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Dandelion Wine

by Ray Bradbury

(Earthlight; first published 1957; this paperback edition, 5.99, 239 pages, published 17 July 2000.)

Dandelion Wine (1957) is an intensely autobiographical work. Bradbury's high summer of 1928 seen through the eyes of twelve year old Douglas Spaulding. cover scanWe experience the hopes, fears and aspirations of a small Midwest town. Here resides a self-satisfied, insular community. Yet one fundamentally at ease with itself.

Today Dandelion Wine communicates an 'Our Town' mythic charm - often darkly shadowed by Bradbury, if minus the rupturing gaze of say David Lynch. Such stability can comfortably put the cycles of life, from birth to death, under its belt. However the rhythm of things is questioned. Suppose you could build a Happiness Machine? And would you need one in such an idyllic place? When Leo Auffmann does it turns out to be a crude, proto-multi media affair that soon explodes, setting fire to the garage. Real happy 'machines' are members of his family working in an atmosphere of domestic bliss. And what if you could make the grass grow to such a length that you wouldn't need to cut it? No. That would sabotage the natural order. Pay the man, with the seeds, not to plant them. For the sound of all those lawnmowers, working at the June grass, is a pastoral music to look forward to.

Bradbury is at his most effective when evoking a New World joy and optimism. Minus any lofty philosophy, he tries to ape Wordsworth and Whitman. The growth of the poetic fantasy writer's mind. It's childhood prelude and ecstatic celebration. Sometimes Bradbury's prose triumphs. Whilst at other times there's an unfortunate 'Oh gosh! Gee Whizz!' ring to it. When he sticks with Douglas Spaulding, it feels fine. We respond to the rapture of an intensely alive boy; waiting for something tremendous to happen. But too often Bradbury's gently fantastic style becomes plain tiring. His Americana is over eulogised, to the extent of unbalancing the novel.

Dandelion Wine's darker moments (eg the menace of the town strangler) fail to really grip. You feel Bradbury really wants to keep pulling you back to the goodness he sees all around him. Fair enough. And hard enough. To write of human happiness. Yet I miss the edge, the doubt, the full lurking horror that could mess things up!

Bradbury was once capable of lyrical terror. See especially his story collections, October Country (1955) and Golden Apples of the Sun (1953). Both contain tales which are malevolent gems. An obsessive madness that rots at the centre of Bradbury's utopian wishing.

Dandelion Wine leaves you with too much of a good glow. Not exactly a 'feel good' book - sentimentality is kept judiciously at bay. But a 'let's not feel too bad' book. Still it's an engrossing read. Written by a poet - a rare animal in fantasy fiction. And Bradbury, good or bad, was never less than that.

Review by Alan David Price.

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