Dandelion seeds in the wind
“IS death being on a ship sailing and all your folks left back on the shore?” asks 13-year-old Doug of his grandfather in Ray Bradbury’s latest, “Farewell Summer.”
“That’s about it, Doug,” replies the grandfather -- and in Doug’s head, “the storm began.”
It’s the storm of adolescence, the turmoil of loss, and it hangs low over “Farewell Summer,” Bradbury’s long-delayed follow-up to his 1957 semi-autobiographical “Dandelion Wine,” which featured a 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding in a handful of short stories that read like miniatures of intricate clockwork, each perfectly machined and chiming with the cogs and gears of idiosyncratic characters, building into a contraption that was as much a time machine as the mysterious creation that lived in the garage of a town denizen. It preserved the sense of magic that is youth -- bottled it in a golden vintage, like Doug’s grandpa’s dandelion wine (a real aperitif) -- and hinted at the terrifying prescience of impending change, the sense of life about to pounce and sweep us up for a ride into the unknown.
In “Farewell Summer,” life pounces. It is a book about the death of innocence, and how that death is a transcendence that solidifies our diffuse youthful energies into the concerns of a different age. It’s also a very personal memoir. Even if these events didn’t happen to Bradbury, they inscribe an arc of growth and loss clearly familiar to someone who writes with such lucidity about the darkness found in life.
Written when he was 37, “Dandelion Wine” ached with a brilliant beauty. A series of vignettes of one boy’s summer in Green Town, Ill. (based on Bradbury’s own hometown of Waukegan), it begins with Doug imagining himself orchestrating the morning wakening of the village one day in 1928. As the clock tower tolls and the sky illuminates, Doug imagines himself lighting the windows of each house as they wink on against the dawn. It’s a display of the childish certainty that one is the center of the universe -- a foil to the primeval dread that comes when we realize we are not.
“Farewell Summer” finds a slightly older Doug desperately, and literally, attempting to stop that clock, certain that its inescapable meting out of hours and minutes and seconds surely seeks to measure and regularize his own life. The architects of time -- the brittle and sour old men of Green Town -- must be defeated to bring about a cessation of that cruelest weapon. When old Mr. Braling dies suddenly -- is it from Doug’s malevolence or Braling’s own metronomic grip on his heartbeat? -- the young boys of Green Town think that the war can be won.
Like “Dandelion Wine,” this novel distills youth to its ravenous essence, but it can’t come close to the earlier book’s urgency, possibly because “Farewell Summer” was written over such a long period of time. Originally intended to be published in the same volume as “Dandelion Wine,” “Farewell Summer” was delayed by a publisher, and Bradbury continued to tinker with it through the years. Its first chapter appeared in 1980’s “The Stories of Ray Bradbury.” But it’s been half a century, and Bradbury is closer now to the dusty and hidebound antagonists of “Farewell Summer” -- the old men of Green Town holed up in their gray-flecked homes, who seem never to have been young -- than he is to his protagonists, the willful Doug and his introspective brother, Tom.
This proximity, though, lends Bradbury’s portrayal of his older characters a great humanity and sympathy. Whereas “Dandelion Wine” captured childhood itself, “Farewell Summer” is a story of the changes that life and love bring. Love, Bradbury seems to be saying, is terrifying, making us aware of our own impending death. When we love, we will either lose or be lost to someone. Doug may think he doesn’t want to grow up, but, lured onto love’s path, he willingly and unwittingly leaps into the abyss, barreling into the maw of advancing life. In “Farewell Summer,” Bradbury argues for us all to leap into life with such abandon, because autumn’s own red-golden glory can’t be kept at bay forever.
Lucinda Michele Knapp is an editor at LA Alternative Press and has written for Variety.