He is travelling home from his uncle’s funeral, a 12 year-old sitting in the backseat of an automobile with his family and the heavy weight of loss. He looks out the window as the tires roll beneath him. Inside the car it is silent. His parents are decent people and they mourn with decency. Down the hill, along the rim of Lake Michigan, carnival tents appear, their edges billowing like little red and yellow hands that seem to beckon to him. Pull over, he tells his father, pull over pull over. And his father does. The boy is excited enough that it looks like he’ll leap out of the moving car if he doesn’t. His father is furious as he watches the boy run down the hill, toward the carnival. He expects him to be there, in the automobile and back at home, mourning, grave-faced, solemn. But Ray Bradbury was not made to steep in the sober shades of living. He thunders down the hill with the lake wind blowing back his hair, with the sounds of the carnival — the holler of the talker, the calliope of the turning merry-go-round — whirling closer to his ears. He is running toward life.
Bradbury told this story to Sam Weller in Listen to the Echoes, Weller’s collection of interviews with the famed author, who died this Tuesday, June 5 at the age of 91. The symbolism is evident. That’s why Bradbury told the story: He spent the rest of his days — another eight decades’ worth of them — running toward life. He ran like Prometheus. Waving the fire, wanting to bring it to you. The fire Bradbury brought was the fire of life — its horrendous beauty and its beautiful horror. The Illustrated Man, the Dwarf, Uncle Einar, Montag and Clarisse, the anything-you-want-it-to-be object in “The Jar,” this was Bradbury’s menagerie of the living.
“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used,” Bradbury writes in Zen in the Art of Writing. “How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them.”
For Bradbury, writing was a means of harnessing life, electrifying it. Where the vast majority of grown men grow opaque-eyed as the years pass, shriveling into habits, shutting out experience, turning the mystery of life into commonplace been there done that, Bradbury never lost his wonder.
Consider, please, Dandelion Wine:
God bless the lawn mower, [Grandpa] thought. Who was the fool who made January the first New Year’s Day? No, they should set a man to watch the grasses across a million Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa lawns, and on that morning when it was long enough for cutting, instead of rachets and horns and yelling, there should be a great swelling symphony of lawn mowers reaping fresh grass upon the prairie lands. Instead of confetti and serpentine, people should throw grass spray at each other on the one day each year that really represents the Beginning!
This is what poets do: They make you see the commonplace as extraordinary. And it is all extraordinary. You just forget that, you just get bogged down and tired so that mowing the lawn becomes a chore you add to the list of things you have to, but would rather not have to, do. I cannot remember the last time I saw a man thrilled to rev up his lawnmower, but when I read Dandelion Wine, which I try to do just about this time every year because it is a hymn to glorious, ephemeral summer, I step out my front door and look up and down my street, expecting to see my neighbors inspired to cut the fresh, green grass. If they read Bradbury they would be.
Note Grandfather’s heartbreak when he learns a young neighbor has decided to modernize and is planting a new kind of grass, which, in the name of efficiency, only grows so high and never needs cutting:
That’s the trouble with your generation…All the things in life that were put here to savor, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say…A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavor, full of a lot of things growing…
When he gets to the end of the hill and reaches the carnival tents, the first person that 12-year-old Bradbury encounters is Mr. Electrico. Mr. Electrico introduces him to the side-show freaks that will later populate his fiction; he also tells him that they’ve met before:
You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the battle of the Argonne Forest and you died in my arms outside there, twenty-two years ago. I’m glad you’re back in the world.
In Listen to the Echoes, Bradbury credits that experience to his awakening as a writer. He went home and started to write and never stopped, for he claimed he wrote every day. Every day for the rest of his 91 years.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
Some science fiction fans dismiss him as a writer of literary stories — not enough rocket science, too much human relationship — and some fans of literary stories dismiss him as a science fiction writer — not enough realism and too much implausible weirdness — but someone like me embraces him as a beautiful hybrid of the two — a Houdini of the word, a storytelling saint. In “The Man,” Captain Hart and Martin land on another planet just a day after the arrival of a man humanity has been waiting for for millions of years, a man so compelling that no one is paying attention to their rocket landing, a man eerily similar to Jesus. In “The Scythe,” Drew Erickson picks up a dead farmer’s scythe and starts to slice a mysterious field of wheat, unaware he’s taken up the work of the grim reaper.
In Bradbury World, this is how you talk about life: one half of your sentence talks of the things you cannot prove, the other of the things you can.
“Love is at the center of your life,” said Bradbury during one interview. “The things that you do should be things that you love and things that you love should be things that you do. That’s what you learn from books.”
As a boy, he fell in love with dinosaurs, carnivals, Mars, spaceships, Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. He followed this love, letting no one dissuade him, letting no one tell him that it was time to hang up the imagination that charged his life – all our lives – and put on a suit, get on a commuter train, and find some office to labor in. He followed this love like a man bewitched by its beauty, and it gave him, in return, life.
Mr. Bradbury, your fire will always burn in this grateful heart of mine.