The great Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91, and there’s little I can add to the lovely obits in the papers and homages everywhere on the web, praising his imagination, his wonderful short stories and novels, and his decency as a man.
But I do have memories, wonderful memories.
Looking at the Bradbury paperbacks I’ve kept all these years, it appears I started reading him in 1964, when I was 12 going on 13. In my mind, it’s summertime and many of my pals have deserted the neighborhood, some to camp, others on vacation with their parents. The days are long, hot and humid, and with no one around to play baseball I read and read and read, usually sitting under a backyard tree, nursing a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, racing through paperbacks, mostly bought at Jack’s Candy Store in the shadows of the Auburndale Long Island Rail Road station.
I first read “The Martian Chronicles,” a terrific introduction to Bradbury’s work. I obviously liked the book, because the adolescent critic in me wrote “Great” on the back cover. I bought whatever other Bradburys Jack carried, then prevailed upon my mom to get me more at a bookstore in one the arcades at Grand Central Terminal. I think it was called The Open Book, and it sold only paperbacks. So more Bradburys arrived, not just the ones pictured here but others I loaned to friends, never to see the books again: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” “Dark Carnival,” “Dandelion Wine."
Children play an important role in Bradbury’s work, and that recognition certainly proved an alluring introduction. Really, though, it was Bradbury’s imagination coupled with his realistic take on humanity that got to me. Some critics—notably Thomas Disch—criticized Bradbury for a sentimental streak. Sentiment, certainly, but a Bradbury story or novel is no guarantee of happiness and joy brought on by easy sentimentality. Why else would the word “dystopian” appear in so many of today’s descriptions of his work?
None of the obits I’ve read has made mention of a 1965 off-Broadway production called “The World of Ray Bradbury,” starring the gifted George Voskovic. Three one-act plays based on “The Pedestrian,” “The Veldt,” and “To the Chicago Abyss” comprised the work, performed at the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village. Luckily, I got to attend a Saturday matinee. “The World of Ray Bradbury” used sound effects and lighting to simulate the future Bradbury created. I’ve never forgotten the staging of “The Veldt,” based on one of his finest short stories.
Looking at these paperbacks makes me want to find a tree, a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, then dive into “The Martian Chronicles.” Maybe I’ll be transported to those hot, humid summer days, a 12-year-old once more.
Now that would be worthy of a Ray Bradbury story.