I suppose that like millions of other young boys I learned to love literature through the works of Ray Bradbury. I remember discovering his stories in the quiet of my school library in junior high when those schools were still called junior high and not middle school. Bradbury was one of those authors that boys could read without looking too nerdy. His science fiction was never really far out the way Robert Heinlein’s was or Isaac Asimov’s fiction tended to be. Bradbury’s stories seemed to be like dreams that were eerily familiar yet strange at the same time. For me Bradbury’s fiction became a magical doorway I entered that ushered me into a world far away from the painful boredom I felt in the classrooms dominated by the droning voices of countless teachers.
I think it was the Martian Chronicles that first caught my attention. I can remember the stories contained in that volume being wonderfully realistic despite its science fiction labeling. In fact, that is one of the aspects of Bradbury’s writing that I so love: he is able to transport the reader to other worlds while still maintaining something decidedly realistic. When reading Bradbury we are never very far away from the familiar, despite the setting.
I recently reread Fahrenheit 451 last winter. Simon & Schuster republished the novel in hardback in early 2012. Reading about Guy Montag was like visiting a childhood friend after many years. With this reading I was especially struck by how current the topic is. As we continue the debate on eBooks vs. paper and ink books, and more and more libraries are threatened with closure like never before, it seems that Bradbury’s dystopia is as real as he imagined. However, the only difference is that the firemen are not destroying books, education administrators are. Bradbury believed in the power of books and even though one finds his work in the science fiction section of bookstores, he was almost a luddite.
However, my favorite Ray Bradbury novel is the brilliant, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This is the story of two midwestern boys, James Nightshade and Will Halloway, who get caught up in a traveling carnival that comes to town, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. The names of these characters alone are enough to tingle the senses into a state of excitement, but the story itself is about what it means to be a boy on the verge of manhood, and the fact that once that line into manhood is crossed, there is no going back. The fabulous character, Mr. Dark, who runs the show, is as evil as any character in Western fiction, and as attractive. Bradbury’s descriptions are magical. Consider the following:
“The small parade moved, soundless, past the eternal revolving, ending-but-unending candy serpentine of Mr. Crosetti’s barber pole, past all the darkening or darkened shops, the emptying streets, for people were home now from the church suppers, or out at the carnival for the last side show or the last high-ladder diver floating like milkweed down the night.”
The motif of darkness, or the ineluctable darkening of childhood into adulthood is as palpable as anything experienced in our waking life. Something Wicked This Way Comes is not only a great American novel, it’s an incredible testament to the wondrous adventures of boyhood and the sadness that comes with the knowledge that it must all end someday. We don’t realize it as children, but perhaps growing up is the worst that can happen to us in that we leave fantasy behind for reason and responsibility. How sad that seems to me now that I have children of my own.
Ray Bradbury wrote novels and stories that captured the American experience in a way that rivals all of the great writers of the twentieth century. For many of us his fiction was the gateway into literature and the larger world. Reading Bradbury cannot return us to childhood, but he can give us the gift of remembering what it was like. In our adult worlds, so heavy with responsibility and commitment, we can open the book for a few hours or minutes, and lose ourselves in its pages.
Yet, even as an adult every time a thunderstorm approaches I can’t help but look around for the seller of lightning rods. I haven’t seen him yet, but I intend to keep searching.