Novel November

Green Shadows, White Whale

by Ray Bradbury

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Green Shadows, White Whale by Ray Bradbury

In 1953 Ray Bradbury traveled to Ireland to work on the screenplay adaptation of Moby Dick. He lived there for months and got soul drunk on the culture and people of the Emerald Isle, as well as regular drunk on whiskey and Guinness. Over the next forty years he wrote about his stay there, and this book is the culmination of all those stories.

The narrator, who is unnamed but clearly a stand-in for Ray, makes much of wanting to decode the enigma of Ireland and its people. Throughout the book, folks ask him several times, “Have you figured us out, yet? Have you learned our secrets?” They do what they can to lead him to that discovery. He drinks, bets on horses, listens to tall tales, walks the streets in sunshine and rain, meets beggars and artists, all in the effort to reduce the spirit of the island to its purest essence. In contrast to his earnest question, we get a couple stories of people trying to change the Irish rather than allowing the experience of Ireland to settle naturally upon them.

John Huston, director of the Moby Dick adaptation and Ray's boss, invites two friends to visit. They're an unmarried couple. John says to them, “When are you getting married? How about right now. Let me plan your wedding for you.” Which he does. He arranges a hunt wedding, a multi-day event with an English fox hunt as its centerpiece. John dictates every aspect of the event, the food, the cheap Champagne, the pastor (although finding a minister willing to marry two non-Catholics proves difficult). And almost everything goes wrong. Someone dies during the hunt, which delays the ceremony by a week; the cake is rock-hard after the wait; the preacher browbeats the couple for being sinners, and the groom ultimately disappears after having fought with the bride the entire time. It's as if Ireland refuses the director's attempt to influence its customs or import his own. The more he tries to bend the people to his will, the more cursed the proceedings become. John and his wife are both injured, and because their friends are wed under the banner of foreign customs, the marriage bond itself is strained and possibly invalid. When you try to change Ireland, you do so at your own risk.

In another story, the revered playwright George Bernard Shaw visits the local bar where Ray had been hanging out with the locals and tries to influence the minds of the patrons. He removes little tchotchke signs from his bag and places them around the bar. They read, “Stop,” “Consider,” “Think,” and “Do.” The pub regulars, which is everyone in the pub, pause to look at the commands and ponder the consequences of such actions. Silence enters the pub for the first time in years. The drinking stops, the comradery ceases, and their lives come into focus. What they see isn't pleasant. The message is clear: let the Irish be Irish.

The book is accepting of a lot of traits that, in most any other setting, are considered negative and dangerous. The constant drunkenness, reckless driving, the absent fathers and husbands, the walling off of emotions, all treated with a religious reverence. And that's fine. The book is meant to be seen through the eyes of a young man abroad for the first time, chasing a dream and the mystique of a foreign land, begging for acceptance from its people. Of course he's going to fall in love with this beautiful country. He comes expecting legends, so shall he find, just like the narrator of the book he's there to adapt. The reader is allowed to determine if Ireland lives up to that emerald promise.

This book is labeled a novel, but you can see I've been referring to the chapters as stories. Bradbury made edits and additions to thread a story line through the individual tales, but the stories themselves differ wildly in tone and even genre. Some stories are hilarious; others are heartbreaking. Ray even manages to shoehorn in a horror story and a light fantasy. The shifts in tone keep the book from feeling like anything other than a collection of short stories, even with the connective sinews of the narrator's quest to complete the screenplay and stand up to his abusive director. I don't mean that as a knock on the book. You still get a Ray Bradbury collection, after all, which is always a great thing. Many of these stories are magnificent, full of the breathless poetry and arms-wide love for the English language that we expect from Bradbury. But some of them just don't work.

Ray Bradbury excels at writing about childhood and death. Anything in between tends to be hit or miss. What’s always a miss is when Ray writes about sex. In what turns out to be a slightly fantastical story, the narrator visits an old friend who used to throw enormous, scandalous parties with lots of drinking and nudity. In recounting her life of debauchery, she describes her many lovers as having stabbed her with their lustful swords. Just, no. It's a cringe-worthy monologue I wish didn't exist, especially since I often think of Ray as my grandfather telling me stories. It makes me not want to visit Grampa again, and I regret letting him feed me all those hard candies.

Another story involves a trio of men who visit the town. Their strangeness is curious to the locals. The men, you see, are gay. The book does not use that word or any other direct label. Ray skates and tiptoes around actually stating their sexuality, but he hints in so many ways. They are smart dressers. They sort of float from place to place. And they sing wherever they go, almost like literal fairies. The locals stalk the men and try to determine what they're up to. They come to the conclusion that the trio are, in many ways, just like the manly patrons of the pub. They all prefer drinking in the company of other men and are equally loathe to go home to women. You can tell Ray is trying his best to make a big statement on acceptance and equality, but it feels so trite. Especially when the gay men fit the cookie-cutter shape of fey and high-strung. I applaud the effort, but it's not an easy story to enjoy.

I found this book in the library a couple of decades ago, and I assumed it was from the fifties. Some of the memories may have been born in the fifties, but the book itself was published in 1992, the year I first discovered it on the library shelf. I kept putting off reading it because I could tell from the jacket description it wasn't genre. Turns out all my assumptions were incorrect. This is a hybrid of novel and short story collection, a blend of old and new, and, believe it or not, it is genre. Ray is best known for his science fiction, his horror, and, to a lesser extent, his small town stories. He's written collage novels in all three categories. But here's a fourth that he'd been working on intermittently for decades, publishing the stories in a diverse scattering of magazines: it's a collection of Irish Stories. I'm sure there are others examples out there. Ray can't be the only wordsmith to breathe deep the verdant hills and quiet culture of Ireland. But these stores also fall into another genre: they are Ray Bradbury stories. The ones we have will forever be the only ones we have. Not all of them are perfect, but a precious few are.

“The Anthem Sprinters” is one of them. It takes its time to slowly and methodically establish the rules of a sport a group of barflies invented to play and bet on at the movie house. When the picture ends, just before the national anthem plays, they all rush for the exits to see who can reach the street first. Just as the race is about to begin, something happens the sprinters weren't expecting. It's a sad ending, a happy ending, a mingling of the old and new, loss and rediscovery. It seems to be all the answers to the Irish enigma, though maybe it isn't. It's a Ray Bradbury ending, full of joyful tears and fragile promise, the things we go to Ray for in the first place.

old timey typewriter

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