Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Strange Worlds

By Debbie Gilbert and Leonard Gill

by Harlan Ellison
Houghton Mifflin, 303 pp., $22

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  Call Harlan Ellison a science-fiction writer and he'll slap you upside the head. His work has very little to do with science and everything to do with emotion -- particularly fear -- and he's far more likely to venture into the past than into the future. Drawing heavily on myths, both ancient and urban, Ellison takes the bizarre, uncontrolled happenings that permeate our dreams and transposes them into waking hours.

Slippage, the 63-year-old writer's 70th book, contains 21 short stories that have appeared in magazines over the past decade and weren't previously collected in book form. "Slippage" refers to the precarious nature of our secure reality, and how easy it is for us to slide over the edge. In a harrowing introductory essay, Ellison recalls two events -- the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake and his subsequent heart attack -- that forced him to acknowledge how thin the line is between existence and nonexistence.

Similarly, the characters in his stories usually undergo transformations. While it would be grossly inaccurate to say that Ellison adheres to any sort of formula, there is a discernable pattern to many of these tales. Typically, the protagonist experiences something that's shocking or extraordinary, frequently unpleasant, and often life-changing. In a variation on this theme, sometimes the main character himself is a mysterious being who exerts a profound influence on the lives of others (such is the case with the peripatetic "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore").

Standout entries include the novella "Mefisto In Onyx," in which a telepath takes an unsettling tour through the mind of a serial killer; "The Dreams A Nightmare Dreams," revealing what really killed the dinosaurs; "Pulling Hard Time," which proposes a criminal-justice solution even more effective than capital punishment (hook the prisoners up to virtual-reality machines that cause them to relive the worst moment of their life again and again, year after year); and "Sensible City," which has the same paranoid-highway feel of Steven Spielberg's film Duel. But the highlight of the book, at least for anyone who's ever wanted to take a sledgehammer to his or her PC, is "Keyboard," in which a hapless man is attacked and partially devoured by his own computer.

Science fiction? Nah. This is such stuff as dreams are made of. Or nightmares. And even if you're not into the type of dark, labyrinthine stories that are Ellison's trademark, you can appreciate his superb craft. This is a man who clearly revels in language, inundating readers with the richness of his words. If Ellison sends you scurrying for the dictionary, so be it. At least you've learned something -- even if it's got nothing to do with science. -- Debbie Gilbert

Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley
By Jonathan Yardley
Random House, 250 pp., $23

WHEN A BIOGRAPHER CALLS HIS SUBJECT "essentially unknowable," "inaccessible," "elusive," "mysterious," and as living "on another planet, if not in another universe," you may well ask whether said subject is fit subject for biography in the first place. Jonathan Yardley, whose Misfit is an only partially successful attempt at the life of novelist Frederick Exley, couldn't agree with you more.

"To write a conventional account of [Exley's] life would be pointless," Yardley states, "not just because that life was so thoroughly unconventional but because he left so few of the convenient signposts by which biographers customarily mark their subject's progress." In the case (or "case study," as Yardley would have it) of Exley, what progress there was consisted of one critically acclaimed "fictional memoir," A Fan's Notes, two less-than-successful follow-up novels, and scattered shots at teaching, journalism, and the lecture circuit. Real progress for Exley, though, wasn't slow; it was impossible. Unresolved family issues had something to do with it, and drinking had a lot to do with it. What he apparently got by on -- when he wasn't getting by on his writing (a rare occurrence) -- was charm.

For charm it must have been for Exley to have got away with routinely hounding his friends for money or lodging and routinely treating his family, wives, and children even worse. That charm, which could also run up untold, unpaid bar tabs and earn the affection of the editors and public who knew him, is largely missing from Yardley's account, however, and Misfit misfires because of it. To understand what was winning in an exasperating and exasperated soul such as Frederick Exley's, you must have had to be there. -- Leonard Gill

Where Trouble Sleeps
By Clyde Edgerton
Algonquin, 260 pp., $18.95

TROUBLE IS A DOG AND THE TOWN of Listre, N.C.'s weatherman, circa 1950. Rain in the forecast and Trouble sleeps inside; sun and he sleeps outside. That isn't all there is to trouble, though, in Clyde Edgerton's gently comic seventh novel, Where Trouble Sleeps. Stephen Toomey, age 6, takes his asthma medicine with milk from a baby bottle; his mother's God-fearing and his uncle's a drunk; Preacher Crenshaw lusts after Cheryl Daniels; Dorothea Clark thinks she's conversed with Jesus just beyond her door; Jack Umstead is new in town and sizing things up for a robbery; and Bea Blaine is not above using a shotgun on a "smarty pants" like Umstead if it's her store he means to rob. You get the picture, even if that picture of a simpler time resembles life, to borrow a phrase, "on another planet, if not in another universe." Edgerton writes sympathetically of the none-too-good and the none-too-evil, rain or shine, and will read from and sign copies of Where Trouble Sleeps at Burke's Book Store on Friday, September 19th, from 5 to 7 p.m. -- LG

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