Howard Waldrop Saves the Day!

If you know Howard Waldrop’s classic short story “Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me,” (from his collection, Howard Who?) you know it pulls off a sci-fi/magical-realist blend of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the “Day the Music Died.”

A batch of iconographic film stars– Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello–are sent from “Heaven” to keep a skinny Texas musician and his troupe from getting on a plane in Iowa during his winter tour in 1959.  Their leader, an Archangel/God figure who acts and talks exactly like Groucho Marx, tells them that if they fail, “The Universe will end.”

I see it as One Giant Heaping Metaphor.  Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper’s deaths DID represent the end of a universe, at least from the perspective of the black-and-white, innocent, optimistic, slapstick America* represented in old movies.  The subsequent years weren’t just a neck-snapping cultural reformation; they were also the beginning of “The Future”–the start of what was supposed to be a techno-perfect wonderland to kids raised on Astounding Stories and Buster Crabbe serials.

(Spoiler Alert: The future didn’t actually turn out that way.  Cue desiderium.)

So I had a little trepidation about teaching it in room full of people born after 1990, who didn’t grow up immersed in that era’s culture.

My fears were realized.  Only a few of them got that the musicians were analogues for Holly, Valens, and the Bopper.  Even fewer knew who the comedians were.  This is not a case of them not understanding the references, they didn’t know the referents.  Laurel and Hardy were foreign to them.  They knew “Who’s on First” but had no idea who’d first done the routine.

But here’s what they did get–the world got weirder after 1959, and using Golden Age comedy teams to represent the lost past works evokes some weird sense of loss.

They understood the metaphor, without any of the nostalgic personal baggage.

Maybe good desiderium fiction has to play on that razor’s edge between deeply evocative and potentially irrelevant, must risk being inaccessible to future readers who won’t be moved by nostalgia because it’s too far removed from them.

But the good stuff–like Waldrop’s work– pulls it off anyway.

*These were the terms my students came up with when asked to describe the world of pre-1950s comedy.  Well done, there.

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