Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book Review: Dandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury

This year I've been making a point of reading some books and authors that I've always felt vaguely embarrassed about never having read. So I've cracked open The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (disappointing), To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (excellent), and just finished Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. When I was in my teens I probably read every Bradbury short story that he'd written up to that time. I was a Bradbury addict. His intoxicating ability to combine smart, startling plots with a colorful prose style was impossible to resist; he's the sort of author who makes otherwise sane people want to become writers.

Until Dandelion Wine I hadn't read anything by Bradbury in a very long time, so I was somewhat astonished by how awful this novel is. Yes, it's really, really bad. The first thing that sticks out is that Bradbury's prose, which always had a tendency to be overly poetic, leading to purple passages and tortured metaphors, is completely off the leash here. You get the feeling that, freed from the constraints of the short story format, Bradbury decided to use all the awkward and overheated descriptive passages he'd edited out of his short stories. The entire novel is a master class in the dangers of trying to write in a self-consciously literary style.

The novel is built around the experiences of Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year-old living in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, during one summer in 1928. The plot is a loosely-stitched together series of episodes and incidents that are meant to evoke the joys of being a boy in idyllic small-town America. This episodic structure would be OK except that the various episodes feel like abandoned short story ideas that Bradbury is trying to recycle. The stories are half-formed, held together only by feverish attempts to capture in prose form the sights, sounds, feel, and meaning of summer in a young boy's mind. What moves this novel from a rating of poor to bad are the toxic levels of sentimentality and nostalgia. Bradbury summons up every golden-hued memory of his boyhood and then buries it under the pyroclastic flow of his gushing, florid writing. At times it approaches the level of parody.

What's of added interest here is that Dandelion Wine is a reminder of the central position of small towns in American literature and popular culture. In general, Americans have traditionally viewed small towns and third-tier cities as the ideal setting for American life. People like Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell became rich mining this vein in the US psyche, and no national politician worth their salt fails to deliver a campaign speech in a small town in which he or she declares how happy they are to be here in the "heartland" of America. In literature, I think it's a safe bet that far more important American novels have been set in rural burgs than is the case in European literature. William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis, just to name a few major US writers, rarely wrote novels set in big cities. When you think of the great European writers and their novels the settings that come to mind are places like Moscow, Paris, London, St. Petersburg and Berlin. As a rule of thumb, rural and suburban life in European writing is ignored, mocked or looked upon as as a kind of penance to be endured. Not all American novels paint a flattering portrait of small town life, but if you want a really nasty look at what goes on in the country try Balzac's The Black Sheep or Zola's La Terre. Zola's peasants make Faulkner's Mississippi rednecks look like characters from Jane Austen.

European writers weren't blind to the ugliness and dangers of big city life, but by setting their novels there they were acknowledging, sometimes explicitly, that a nation's best and brightest, and sometimes the worst and cruelest, make their homes in capital cities. A nation's character and purpose, many of these writers seem to be saying, is seen most readily in its biggest cities. The absence of "big city" writers in American literature is curious. Why doesn't NYC have a Dickens or a Balzac? This is one of the world's great cities, but in American literature of the last century only F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton could be called chroniclers of New York City, and that's stretching a point considering how slim their output was. The nearly mythic role small towns have in the American imagination hasn't lessened over the years; in one of the later seasons of HBO's The Sopranos, one of Tony Soprano's capos, a closeted gay, goes on the run because he's been outed. The capo ends up in a small town in New Hampshire that's everything that state's tourism board would like you to believe its small towns are like: it's pretty, friendly, and the capo ends up in a loving relationship with the cook at the local diner. And the cook makes wonderful pancakes. The capo can't resist the siren call of life as a mafioso in New Jersey, and he eventually returns there and is promptly whacked. The Sopranos is one of the most caustic, brutal and cynical examinations of American life that's ever been done, but without a trace of irony it embraced the myth of small towns as pocket-sized Nirvanas. Only in America.


vwstieber said...

I loves me some Ray Bradbury, and it sounds like total heresy, but I have to agree with you that the short story format is his strong suit. I read (slogged through) GRAVEYARD FOR LUNATICS which can only be described as "great ideas poorly executed". I have not read DANDELION WINE, but your description fits GRAVEYARD to a "t".

I love the man, but sometimes the Emperors balls are just a-flapping in the breeze.

Cary Watson said...

Yes, I felt like a heretic writing the review.