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Ray Bradbury Returns with Farewell Summer

In American literature, no one has quite defined magic realism so much as Ray Bradbury. For American readers, Ray Bradbury’s books, his collections of short stories, his collections of short stories adapted into novels and his occasional actual novel, have often offered up the true meaning of fantasy. Not the legions of sword and sorcery novels xeroxed forth by the legions of Tolkien imitators who have no feel for fantasy and think they are writing Lord of the Rings when they are actually writing Conan; but Ray Bradbury’s writing was the primary fantasy literature that most Americans have read.

Though Ray Bradbury’s stories take place across the reaches of space from the small towns to the great rocket ships, from Iowa to Mars, it is primarily the small town of his childhood, the intimate settings of human relationships played out on the invisible stage of the writer’s mind with which Bradbury is concerned. And now approaching his 87th birthday, the sere winter of any man’s life, Ray Bradbury has turned his attention to the intimate writings of his past and has been determinedly revisiting some of his classic works. From the Dust Returned appeared near the beginning of the new millenium and now we have Farewell Summer, a sequel to one of Ray Bradbury’s best loved books and arguably his greatest work of magical realism, Dandelion Wine.

Yet if From the Dust Returned was essentially a repackaging of his own stories in a new fictional wrapper, Farewell Summer is a strange sort of sequel to Dandelion Wine, in part a fractured portion of the original novel severed (perhaps wisely) by the editor and reworked by Ray Bradbury himself, Farewell Summer comes now as a story of the one thing Ray Bradbury’s own fiction which has lingered in the elysian fields of summer has avoided, the passing of youth into adulthood.

In Farewell Summer, the Ray Bradbury who has displayed such charming facility with language is decidedly present. Ray Bradbury’s gift for the fresh metaphor has come about from his dedication to always being startled by seeing the world with new eyes and from that come the turns of phrases that decorate his stories and his novels and Farewell Summer in particular in which characters discover and hold the smiles on their faces and in which the ravine of Ray Bradbury’s own childhood serves as an eternal boundary between age and youth.

The Ray Bradbury of Something Wicked This Way Comes or Dandelion Wine itself, the magical realist who could find not just wonder but magic in small town life, remains mostly absent in Farewell Magic. It is all too tempting to be glib and suggest that the magic has died but essentially Farewell Summer reflects a different concern for the author. Its metaphors are more apparent and it is less concerned with magic and more concerned with the passage of life and mortality.

Mortality is the great concern of Farewell Summer. For Ray Bradbury, there have been primarily two seasons. Summer, a time of unbounded energy and joy and autumn, a darker time of ripening mysteries when age takes its moment on stage and summer decays revealing the mysteries of life. Farewell Summer takes place in the transition between the two, the passing of summer into fall and the revelation to Doug of adulthood, of life and death and worst of all, of growing up.

The Doug Spalding of Dandelion Wine is still partly present, the boy who longs for nothing more than the rural amusements, delights in the warmth of his family and the careless heedless joy of running and playing in a world seemingly designed for a boy’s joys. The Doug of Farewell Summer in a headlong rush discovers a fear of death, which he strives to convey to his friends and with Tom’s help stumbles into forming an army against the advance of decay by fighting a war against the old men of the town, particularly in the form of Calvin C. Quartermain, leader of the school board and the old men he feels are controlling their lives and dragging them down to oblivion.

As the Civil War rages on, Calvin C. Quartermain learns briefly once again what it is to be a boy and to understand where his own life had turned sterile and his mind into a haunted house and Doug accepts the reality of aging and mortality and that the elderly are also ourselves. The mutual resentment of the old men and the boys, as the old men resent their lost youth and the boys, the living embodiment of their own fate, begins with a clash of cap pistols and a death and ends with an old man and a young man on a swing set of sorts and finally in their bedrooms passing a gift of a certain kind to one another.

In Farewell Summer Ray Bradbury has essentially abandoned magic realism for realism informed by wonder, yet the concept of the novel is something that simply does not fit his own abilities. Bradbury’s Doug is half the idealized boy always filled with wonder and half the savage animal that Bleak describes him as, yet Ray Bradbury is unable to truly describe or concede this savage side. Bradbury can only gloss over the death of Braling, caused by Doug’s cap pistol by repeatedly denigrating Braling as a metronome and mocking him for striving to hang on to life. Cruelty is something that Ray Bradbury can witness displayed but cannot truly write about in daily life and that defect all too often extends to sexuality as well. The dialogue of Doug and Calvin Quartermain with their sexuality is downright embarrassing. Doug’s first kiss is well written but the girl is portrayed as the aggressor and is described but never defined, becoming reduced to another woman as object.

At the heart of it, Ray Bradbury lacks the literary tools to describe an unidealized world and so Farewell Summer attempts to come to grips with mortality, which has been a longtime preoccupation of his and dances around metaphors and mystery. His attempts at portraying Doug’s growing sexuality are so idealized they are outright unrealistic. Farewell Summer attempts to transition Doug from the world of Dandelion Wine, a magical childhood world into an adult world of adult rules and yet that world is as remote from Ray Bradbury’s own writings as it is from Doug’s mind.

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