ‘60s, "unlike anything I had read before."
Lafferty had an eye for cracked grandiosity comprable to that of John Kennedy Toole and an ear for disjointed comic dialogue that I’ve never seen matched by anyone:
There was no need to ask which one he was, though there were always strangers and traveling men and seamen unknown to John in the Barn. The Odd One stood out. He was a big, spare, rough fellow, and he said that his name was McSkee. He was eating and drinking with a chortling pleasure, and they all watched him in amazement.
"It’s his fourth plate of spaghetti," Smokehouse confided to Sour John, "and that is the last of two dozen eggs. He’s had twelve hamburgers, six coney islands, six crab-burgers, five foot-long hot dogs, eighteen bottles of beer, and twenty cups of coffee."
"Blind blinking barnacles! He must be getting close to some of the records of Big Bucket Buld," Sour John exclaimed with sudden interest.
"John, he’s broken most of those records already," Smokehouse told him, and Barnaby nodded assent. "If he can hold the pace for another forty-five minutes, he’ll beat them all." ("One at a Time")
Or try this on for size:
"It is a continental fault coinciding with a noospheric fault," said the eminent scientist Arapd Arkabaranan. "The valley really is half a mile wide, and at the same time it really is only five feet wide. If we measured correctly, we would get these dual measurements. Of course it is meteorological! Everything including dreams is meteorological…. Three is a clear parallel in the Luftspeigelungthal sector in the Black Forest of Germany which exists, or does not exst, according tho the circumstances and to the attitude of the beholder. Then we have the case of Mad Mountain in Morgan County, Tennessee, which isn’t there all the time, and also the Little Lobo Mirage south of Prisidio, Texas, from which twenty thousand barrels of water were pumpedin one two-and-a-half year period before the mirage reverted to mirage status. I’m glad I was able to give a scientific explanation to this or it would have worried me." ("Narrow Valley")
Lafferty’s stories abound with bums, crackpots, computers, ghosts, Indians, eminent scientists, goblin children, mysterious women, ruffians, scoundrels, con artists, businessmen, and pirates. (Note that none of these categories are mutually exclusive.) While they sometimes address, if obliquely, serious topics — here I’m thinking of Past Master, a novel about the nature of the soul, Utopia, and the posthumous fall and redemption of Sir Thomas More — he is never serious. Often his stories are laugh-out-loud funny; I read "Narrow Valley," probably his most anthologized piece, when I was nine or ten and thought it was a riot.
And he’s back in print, although probably not for long. Buy yourself copies of his books now and avoid the fate I suffered: endlessly haunting used bookstores, waiting to find a tattered copy of The Reefs of Earth.
(Now, if only someone were willing to lose thousands upon thousands of dollars putting the complete Lewis Padgett back into print, I’d be all set!)