We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle

Sunday, 11 October 2009 14:05 Steve Fahnestalk
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Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel”

We Never Talk About My Brother”

The Tale of Junko and Sayuri”

King Pelles the Sure”

The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French”

Spook”

The Stickball Witch”

By Moonlight”

The Unicorn Tapestries”

Chandail”

Introduction by Charles de Lint

 

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

This collection contains nine stories and seven poems; all but two of the stories are previously published, although like me, you may not have seen them before. Every one of these was unfamiliar to me, and I’ll tell you why: I haven’t been reading Peter S. Beagle’s stuff for something like 30 years. Like almost everyone who’s read any Peter S. Beagle, I’ve read The Last Unicorn (I shied away from the animated adaptation, as it was by Nelvana, and I’ve never liked their animation), as well as I See By My Outfit and A Fine And Private Place. And, like Mr. Smoketoomuch, nothing else!

All I have to say is this: what was I thinking? Why did I shy away from the work of a prime contemporary fantasist like Peter Beagle? To borrow a term from the first story’s milieu, I’m some kind of cockamamie schlemiel.

Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel” is a reprint from a collection called Strange Roads (2008). It was inspired by Peter’s childhood, growing up in the Bronx in a Jewish household/neighborhood. It’s a wry little tale about a 76-year-old painter who suddenly discovers he has a muse and a model. The story’s told through the eyes of 11-year-old David (“Duvid”) who, along with Uncle Chaim, is the only other person who can see the blue angel (“she was not blue herself—a light beige would be closer—but she wore a blue robe that managed to look at once graceful and grand…”) who appears in Chaim’s studio between him and his model.

From then, Uncle could paint no other model, as the angel was sent by Yahweh—I Am That I Am—as the angel tells him. Which plays hob with Chaim’s career, as the studio begins to fill with canvases of various sizes each portraying the same thing from different angles, etc. Until Aunt Rifke, who is sure Chaim’s possessed, sends for the rebbe to see if maybe some kind of exorcism is needed. And that’s when we find out that yes, an exorcism of sorts is needed, but not for Uncle Chaim. (By then the angel has manifested for everyone.) It seems the angel is possessed by a dybbuk.

But as Rabbi Shulevitz points out, Jews don’t do exorcisms. They heal, instead. And what Uncle Chaim, Aunt Rifke, rebbe Shulevitz and Duvid learn about their world and the power of forgiveness lifts this at least a little out of the realm of the ordinary fantasy. And though the dialogue in this story is all written in a sort of music-hall Yiddish lilt, it fits the story, the time and the place. Who could dislike this story, nu?

We Never Talk About My Brother” is the tale of Jacob and Esau Robbins, narrated by Jake himself, in the form of a taped interview. The interviewer wants to know all about Esau, who is, or was, a famous newscaster.

But Jacob has decided to do a “tell-all” interview, and the interviewer gets a “no-holds-barred” look into the life and background of one of the world’s best-known talking heads. Jacob goes back to their childhoods and reveals something major he had discovered when his younger brother was beaten up by a schoolmate. While Esau had been lying, beaten and bloody, under Donnie Schmidt, he had looked up at Donnie through swollen eyelids and whispered, “You were run over.”

And next morning, only Esau and Jacob remembered the beating, as everyone else knew that Donnie Schmidt had been run over last week and killed. So Donnie was dead, and the beating never happened. Somehow, over the next few years as Esau grew up, graduated from Colorado State University and went into broadcast journalism, everyone who displeased Esau had something fatal happen that “everybody remembered”—but which hadn’t actually happened—it was always in the past, as if the past were in a continual state of “edit”… like Susie Harkin, who broke up with Esau, and was killed in an airplane crash on her way to New York to become an actress. Eventually, Esau, with his talent for reporting grisly tales—crashes, famines, avalanches, wars and the like—became the best-known broadcast journalist on American TV.

Jacob figures out that what Esau has is genetic and, surprise surprise, Jacob has some of that too. And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale. (A cautionary tale—what if history is, and always has been, in a constant state of flux? What if what we remember, what shapes our world, is controlled by people who have this ability? And the more people that can be induced to remember things a certain way, the more power this sort of person has.) And Esau learns that even the “Angel of Death” (as his brother calls him) has limits.

The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” is almost a traditional folktale (not the Western kind) set in feudal Japan and sharing much with folktales of that era. Although Peter Beagle claims not to know Japan, its language, history and customs, he has captured much of the charm of traditional Japanese folktales. (I used to read a lot of Japanese ghost stories and the like.)

Junko, a commoner, serves as chief huntsman for Lord Kuroda, the great daimyo who was lord over much of southern Honshu (Honshu is the largest of Japan’s four main islands), and is responsible for bringing in most of the game for the household. Because of his skill, and the respect in which Lord Kuroda holds his position, Junko is allowed to live in the main household as if he were a person and not a commoner. (Remember that in this time, samurai were allowed to test their blades’ sharpness by trying them on commoners. Feudal Japan has a bloody history in places. But then, so does the West.)

