This is a book of the American South, written by a Southerner, concerning Southerners, and memorably expressive of Southern idioms, of Southern strengths and flaws. At the same time, it is a volume of SF and Fantasy stories, their subjects post-holocaust hardship, alien invasion, ancient political hierarchies upset, sinister hauntings, and havens from galactic warfare, to name a few. Like (most famously) Howard Waldrop, Neal Barrett, Jr. is able to perform a strange virtuoso balancing act, that of being at once a regional writer, immersed in the idiosyncratic concerns of the people of a well-defined geographical milieu, and a writer who can range freely across the wider universe and its sundry timelines. Perpetuity Blues is thus a panorama of contrasts, in which the realities and possibilities of Texas are captured both intimately and ultimately, their particularity resonating far beyond the page.
Barrett characteristically writes of the dilemmas--economic, sexual, psychological, and philosophical--of strong, or allegedly strong, heterosexual men, for whom the world no longer seems as well fitted as once it was. The crisis of the working man, resourceful yet obsolete, is captured repeatedly in its very essence in these stories, in forms outre and visceral. In "Trading Post", a tough resilient operator in the commerce of human cultural relics finds his human and alien partners too hard to handle; his woman and his horses, symbols of his hard-won masculine attainment, are the first to suffer. In "Diner", the mayor of a small Texan fishing community must confront the fact that his integrity is not equal to the weight of ecological devastation, Chinese occupation, and untamable human folly. "Winter on the Belle Fourche" is a strange parable of the theft of masculinity by feminism; the alternate history "Sallie C" combines portraits of decrepit Western gunslingers with no further reason for existence with cameos of great men of the Twentieth Century whose courses to fame have been subversively altered. "Class of '61" also shifts destinies sideways, into a sinister territory of personal inadequacy, the collapse of the harem, and (very possibly) the end of the human race itself. Men long and men suffer.
But Barrett, very cannily, evokes the plight of women too, in strikingly similar terms. So it is women who face the scourge of the world in some of these tales. "Perpetuity Blues" is an impish and eventually nightmarish account of a young woman playwright who quests arduously for Broadway, in which she is successful (or more likely not) [this story is available to read elsewhere in infinity plus]. "Under Old New York" retells the history of impoverished dwellers in the rural South migrating to Northern cities for work, but this time the migrant is a white girl, and the big city is under black dominion. In "Stairs", an exercise in eerie childlike surrealism, the protagonist can hardly dare to leave her apartment, which is part of a seemingly infinite warren or hive; her terrors may be delusions, but their odd insinuated horror is not thereby diminished. Women yearn and suffer also.
Yet the parallels Barrett strikes between women and men are not total; for Perpetuity Blues, an inherently chivalrous volume, implies that in women lies redemption, or at least the small slight hope of it. They are, just possibly, a conduit to better things. And so Barrett provides "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus", in which a travelling whore (of sorts) brings comfort, however unwillingly, to a repair man in post-apocalyptic East Bad News; and he tells of refuge from catastrophe in the confident naïve words of a self-possessed female ugly duckling enjoying "'A Day at the Fair'". In the end, though, it is still up to the man (chivalry again) to actuate the blessings that women (mothers, lovers) catalyse: a new Virgin Mary looks on as her young son, Christ returned in infinite agony, redeems the world in "Cush"; and at the opposite extreme of aspiration, an honest working man romances a strong woman against a very bizarre background in "Highbrow". So it may be that in the Texan context men must lead and women follow; but this procession is, in Barrett's scheme at least, one undertaken in partnership, and with imagination and style.
Perpetuity Blues, then, is a fine and significant collection, consistent, acute, deeply involving. Inventive, evocative, and psychologically acute, it is a book of character and with character. It deserves a wide success.
(Order from: Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802, USA, or visit www.goldengryphon.com)
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© Nick Gevers 29 July 2000