Sunday, November 09, 2008

Books Wormed: "A Garden Of Sand" by Earl Thompson

Owing to my recent deployment at a locale where there's more time to do it in than actual work to do while there, I'm back on a reading kick in a really big way. I figured I might as well put all that bookworming to good use - while it lasts - by adding to one of those features which has been much-neglected of late, namely Books Wormed... ~ MSM

When Earl Thompson's novel A Garden of Sand first appeared in 1970 the 1930s was still, for a lot of people, within living memory. Yet human nature seems fixated on the idea that the past was some G-rated paradise, so there seems to have been no shortage of shock at the contents of this novel, which is almost entirely shocking even today. Epic, yet intimate, lurid, yet honestly so, A Garden of Sand blows the lid off a seemingly lid-proof Depression-era America - a time when even good people, it seems, were forced to resort to their most craven impulses every minute of the day just to survive.

Ever since they occurred, the Thirties has served as a pretty convenient shorthand for artists everywhere; when times are bad, it seems, storytellers of all kinds - be they novelists or film-makers - like to turn to those hardscrabble days for perspective, especially when a contemporary setting would seem to be lacking in the necessary gravity to convey whatever threat or privation needs conveying.

There are enough hard-luck losers in A Garden of Sand to populate a dozen Tom Waits albums, with enough left over to keep him busy telling their myriad stories until he's a hundred; in following Odd 'Jack' Andersen almost from the moment of his birth Thompson has fashioned a story which contains not only all of those lives which intersect his, but a powerful morality tale as rich in philosophy as it is in imagery.

Amazingly, A Garden of Sand was Earl Thompson's first novel, yet it's no typically tepid freshman effort. Thompson's masterful handling of prose - laced with equal parts dynamite and poetry - suggests bullying, sweet-talking, and in general a situationally ethical approach to getting the story told; it's a surprisingly muscular way of handling the despair, apathy, and inevitable ruin to which many of his characters find themselves inexorably drawn. If this were journalism (which, in a way, it is) his every subject would leave their author's presence in either tears or handcuffs and often enough both.

Having extensively perused numerous works either from or about the Thirties (as research for my own novel, set in 1934-5) I can safely say that A Garden of Sand reads as brutally true as any I've read; if God is in the details then Earl Thompson is God... His evocation of time and place teems with finely-observed insight. So completely realized is his universe - centred on Wichita, Kansas - that upon closing the back cover I wanted to re-open the front cover and experience it all over again.

Now that's what I call a good book...
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The Barington Encounter: Part Two


In the previous part the town of Barington was described, and some anecdotal insight was given into the nature of its residents; the aliens have arrived, and been described, but invariably the narrator has wandered off on some wacko tangent or another about the various other races known to enjoy Earth, so who knows when he (or she) will get down to the whole "humans interacting with actual aliens" shtick. ~ MSM

I should explain that, on Andromeda, it is not a crime to be ordinary like it is in other places. In fact, it's rather a requirement; because special people invariably had an unfair advantage in life, and equally invariably got special treatment because of it, and because to the Andromedan mind this was spectacularly unfair, over many thousands of millenia each and every Andromedan had come to have the same build, the same intellect, the same salary... It was, to the highly evolved if highly pedantic Andromedan mind, the only way they could all be equals.

Had they been Centauris, though, these Andromedans would have been among the first to earn a free trip to Earth as exiles (whom they called borings); Earth’d, the most popular programme on Centauri television, twice daily featured the dullest of their race being lured to Earth by attractive females then abandoned, often without their clothing (especially if it's a week in which ratings are compiled, cruel nudity being almost as popular there as short video clips of blokes getting clocked in the goolies on Earth).

If in your workplace you have a coworker who is large and silent, chances are you have met an Earth'd Centauri. If you’ve seen a Yeti or better yet, a fellow with an excellent Wookiee costume at a nude beach, known anyone or anything even remotely Sasquatchian (including Sasquatch), chances are he - for they are always a he - was a loser on Earth’d. They are large and hairy because they are Centauri and they are silent because they’d rather not talk about it, thank you very much, denial being a rather chic pastime of their race. Still, you should always hug one if you can; in Centauri mythology it’s said to either ‘bring luck to the helper’ or else ‘help the hugger get lucky’. Exactly which, naturally, has been the cause of much sectarian strife between the intersecting systems of Alpha and Beta Centauri, as translations vary - a situation scarcely remedied following twelve centuries of bloodshed known as the Translation Wars, during which the good people of Gamma Centauri were wise to keep well out of by professing a deep affection for atheism, until they and their planet were devastated by an attack from the agnostics of Centauri Delta.

Likewise, if you’ve ever seen a leprechaun, a pixie, or a fairy (especially when potted) you’ve seen an Oriononian - since normally the only way a human being can see fast enough to make one out is with the aid of some chemical assistance. On the other hand, a gnome who just stands there leaning on his rake and grinning insipidly - whether beside a water feature or as the focal point of a rock garden - that’s an Oriononian ‘colonist’, a variety of layabout whose slackdaw ways are so anathema to the flibbertigibbet Oriononian majority that he (for again, they are always a he) is exiled forthwith to concentration camps (which on Earth are known by the twee euphemism 'garden centres') and from there they are sold into what constitutes slavery on Orion - being forced to slowly farm the most shadowy corners of the dampest countries on the most obscure planets forever. Oriononian colonists, it should be noted, are the most contented exiles ever, though they do not brag about it like, say, Australians.

So Centauris and Oriononians you may have seen, but you wouldn’t have ever seen an Andromedan on Earth; until, that is, May 12th. That’s because these five were the first of their kind ever to come here, and, as has already been alluded that was the day they arrived. The reason for this is a long and convoluted one, and one which is scarcely believable besides; still, I'm going to tell you anyway...


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