Also in this period, reality was a little more fluid than today; there were spirits (oni) that could take the form of people, but often manifested themselves as gods, demons or animals. One day while hunting, Junko accidentally shot an otter (a non-fatal injury) with his arrow and, instead of killing it in mercy, took it home and nursed it back to health for some reason that wasn’t entirely clear to Junko himself. As it turned out, the otter was really an oni (ushi-oni, literally an ox-demon, whose natural form usually had an ox’s head but often a crab- or spider-like body) who fell in love with Junko and took the form of a woman once healing was complete. Her name was Sayuri.

And Junko’s rise in the household of Lord Kuroda began. From a commoner who wasn’t even given the courtesy of being addressed as Junko-san, he went on to gain the respect of Lord Kuroda himself and to earn the honorific. And more honors, some accompanied by mysterious deaths of those whose place he came to occupy in the household. Of course, the reader as well as Junko-san know that Sayuri was responsible for these killings, but Junko hid his knowledge even from himself, until finally he could pretend no more. A little more cautionary than most folktales, but a worthy successor nonetheless. I enjoyed it, and I believe you will too.

King Pelles The Sure” is a reminder to the reader that war, while appearing glamorous from afar, has consequences, most of them unforseen by those who wish to have a war. King Pelles ruled over a small but prosperous kingdom. Which was entirely peaceful, and King Pelles, who had neither wife nor heir (save a brother who would inherit once he was gone), was beloved by all.

Yet King Pelles was not a happy king. He longed to be remembered by history, and was sure that once he had gone, he would be only a footnote in history. “Do you ever hear ballads about King Herman The Peaceful?” he asked his Grand Vizier. “[Or lays about] King Leslie The Calm, or… King James The Docile, or King William The Diplomatic? You do not!”

So against his better judgment, the Grand Vizier arranged a “small and tidy war. With songs” to appease King Pelles. But King Pelles’s kingdom was hated and envied because of its peace and prosperity, and the little war grew out of hand and the kingdom was overrun, and the King and Vizier were forced to run away and hide amongst the populace, masquerading as ordinary field hands.

And during the time when the victors were searching high and low for the deposed King and Grand Vizier, both men were working in the fields and learning that war, while fine for the higher-ups, inevitably meant chaos and sorrow for the ordinary people, because a King, no matter how small the kingdom, never really understands the ordinary people who make up the bulk of the population, their lives and their sorrows.

While maybe not as successful for me as Junko’s tale, King Pelles’s story is a fine, Western story of the kind often called “fairy tales”—although there are no fairies in this tale, nor indeed a happy ending of the traditional type. Like every single story in this book (a claim few anthologies can make), this is well written and worth reading.

The Last and Only, or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” is a different kind of fantasy. It concerns a Californian gentleman who undergoes a strange metamorphosis. He becomes French. By the end of the story, he becomes Frencher than the French themselves, as odd as this is to say. I have a love/hate relationship (well, a lot weaker than hate, but you get the idea) with this story, and to tell you why, I need to say something that I believe but you might not. You might disagree violently, but here it is: most genre fantasy is somewhat simplified. This story, is not, however—it’s the kind of fantasy that the New Yorker would probably love.

When I say genre fantasy is simplified, what I mean is this: all the backgrounds, whether they come from Nordic/European tradition, or African tradition, or Polynesian or Inuit or whatever, have this in common: they are easy for children to understand. The characters are somewhat unidimensional; their motivations are almost always clear and understandable. It’s usually easy to tell who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” Fantasy, fairy tale or myth, they usually have an unspoken moral (except for our old friend Aesop, whose morals were always stated).

Contemporary non-genre fantasy isn’t like that. You don’t always comprehend the background easily (especially if it’s not in your heritage), the characters are not always easy to understand, and their actions and motivations are often murky and not understood even by themselves. This is not to say that either kind of fantasy (genre or [dare I say it?] mainstream) is better than the other. There is no good/better/bad except in terms of the writing, in my less-than-humble opinion. There is good writing and good story, and then there is bad. Unfortunately for me, I am less qualified to judge mainstream fantasy than I am genre, as I have spent the last (roughly) 56 years reading sf/fantasy as my preferred choice of fiction. And when not reading that, my next choice is mystery/detective/action/adventure. Let’s face it: I’m a pulpish sorta guy.

Which is why I have a problem with Mr. Moscowitz: he’s so non-pulpish. Look here: he’s well drawn, as are the circumstances under which he becomes French. But it’s so foreign to my way of reading, and yet so well written, that I find myself in a tailspin every time I attempt to review the story.

