It is probably inadvisable to consume Howard Waldrop’s “Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction 1989-2003" (Old Earth: 280 pp., $15 paper) in one gulp. Waldrop has a pleasing style and wears his learning lightly; he pokes fun at those books “full of two-dollar words,” in which “the sentences were a mile long, and the verb was way down at the bottom of the page.” But the works gathered here make hay with so many ultraspecific cultural moments that the unwary reader might contemplate suing for whiplash.
Like Georges Perec or Jane Smiley, Waldrop’s MO is “never to write the same story twice.” These seven longish short stories (or briefish novellas) visit seven different and vastly dissimilar decades (eight, if you count the Y2K coda to “Major Spacer in the 21st Century!”).
Many branch away from the established facts, carving out a succinct alternative history, and several feature a cast of famous figures, whom Waldrop brings to life beyond the flat page of biography and nudges toward each other with a forceful if friendly hand.
So, for instance, in “You Could Go Home Again,” Waldrop’s not content to imagine, with great empathy, what Thomas Wolfe might have written to Max Perkins, his old editor, had Wolfe not died at 37. No. Instead, Waldrop’s Wolfe listens gleefully to the banter of Fats Waller (“That’s the charm of music, the Hegemony of Harmony, the Triumph of Terpsichore, and other melodious metaphors”). Not only that, they’re cruising from Japan to Germany.
On a zeppelin.
With J.D. Salinger as social director.
Sometimes sections of a story are headed by song titles; it is impossible to determine how much one is missing out if one is ignorant of the fact that “Stranger on the Shore” (which the reader finds affixed to the beginning of “The Other Real World,” an imagining of the lives of child protags from 1950s sci-fi films, now living uneasily during the Cuban Missile Crisis) was the “first pre-Beatle British record to make #1 in America. . . . It was used in the film ‘The Flamingo Kid,’ which was set in 1962.” This information arrives only in the story’s extensive glossary, itself an entertaining document. Is Waldrop playing Kinbote to his own Shade, providing clues about how to read the story?
That’s the temptation for writers of fiction that is this densely allusive. How much information can you assume the reader has? How much do you need to spell things out? Will non-readers of Wolfe fully enjoy “You Could Go Home Again”? Will they if they happen to be Fats Waller fans?
In theory, the audience sweet spot for this kind of mash-up is that football-shaped intersection of two circles on a Venn diagram comprising Wolfeans and Wallerites. But Waldrop has loaded most of these pieces with so much inspired business (the aforementioned tale also has a glimpse of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and a U.S. in which the Technocrats have come to power) that the average 25-to-30-page running length can begin to feel short. It can’t be easy abandoning a world so carefully constructed, but Waldrop knows the virtue of leaving the reader wanting more. (Last year, Old Earth brought out “Things Will Never Be the Same,” an anthology of his shorter work, and in 2006 Small Beer Press reprinted “Howard Who?,” a charming collection from two decades earlier.)
If the main ingredients do align with your own interests, the writing can be a gas. In “Fin de Cyclé,” Waldrop takes apart “The Banquet Years,” Roger Shattuck’s history of artistic Paris in the 1890s, and he uses the pieces to construct a demented kaleidoscope, quick scenes of wit and eccentricity. Proust, Picasso, Rousseau and Satie rub shoulders with the likes of film pioneer George Méliès and the proto-Dada dramatist Alfred Jarry. Most of the artists wind up producing a motion picture, under Méliès’ direction, about the Dreyfus case. Jarry, a cycling and firearms enthusiast who speaks in the royal “we,” engages in a duel (Proust is his double) at the Eiffel Tower. And with a single unprintable oath directed at a certain painter, Waldrop winks at the song “Pablo Picasso” by The Modern Lovers.
The most satisfying tale in “Other Worlds, Better Lives” has nothing to do with evocative pop songs or resurrected men of letters. “A Dozen Tough Jobs” is a cover version of the labors of Hercules, transposing the myth to late-1920s Mississippi. (If the Coen Brothers’ down-home Odyssey “O Brother Where Art Thou?” springs to mind, you’re not alone.) The hulking Houlka Lee, having served time and after murdering his family, exits Parchman Farm (where he was the only white convict in a decade) to enter a work-release program, performing thankless, near-impossible jobs for the unscrupulous Boss Eustis.
The sequence of Houlka’s labors follows that of the myth, but Waldrop makes the material his own. The travails are narrated by I.O., Boss Eustis’ long-suffering black errand boy, whose place near the bottom of the Anomie, Miss., totem pole gives him, paradoxically, the clearest view of his society’s injustices, violence and quirks. He hears how people say “sides” for “besides,” how an irate preacher “blesses” the field of an inept farmer (“Dear Lord, help this moron in his time of need. If anyone ever needed it, it’s him.”)
The Hercules myth gives the story its structure and an obvious hero to root for, but it’s I.O.'s voice that holds us. When his tale is done, it’s as if a spell has been broken, a veil lifted from our eyes: “Together, we watched the smoke rise up in a curtain, twist once, and hang high into the skies above Mt. Oatie and Corinth and north Mississippi.”
Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel “Personal Days.” Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books