One of the best days of my life when I was a kid was the day I discovered Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Reading that novel was like gorging yourself at a buffet, except you could keep eating and eating and never get full and probably never get enough.
How did someone decide that women were like clocks, for instance?
Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it…How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives, who know they will live forever.
I’m not sure what I was thinking at 11 or 12 years old reading about “the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity.” But I knew something was happening. I was sliding down a hill made entirely of nothing. But the nothing was made of sounds which were words and ideas, and this kind of nothing was stuffed fuller than any previous nothings I had ever known.
Bradbury, a voracious reader, especially loved (not surprisingly) Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and L. Frank Baum. Amazingly, after graduating from high school during the Depression and not having enough money for college, he then spent the next ten years educating himself at the public library, leading to, years later, the ability to turn something as normal and everyday as insomnia into a thing of tortured beauty:
Oh God, midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon. But three, now, Christ, three A.M.! Doctors say the body’s at low tide then. The soul is out. The blood moves slow. You’re the nearest to dead you’ll ever be save dying. Sleep is a patch of death, but three in the morn, full wide-eyed staring, is living death! You dream with your eyes open. God, if you had strength to rouse up, you’d slaughter your half-dreams with buckshot! But no, you lie pinned to a deep well-bottom that’s burned dry.
At 14, Mr. Bradbury scored a writing gig for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show just by walking up to Burns outside the theater and asking if he could sit in on the show. How different things were back then. I can imagine myself walking up to Jay Leno (his show used to be right down the street at NBC from where we live) and saying—Whoop, except I would never get that far, because I would have already been tackled and/or Tased by security guards, right? And no amount of yelling out, “Hey, Jay–I have a bunch of funny jokes!” was going to help me. Especially later, when it came time to post my bail.
That reminds me of how my father, when he was a boy in Boston, worked on a train when he wasn’t in school, and one day Eleanor Roosevelt got on and started a conversation with him about how important education was (although he was already well aware of that fact; but she was evidently very kind and compassionate). Completely alone, no bodyguards, no nothing. Unbelievable!
Ray Bradybury was a quirky character who, similar to Jack Kerouac of (ironically) “On the Road,” fame, never got a license or learned to drive. While Kerouac didn’t give an explanation for his lack of learning (other than saying, “All I can do is typewrite,”) Bradbury’s stemmed directly from witnessing a terrible car accident when he was 16 in which six people were killed. And while “On the Road” was written almost entirely in stream of consciousness (apparently; I admit I’ve never read it), Bradbury was no stranger to labyrinthine wanderings and abrupt, unexpected segues:
Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?
And deep feelings that had only gently brushed past but had yet to penetrate expressed so succinctly:
Somewhere in him, a shadow turned mournfully over. You had to run with a night like this so the sadness could not hurt.
As I got older I recognized Ray Bradbury as one of the authors who had affected me the most and realized that I wanted to wander that road, too, musing about the death of thunder and an insomnia-fueled desire to slaughter my half-dreams.
When I read “Fahrenheit 451” later in school, we were informed that he’d written it in just one week. And while I never imagined that I could spit out a classic like that in such a short amount of time, I had already decided, after discovering Carson McCullers had written “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” at age 23, that I would eclipse her by writing something great, at the very least really good, before I was 21.
And although that never happened and my plans evolved with time, I knew I’d never stop writing–save a zombie apocalypse, in which case, once the power went out and the only thing available was pen and paper, my hand would cramp up too much to be able to write manually—and I’d never stop appreciating the story-tellers whose words and ideas had zinged like bullets to the brain, a feral and fearless onslaught that sent me on the (in varying degrees, at least for me) tortuous, solitary, satisfying, unrewarding, self-enlightening, unprofitable, fulfilling, frustrating, worthwhile, ambiguous, abstract, irrational, raving and urgent pursuit of writing.