Taking the Heat

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

“Tom?”

No answer.

All right, you get the idea; these are openings to novels that have not only stood up to the vicissitudes of time, they are likely to do so for considerably more years to come. In order, they are: “Moby Dick,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

This week, I nominate another candidate, one that has already seen its way into a Fifty-Year Anniversary Edition.

It was a pleasure to burn.

If that line does not shout out its identity to you, its immediate relatives will surely help.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

For those readers already addicted to the sirens’ monthly song heard in the pages of “Galaxy Science Fiction” and “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,” the appearance of a story, “The Fireman,” was neither iconic nor unusual – it was expected. That was 1950, and the name of the author, Ray Bradbury, was already a rocket probing the night skies of our imagination. Using a coin-operated manual typewriter, Bradbury was fueled on his own enthusiasm for ideas and concepts during what could legitimately be called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He wrote prose as insistent as mosquitoes on a summer night, as poetic and visionary as William Butler Yeats, drunk on love, mythology, the raging spirit of Irishness – or possibly all three all at once.

There were other notables in the field, poetic, learned, imaginary. But none could keep up with Bradbury, who trumped them all by sending back reports from distant planets and remote places in the heart, places where no ordinary writers had set foot.

I learned of him early, through those and other pulp pages, as well as the added coincidence of my Christmas holiday job while an undergraduate at UCLA. Three years during Christmas break, I was Bradbury’s substitute mailman, delivering those thick, Kraft envelopes bulging with what I knew had to be galley proofs of new stories to come.

One Giant Leap For Mankind

Had he more of his wits about him, Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who spoke of his own lunar landing as a significant step for mankind might better have added that he was simply following in Ray Bradbury’s footsteps. Thinking of the famed World War II graffiti – Kilroy was here! – chalked on the walls and ruins of the world, Armstrong might well have reported finding a “Bradbury was here!” posting on the moon.

Such is the multiplicity of Bradbury that his many fans have their favorites of his work. For the lovely combination of theme, setting, character, and authorial voice, my favorite is “Fahrenheit 451,” which I submit as the representative Bradbury work. Expanded from a short story (“The Fireman”), it gave Bradbury the opportunity to develop a theme dear to his heart, set uncountable milliliters of his enthusiasm into orbit to influence readers who came along after the 1950s, and to shove them into speculative fiction (from which they will never recover).

Guy Montag, the protagonist of Fahrenheit 451, is no ordinary fireman; he is a fireman assigned to burn offensive books. Thus do we become caught up in the theme by being made to sympathize with Montag, then experience his crisis of belief in his work, which is brought about when he encounters a remarkable young woman who thinks and speaks for herself.

"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs,” Montag’s boss, Fire-Captain Beatty, tells him. “Don't give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

As this review is written, there are libraries and institutions in America where such books as “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” and, indeed, “Fahrenheit 451” are not available to the public because of some individual public official or group that has deemed the ideas expressed within them as undesirable.

Ray Bradbury’s ringing amicus curiae for an open uncensored literature was neither his first deeply felt cry of the heart nor his last. Subsequent novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs give ample evidence of him roaring forth, apparently fueled by the indignation born of righteous anger, but quickly leavened with the passions, sensitivities, and understanding of the human condition in all its complex nuances.

Politically, he appears to be a moderate, which is to say he could be seen as a moderate of either major political party, but, as Huck Finn would say, “that ain’t no matter.” What does matter is the blazing and obvious conviction that humanity trumps orthodoxy and constrictive tradition every time. “Fahrenheit 451” belongs on a shelf with the major works produced by the men and women of all times who have used fiction as a prism through which to break the beam of reality into its component parts.

For readers who have managed to get by to this moment in history without having read Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” is the perfect place to begin, followed by “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” an early collection of short stories whose title and thematic thrust come from a poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Ballad of Wandering Aengus.” The poem in many ways is descriptive of Bradbury. “I went out to the fabled wood,” it begins, “because a fire was in my head/And cut and peeled a hazel wand/, And hooked a berry to a thread/ And when white moths were on the wing, / And moth-like stars were flickering out/ I dropped the berry in a stream/ And caught a little silver trout…

The fire in Bradbury’s head has always been the perfectly plausible-but-fantastic reaches of imagination, and an appetite for the details that ring true within us.