Why Ray Bradbury will truly live forever

The Baltimore Sun

Now and Forever

By Ray Bradbury

William Morrow / 224 pages / $24.95

I have had the pleasure of listening to Ray Bradbury for more than 40 years - in speeches, interviews and late-night conversations over a glass of wine. His energy and exuberance rarely falter, and listeners almost always go away inspired.

That first afternoon in 1964 in his Wilshire Boulevard office, we sat on the floor and played with some of the same "toys" he still plays with today in the basement of his home: miniature dinosaurs and spaceships, Bullwinkle Moose and comic books of every description. He told me stories about his childhood in Waukegan, Ill., his teenage years as a starstruck autograph hound in Hollywood and his adventures in Ireland with John Huston making the movie of Moby Dick.

The story that has stayed with me most vividly - perhaps because Bradbury repeats it often in his speeches - is about his encounter with a magician named Mr. Electrico. At age 12, Bradbury stood in the front row of a dusty carnival tent in 1934 in Waukegan as Mr. Electrico sat in an "electric chair" and had an assistant throw the switch. With electrical currents flowing through his body and making his hair stand on end, he touched Bradbury on each shoulder with a ceremonial sword and exhorted him: "Live forever!"

The boy ran home and began to write. He never stopped and by his own count has written a short story every week of his life.

Since the death of his beloved wife, Maggie, almost four years ago, Bradbury has taken to writing with even greater concentration -- if that is possible. His prolific output (between 30 and 60 books, depending upon how you count collections) increases this week with the publication of Now and Forever, bringing together two novellas, Somewhere a Band Is Playing and Leviathan '99. Not surprisingly, each embraces a familiar Bradbury theme.

Somewhere a Band Is Playing, Bradbury notes in a brief introduction, was inspired by two extended stints he spent in Tucson, Ariz., as a child. Poignantly, he also mentions his enchantment with Katharine Hepburn, as well as a long poem he wrote in response to the musical score of The Wind and the Lion.

All these elements come together as a young journalist in search of a story jumps off a train at Summerton, Ariz., which mysteriously does not appear on any map. The journalist, James Cardiff, finds a town where the lawns are lush and beautifully manicured, and inhabitants seem youthful and healthy. He makes his way to the Egyptian View Arms, a well-run hotel peopled with handsome men and women in their 30s, all dressed in fashionable turn-of-the-century clothing.

One of those women is an entrancing, gorgeous woman named Nefertiti (the Hepburn part), who charms Cardiff both in and out of bed. As this love affair blossoms, Cardiff visits the local cemetery and discovers that no one dies in Summerton. He also discovers that a journalistic competitor has followed him to the town and threatens to reveal its secrets.

Admirers of Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and Bradbury's most recent novel, Farewell Summer, will find much delightful nostalgia and fantasies of a sweeter life.

Underpinning the second novella, Leviathan '99, is Bradbury's nearly lifelong fascination and struggle with Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Bradbury has never been afraid to attack big stories, big themes. Unconstrained by a literal sense of "write what you know," he was imagining voyages to the vast reaches of outer space when authors from the Iowa Writers' Workshop were churning out minimalist novels about their affairs with librarians and English-department secretaries.

In 1955, Huston asked him to adapt Moby Dick - arguably the Great American Novel - for the screen. Bradbury wrote about that experience in Green Shadows, White Whale, but he has never shaken his fascination with the story.

(There is an important short book to be written about the numerous attempts to grapple with Melville's epic. Orson Welles, for example, used the money he made from appearing as Father Mapple in the Huston film to finance his own stage production of Moby Dick, which starred Rod Steiger.)

Now Bradbury has the audacity/chutzpah/lunacy to rewrite Moby Dick in outer space. He first developed this idea as a radio drama for Norman Corwin and during the past 30 years has presented various theatrical versions of Leviathan '99. Framing this novella as the "final effort to focus and revitalize" his personal struggle with the White Whale and the mad Captain Ahab, he challenges the reader to decide whether he has succeeded.

I'd answer his challenge by saying that the stage versions of Leviathan '99 I've seen were ultimately too talky and motionless.

This novella takes full advantage of the omniscient narrator and the inner voices of characters. Moreover, the "arc" of the captain's obsession with the white comet Leviathan is told efficiently and effectively. Most important, though, the complicated philosophical richness behind Melville's story is explored more fully than in any previous version. Here, Bradbury presents the core issues with the right balance of Melville's concerns and his own vision.

Ultimately, that "vision thing" is what we look for in any writer, and for more than half a century, Bradbury has articulated a powerful and personal vision that becomes more appealing as it unfolds. In high schools and colleges today, young readers are discovering the magic of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine and so many other titles in the rich Bradbury library.

I think it is safe to say: Yes, Ray, you will live in the hearts and minds of readers such as me and the children of my child. You will indeed "live forever!"

Digby Diehl is the author of more than 20 books, including the recently published "Soapsuds" with Finola Hughes. A version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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