Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Alcoholic Succession

Hey, Jon,

Wasn't it you who first introduced me to Spider Robinson's Callahan books? I'm pretty sure it was you, but it must be twenty years ago now. I also don't remember for sure if I'd already read any of Robinson's other books; I remember a glowing review of Stardance that I know led me to read that one.

But the early Callahan books did draw me in. It's a lovely fantasy, of a small tavern that attracts a misfit bunch of space and time travellers, run by a wise and solid publican. I was still young enough to want to find a place like that, where I'd belong, among my peers, watched over by an ideal father figure. Robinson's writing was light and clear, seemingly effortless; if he wasn't a new Heinlein, as he has often been called, he still seemed to have learned the right lessons from the Noble Engineer.

But something went awry over the years, as Robinson began taking his Heinlein association too seriously. In a tribute to Heinlein -- oh yeah, the title was "Rah Rah R.A.H.", wasn't it? -- I encountered Robinson's overwrought defense of the Great Man. As I remember it, he scored some points against Heinlein's less intelligent critics, but forgot that just because your opponents are wrong, it doesn't make you right. And by the time I read that, I'd noticed Robinson's own fiction starting to go soft. Still, as with Heinlein himself, I could read Robinson with pleasure even when his opinions annoyed me. And they did, they did -- the only thing I remember from the later books was the information was that Mike Callahan, the saloon's patriarch, would not tolerate anyone's referring to the Strategic Defense Initiative as "Star Wars."

By the time Callahan's Key appeared in 2000, even the storytelling had worn thin, and I missed the latest installment, Callahan's Con, when it was published in 2003. But I found a copy at the library book sale last weekend for $2 and thought, What the hell -- it won't take more than a couple of hours to read. Which it didn't, and they weren't unpleasant hours either. Robinson seems to have lost the US jingoism, which was always odd in a Canadian resident, albeit an American-born one. I suspect the accession of George W. Bush may have jolted him closer to reality again. The infamous puns were no more than a minor annoyance; I'm not constitutionally revolted by them, to each his own, yet they were tiresome, composed specifically to inspire groans, I thought. But I was zipping along too quickly to be bothered much. The characters are, as a Publisher's Weekly reviewer once noted, "collections of eccentricities rather than real people." The plot complications are obviously mechanical, and Robinson has to switch to the point-of-view of his villain for extended passages in order to keep things moving in sequence.

One thing really tripped me up, though, and that was the lapses in continuity. The least of these involves a parrot-sized toilet, fully functional, located behind the bar for the hyperintelligent parrot Harry to use. On page 106 Robinson describes it as though it were new to the narrative -- but he'd already introduced it on page 23. More serious: on page 91 we're told that "the gate Little Nuts had destroyed" had been repaired -- but it was actually destroyed by the novel's faux-baddie Bureaucrat, Field Inspector Ludnyola Czrjghnczl ("the accent is on the rjgh") on page 36. The narrator Jake Stonebender's daughter Erin has "long curly chestnut hair" on page 94, but on 141 it is suddenly blonde. On page 92 Jake's wife Zoey is frightened by the villain: "I could not blame her. This was her first encounter" with him -- but she was present, arguing with Jake and Erin, when "the man monster" first walked in on page 63. These don't affect the plot, such as it is, but I found them jarring. For a while I wondered if they were deliberate, maybe to suggest changes in space-time continua or something, but I can't see any rhyme or reason in them.

But hey, this is a fantasy novel after all, and the clearest sign of that is that it takes place in Key West, whither the saloon migrated from Long Island a few books back -- yet it's a Key West without any gay men in it. Until Robinson needs some (more?) comic relief, that is, and produces four gigantic drag queens from a van, just to scare the villain. It's now been six years since Spider Robinson entered the world of Callahan, and that is probably a good thing.