Wednesday, October 16, 2013

“For All the Poor Folks at Picketwire” by R. A. Lafferty

A few days ago I was very pleased to find the anthology Epoch in a Missouri flea market.  Edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg and published in 1975, Epoch, which contains 24 original stories, purports to be a sample of “the state of the art in science fiction” and “the definitive SF book of this decade.”   The front and back covers are full of such charming declarations (“the culmination of centuries of imagination”?!) 

Anyway, the first story I have read in Epoch is R. A. Lafferty’s “For All the Poor Folks at Picketwire.”  This is another folksy downhome tall tale adorned with jokes that didn’t make me laugh.  I don’t really care for this sort of thing, but I try to keep an open mind and give writers a chance to grow on me.  (I always have in the back of my mind the knowledge that I was unimpressed by the first books I read by Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance, both of whom I now consider among my very favorite writers.)  This story is about a backwoods inventor, a super genius who doesn’t care about money.  All his life he has dreamed of being able to develop and manufacture items in a perfectly neutral environment, one without gravity, temperature, UV rays, etc. 

If I am interpreting the clues correctly, the inventor makes a deal with the Devil (or maybe some demon or angel) who allows him to start inventing and manufacturing in Purgatory, with a legion of kobolds and goblins as workmen – these kobolds and goblins are, in fact, the souls of the dead who are working off their sins.  The inventor’s big new invention is edible rocks and clay, which is perhaps some Christian symbolism which is escaping me.  Before the inventor got to Purgatory the kobolds and goblins were creating coal and petroleum.  The story includes allusions to Virgil and Dante; there is a Sibyl, for example, and Purgatory is accessible through caves on the Earth’s surface. 

Immediately after reading “For All the Poor Folks at Picketwire,” I thought it deserved to be ranked as merely average, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.  The story is a sort of puzzle that I am still trying to figure out, which is a good sign that it was a worthwhile read.  So I’ll have to give “For All the Poor Folks at Picketwire,” a thumbs up and continue scrounging the libraries, used bookstores and flea markets of the Middle West for the stories of R. A. Lafferty.              


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  2. This is seven years later than your post, but I thought I would comment. I once had that book in my SF collection, though I can't say for sure if I still have it as I lost a lot of books during my life's journey. Homelessness, even if it's temporary, can impose serious tolls. However, I remember this particular story, or rather, a potent phrase at the end.

    "We are all formed by feedback and interaction. We see more than there is in other people, and we ourselves are seen for more than we are. And we grow to match our seeming."
    R.A. Lafferty, "For All the Poor Folks at Picketwire," 1975

    More than forty years later, the idea that we "grow to match our seeming" still resonates.

    How we see ourselves matters a great deal. It's not just self-esteem, but how we project ourselves to others and what we wish to project even if we don't have a quality or skill we wish we had but really, really want. How others see us pervades how they treat us and respond to us, and that in turn becomes a feedback loop that can be very difficult to overcome if it's negative; it's likely why some people move to a new place without really discerning why other than a general disquiet or unhappiness. The trick, however, is that when you "seek a fresh start," you don't fall into old patterns, that you remake your self-image and act to present a new "seeming." Otherwise, old habits will reform and the desire to change again will become overwhelming. And that leads to running, which is fruitless, as you are then only running from yourself.

    You wrote that the story was growing on you. That gave me a smile. I found that particular quote from the story to be the message I needed to see at the time; even though I can't recall much of the story itself, that phrase is why Lafferty's story with its profound nugget of wisdom remains a favorite.
    All the best. Slainté - Dannan Tavona