Sunday, October 24, 2010

Night of the Jabberwock (1950)

Fredric Brown grew a checkered 20th-century career as a newspaper proofreader in Milwaukee turned into science fiction and mystery novelist after establishing himself as a story writer in the '40s and '50s pulps. He was prolific, author of dozens of stories and many novels, whose quality varies. He's always good, carefully written, but may feel rushed, working the hell out of one or two surprise tricks or snap twists, and supplementing that with broadside parody when nothing else would do—a Midwestern O. Henry by way of H.L. Mencken wishing he could be Sinclair Lewis and damn proud to speak it so proudly, yet always with a gentle, affable humor. The aliens turn out to be advertising men on the other planet, or the gladiatorial combat actually was about a corporate merger, things like that—'50s man in the gray flannel suit stuff basically straight up, with proto-Rod Serling twists when he could manage them and occasional splendid results (fans included Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, and Mickey Spillane, it says here). Nowhere else that I've seen did Brown get it together quite so economically and so brilliantly as in this little gem, whose surprises come regularly as the story becomes stranger. It doesn't really cheat with anything, which is just the start of what makes it so good. By its setting, it's already one of Brown's most personal novels—a quiet Midwestern town where our narrator, a newspaper publisher in his 50s who longs to break just one big story once for his weekly paper, has just put the paper to bed for the week and headed off into the night with a bottle. Right on cue, weird stuff starts happening. First there is someone pretending to be a character out of a Lewis Carroll novel waiting for him at his home with a strange request. Before our narrator can hear him out he gets a call. Something about a serious auto accident involving prominent citizens on the outskirts of town. On the way into the office, he discovers the town bank being robbed. Then gangsters, guns, eventually more Lewis Carroll, a haunted house, and murder. Things happen fast and the action is rat-a-tat precise in this short novel. Everything happens practically real-time across the space of a single night, and the whole extravagant Alice conceit is delivered on nicely, the reading experience of it like the funhouse scene in a cartoon, with trapdoors, sledgehammers, teacup cars, cigar-smoking bad guys, bizarre images in the mirror, all of it coming at you like a freight train right down the tracks on you. Really. A big ride. Suspenseful too. And the drinking is amazing. Just delightful from beginning to end.

In case it's not at the library (you better hope it is, looks like).

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