Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dark they were, and golden-eyed

Ray Bradbury died Tuesday. So, finally, did a part of my childhood.

He excelled at stories about other worlds; the title of this blog entry comes from a wonderful piece about Earthlings who visit Mars and began to change imperceptibly into something non-human. But for me, he has no peer at a different kind of tale: Memories of youth that summon up all the fears, joys and bewilderment encountered before puberty.

Nobody has ever caught so simply and beautifully the sound of new sneakers thudding through wet grass, the scent of a warm dinner drifting through a neighbor's window, the queasiness induced by rumors of a passing killer or the silent smile of a strange tenant at the boarding house down the block. He grew up in Illinois 40 years before I landed in suburban New Jersey. But his boyhood became my boyhood in my memory, and that's an effect only the greatest writers can achieve.

He achieved it over and over: with the hellish carnival of "Something Wicked This Way Comes," the philosophic star-voyaging in "The Martian Chronicles," the sinister oddities of "The October Country." (Novices might begin with those three and work up to "Fahrenheit 451.") I recently thumbed through my anthology of his short stories and found perhaps half a dozen that didn't work for me -- among a hundred.

When Bradbury stepped out of his element, he sometimes floundered. He worked on the script for the underrated but uneven film "Moby Dick" in 1956, butting up against director John Huston and  uncredited writer Norman Corwin. Bradbury's late-life, thriller-mystery combinations don't show his strengths.

Yet he blended fiction and memoir, fantasy and recollection, as well as any writer I've ever known. He could alternate between the moving and the macabre, between compassion and cruelty, and he blended the two in some of his greatest works. Dark those were in tone, and golden-eyed with hope at the same time.