Sunday, April 8, 2007

Field of Bad Dreams and Other Novels


Fancy Meeting You Here

Published: April 8, 2007

A short while ago, a ripping yarn called “Grim Legion: Edgar Allan Poe at West Point” came across my desk. Published by Bewildering Press, a relatively new firm that specializes in “speculative” writing, “Grim Legion” recounts the rousing adventures of the future author of “The Fall of the House of Usher” shortly before he was expelled from the United States Military Academy in 1831. A bit of a screw-up, though not yet the morbid, self-destructive alcoholic he would later become, Poe has stumbled upon a monstrous plot by a shadowy organization called the Helvetian Society whose ultimate objective is nothing short of ... well ... monstrous.

The Helvetians have already been involved in several gruesome murders, with Sergeant Major Poe the prime suspect, as fragments of his lurid poetry keep turning up on the corpses. Now Poe and his brother, Henry, must join forces to foil the heinous Helvetians. Luckily, just when things look their bleakest, the lads receive aid from a most unlikely quarter, as Robert E. Lee, himself a recent West Point grad, rolls into town and helps to restore truth, justice and the American way.

“Grim Legion” is the work of a newspaper editor named Jack Alcott, and as is true of so many works in this genre, it is strong on research and narrative, not so strong on prose. Bristling with period lingo — “By thunder!” “passing strange,” “the deuce with your circumstances” — it is the sort of book in which flint-hearted womenfolk are preyed upon by jack-a-ninny rakehells, if not belly-crawling snakes, who come gallivanting in from places hotter than Hades, presumably to rake hell while crawling on their bellies. The dialogue occasionally goes ever so slightly awry, as when the doomed heroine cries out to the man who will one day pen “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”: “Oh, Eddy, this is so strange.” No, mon ami, I josh not: one man’s anachronism is another man’s tintinnabulation.

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for books like “Grim Legion,” fanciful novels by amateur historians that seek to reimagine the past. They make excellent introductory reading for youngsters who are not yet ready to tackle the major works of literature, and superb Christmas gifts for the buff who has everything except a novel about the time Mark Antony, Herod Antipas and Barabbas went to summer camp together.

Yet one thing has always irked me: Whether the book involves a chance encounter between Edgar Allan Poe and Robert E. Lee, or Poe and Charles Dickens, or Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung plunked down in the middle of a Gotham murder mystery, there is something humdrum and predictable about these liaisons. Since Poe and Lee both studied at West Point, and since Jung and Freud were close associates who could easily have found themselves embroiled in a turn-of-the-century crime caper, the possibilities for truly wild adventures are severely curtailed here. There is no reason why Charles Lindbergh should not cross paths with Adolf Hitler, given that they lived at exactly the same time, had a common fascination with aviation and disliked Jews, just as there is no reason Pancho Villa should not have spent many festive evenings with his contemporary Ambrose Bierce. Once the reader gets past the surface novelty, there isn’t much room for the story to develop because the encounters themselves are by no means implausible.

As a fan of the genre, I would love to see more novels that unite historical figures whose paths would almost certainly never cross in real life, not because they lived in different eras but because they traveled in completely different social circles. This way the story can go in all sorts of exciting new directions, and not merely from West Point to Crabcake Corners. Though I myself lack the imagination to write this sort of novel, I can think of a few plot lines that might pass muster with a gifted author who does possess those talents. Here are a few examples:

Square Red Depressed about killing so many millions of his countrymen but only finishing No. 2 in the midcentury mass murderer rankings behind Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin decides to disguise himself as a shiftless kulak and spend a day at the Moscow Zoo. Here he encounters the child prodigy Sting, on a school trip to the Soviet Union. The precocious Sting tells the Soviet strongman about a burgeoning American idiom called rock ’n’ roll and Stalin just like totally lightens up for the last few months of his dark reign. He is even poised to give rock music the official thumbs-up when the K.G.B. suddenly learns of his intentions and poisons him, setting Russo-rock back 50 years.

Holliday for Two While visiting the Big Easy in the 1860s, Edgar Degas is afflicted by agonizing toothache. Short of cash, he persuades a dentist to accept a sculpture of a lovely ballerina as payment for extracting two wisdom teeth. The sculpture will later be lost in an 1877 faro game in Dodge City to Ike Clanton, who will melt it down to make bullets, one of which wounds Wyatt Earp’s brother, Morgan, during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Degas’s art-loving dentist was none other than Doc Holliday.

An Etude in Scarlet Jack the Ripper and Erik Satie are actually one and the same person, and only Edvard Munch, who supplements his paltry income as a painter by moonlighting as a private detective, knows it.

A Burr in Her Saddle Jane Austen uncharacteristically sets up a ménage-à-trois with Aaron Burr and Davy Crockett, and things do not work out at all. Austen particularly objects to Crockett’s refusal to clean his spittoon, and his persistence in referring to her as a “back-shooting drygulcher — just like that polecat Lizzie Bennett!”

Shostakovich’s Fifth While working in a Moscow radio factory in the mid-1950’s, Lee Harvey Oswald meets the great Soviet composer, and the two go out and get loaded. Shostakovich later discovers that Oswald has befriended him only because he used to know Stalin, and the assassin-in-training is desperate to meet the strongman’s pal, a mysterious English child prodigy named Sting.

Boche au Pair Calamity Jane, still a teenager, and Kaiser Wilhelm I have an out-of-wedlock child who goes on to help found the Pew Charitable Trusts and invent arena football.

Hook, Line and Sinker Babe Ruth and the young Ethel Merman investigate mysterious goings-on aboard the Lusitania in 1915. Also on the passenger list: Mae West, Wassily Kandinsky, Lucky Luciano and William Butler Yeats.

Field of Bad Dreams During a press conference after his defeat in the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, Howard Dean lets out a weird shriek that costs him a chance to become president of the United States. Conspiracy theorists charge that Karl Rove, via a right-wing medium who went to high school with Ann Coulter, has conjured up the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose spectral figure appeared out of nowhere and scared the hell out of the former governor of Vermont. A penitent Shoeless Joe later joins the Kerry campaign committee as an unpaid adviser charged with helping to get out a traditionally pivotal segment of the Democratic electorate: the dead.

Too Hot to Handle Shortly before the Cuban revolution, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra and the 7-year-old Gordon Sumner hold a clandestine Miami meeting to divvy up nicknames. Lewis insists on being called the “Chairman of the Board” and Guevara is more than happy with the sobriquet “Killer,” while Sinatra is quite taken with the name “Sting.” But absolutely nobody wants to be “Che.” Sumner throws a temper tantrum, and the meeting breaks up in an uproar. Returning to Cuba, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man finds that Sting Guevara is just not gaining any traction with the campesinos, and the legend of Che is born.

Joe Queenan writes for Barron’s, The Guardian and Men’s Health.

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Suzy said...

Chuck, this was really funny. If you know your history, you could turn this into a fun parlor game.

Ed said...

My father, who is something of a Charles Lindbergh scholar, claims that the idea that Lindbergh hated jews was the result of a smear campaign waged against him because he was a vocal opponent of US involvement in WWII. Allegedly, while in Germany, Lindbergh discovered that Germany was gearing up for war and warned the US government, but was ignored. I haven't done the research myself, but it's easy to imagine, given the treatment of early opponents of the war in Iraq.