Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Since I let my subscriptions to Asimov’s and F&SF lapse, I don’t keep up with the new short fiction writers of SF as well as I used to do. The various best-of-the-year volumes help, which is where I discovered such authors as David Marusek and Ted Chiang. But there are still other writers I tend to miss, such as Andy Duncan. So when his first collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories began garnering rave reviews, including a Foreword by Michael Bishop and an Afterword by John Kessel, I was intrigued.

Immediately I went to Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction website where Duncan’s story The Potowatomie Giant appeared. It was a story rich in characterization and atmosphere, and convincing enough for me to purchase a hardcover copy of Beluthahatchie. The book is a strong collection, mirroring the strengths of Potowatomie: good characterization, finely-detailed settings strong in atmospheric beauty. He’s not as good at story development, so some of the stories stagnate a bit like dried out streams when they should flow like summer rivers after a flooding rainfall, but that’s not a major flaw since his story’s considerable strengths more than make up for that flaw.

I still fear that Bishop and Kessel have a tendency to overpraise him, a dangerous thing since new writers need to be given incentive to develop rather than made to believe they are the reincarnation of Faulkner–which, unfortunately, is the most common comparison I’ve read about Duncan. But when he’s good he is damned good indeed.

The better stories in the book were The Executioner’s Guild, the story of a traveling executioner who takes his electric chair from town to town in Depression-era Mississippi; Lincoln in Frogmere, which reads like a backwoods American legend but is very convincing as such; and Beluthahatchie, which offers one of the strangest images of Hell I’ve ever seen, and succeeds in spite of that stagnant ending I mentioned earlier.

But my favorite story is Liza and the Crazy Water Man, a beautifully-constructed story about a radio station in the Depression-era South and a girl whose singing is so beautiful that...well, I’d better not spoil the ending. This story does not have the power of The Executioner’s Guild or the sizzling atmosphere of several others, but it such a wondrous story with so much optimism that it left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling which did not fade for a long, long time.

Even the lesser stories in the collection offer visions and scenes worth reading. Duncan reminds me of Michael Swanwick, not so much in any aspects of his fiction, but in his ability to entertain and delight even when the wonderful scenes making up a story don’t necessarily cohere into a successful whole. But that’s acceptable in short fiction where it is more likely to be fatal in a novel, which is one of the reasons I believe that, fine as novels might be, short fiction is often where f&sf is really at.


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