Sentimental Journey

Through fantasy and science fiction, Ray Bradbury explores life and its lessons.

Ray Bradbury lovingly crafts fantasy and science fiction as if viewed through a prism of Norman Rockwell's 1940s-style Americana, the refracted images generously burnished with a thick film of melancholy.

It's true that Bradbury's sentimentality seems to have increased with age, but it has always been apparent in his work, from the immortal Farenheit 451 (one of the finest novels of the 20th century) and Something Wicked This Way Comes to lesser but no less memorable works such as Dandelion Wine to The Illustrated Man.

The 81-year-old dreamer, who as a child in the '30s lived briefly in Tucson, now sees the publication of a new collection of short fiction, One More For the Road, that further explores themes of time and our journey through it, loss, childhood, aging, the writer's life and the concept of storytelling.

These 25 stories, 17 of which are published in this volume for the first time, range in quality from maudlin mediocrity to truly inspired. The best of the pieces encapsulate an emotion, a memory or simply a bit of novel musing in a well-considered crystal moment.

The rich title story, like several pieces here, concerns itself with the often-contradictory processes of creativity and commercialism.

A book editor discovers a promising writer who wants to publish his novel on roadside signs, a seemingly endless series of Burma Shave epigrams that leads readers on a cross-country trip meant to rejuvenate America's highways and reading at the same time. But in age of air travel, the Internet and the impatience of information-drenched consumers, the glorious experiment is doomed to failure.

"The Dragon Danced at Midnight," is a sardonic examination of seedy B-movie Hollywood of the 1950s. First published in 1966, its title then was "The Year the Glop Monster Won the Golden Lion at Cannes."

In it, Bradbury gleefully indulges in hard-boiled narration as his protagonist, a bitter director-editor of bottom-of-the-line movie shlock, relates the tale of a drunken projectionist who accidentally mixes up the reels of a cheesy monster flick, creating avant-garde movie art in the process. It's a cinematic version of "The Emperor's New Clothes" for the art-house crowd. But the sarcasm inherent in Bradbury's telling can't mask his affection for the serendipity of his fable.

Indeed, much of what Bradbury writes has the quality of fable, short fantasias with instructional morals implied by O. Henry-like conclusions. Some of these one-note tales--"In Memoriam," "The Nineteenth," "After the Ball"--are weak, burdened by Bradbury's purple prose and obvious symbolism and metaphorical imagery.

But others work nicely. "Heart Transplant," originally published in 1981, is an insightful trifle in which a wish frees two adulterous lovers from their affair. There's a bold twist in it, displaying the sacrifice one character makes for the other.

The best offering here, "Tangerine," finds its septuagenarian narrator recalling his teen-age years, in Los Angeles just before World War II, running through endless hormonal Saturday nights with a pack of boys hungry to become young men. As the memories surge, the gang's charismatic leader reveals his secrets to our hero--an aspiring writer, as it turns out--secrets that help shape a young man's ideas of youth, beauty and manhood.

In this story, which by rights should be accompanied by the wistful strains of the standard tune of the title, Bradbury leaves behind sappiness and taps into human truth: "... mirrors are Rorshach tests; you can read anything in them that enhances your myopia or threatens your self-belief. Leaving on Saturday, you always checked the mirror to see if you were really there."