Your mileage may vary. It probably will. Buy the book, read the story, and email me your impressions if you will. Or not—that’s all I can say about this one. It’s well done, and I like it. And dislike it too.

Spook” is unlike any fantasy you will have read before. I enjoyed it, but I’m afraid to say too much about it because it might spoil the fun for you (as the author himself said in his preface to the story). Let’s just say there’s a ghost we need to get rid of, a psychic/medium we can’t help but dislike, and a pissing contest the likes of which you will not have seen before. And by the end of it, you’ll be longing, like a character in a Douglas Adams book, for your intestines to leap out of your throat and strangle you—because Vogon poetry just isn’t in it—and there is real poetry quoted here. I will say no more. Enjoy.

The Stickball Witch” is another story from Peter’s Bronx upbringing—and it concerns a sport which I myself am familiar with only from stories, TV shows and movies—that of stickball, which is a kind of homegrown baseball played with sticks and pink rubber balls and, like street hockey, in the street. (And like street hockey, the familiar cry of “car!” permeates the fabric of stickball.)

When I was growing up, every neighborhood had a haunted house. Not all of them were unoccupied; some were haunted by witches and ogres. I don’t know if today’s kids have that fun; heck, some parents would be happy if their kids never spent an unsupervised minute. But in my day, and Peter’s, we went where we wanted and sometimes our neighborhoods had witches. Like the Stickball Witch—if your ball went into her yard, you could never, ever use it again. Oh, sure, you could often see it, just inside the fence, but if you went in to retrieve it, well—remember Hansel and Gretel? They got off easy compared to what you’d get.

This is the tale of one kid who defied the rules and went inside Mrs. Poliakov’s fence to retrieve a ball, and how Mrs. Poliakov came out and showed them all how stickball is really played. A great little story. Reminded me for, some reason, of King’s “The Body,” which is what the film Stand By Me was based on. I think you’ll like it.

By Moonlight” is a more traditional fairy tale: a highwayman, Roger Darlington, meets the Reverend Elias Patterson, on the moors one chilly evening in North Yorkshire (“The Dales”) in the mid-eighteenth century. Darlington is on the run, having unsuccessfully tried to rob a mail coach that turned out to “have nothing but solicitors’ accounts and begging letters from the colonies.” Patterson offers Roger his fire and a share of his provender, and to occupy the long night, his story of how he went “under the hill” and became the lover of Titania, Queen of the Fairies.

(By the way, I absolutely abhor the modern trend of spelling “fairy” as “faery”—it’s a spelling for the ignorant. “Faerie” is the place where fairies live. It’s been established in the English language for much longer than these ignorant people have been alive. Get used to it.)

I won’t take away from the Reverend Elias’s story; I’ll let you read it. It concerns Titania and her string of mortal lovers, and her King, Oberon, who is jealous, but is constrained by both custom and magic to respect them for seven days. (And then, boy, is the Wild Hunt on!) This is what I call old-timey genre fantasy, and it works. Both the frame, that of the highwayman and the itinerant preacher, and the inner story, of the preacher and the fairy queen.

Elias has spent seven days Under The Hill and has come out a hundred years later. Which is traditional when you go in there, if you eat and/or drink what the fairies offer you. What happened to Elias has a direct bearing on what happens to Roger at the tale’s conclusion. I liked Roger and would actually not mind seeing more stories about this less-than-successful highwayman. Well done indeed.

The Unicorn Tapestries” is a series of seven poems, loosely linked to The Last Unicorn, but standing alone. It’s not our job to review poetry, but I liked them. I like a well-done poem, especially one that is not free verse. It takes a certain amount of skill to do a rhyming poem, especially one that doesn’t just use iambic pentameter.

Chandail” is the last story in the book. In it, Beagle harks back to his “favorite of his own novels,” The Innkeeper’s Song, which I confess I haven’t read, but will look for. Enough is explained in this story, I think, that you don’t need to have read it to enjoy the story, but for those who have, I think they’ll like this expansion of the adventures of Lalkhamsin-khamsolal, otherwise known as Sailor Lal (among other names).

Sailors in the waters of whatever world The Innkeeper’s Song is set in, are familiar with, and very wary of, the chandail. Like the mermaids and sirens of our seas, the chandail lure the sailors with visions, torn from the sailors’ own minds. Sailor Lal despises the chandail for reasons that are set forth in the story, but for reasons of her own (like Junko in a previous story rescues a wounded oni) rescues a chandail who is greatly wounded and possibly near death.

During the healing of the chandail, Lal learns a lot about the species, and about herself and her world. It’s a rich, many-layered story and a really good non-mainstream fantasy. And maybe not as simplified as most.

All in all, We Never Talk About My Brother is a very good collection, and if you don’t have it on your shelf, you should probably go to Amazon or Tachyon's own website and get it.