Saturday, August 9, 2014

Three 1971 stories by Robert Thurston

As I have reported several places online, I quite like Robert Thurston's 1978 novel Alicia II.  I also enjoyed his Q Colony, from 1985 (link goes to my Amazon review.)  So, when I came upon Clarion, a 1971 anthology which includes three stories by Thurston, I bought it.  This week I read the stories, "Wheels," "Anaconda," and "The Last Desperate Hour."

Does that say "a darling
transvestite rite?"
"Wheels" won the first place award at the 1970 Clarion Writers' Workshop, and was fourth in the 1972 Locus Poll for short fiction.  It was anthologized a second time in 1979, in Car Sinister, a paperback anthology of stories about the future of man and the automobile.  I couldn't find any decent scans of the cover of Car Sinister online, which is too bad, as the cover is pretty amusing.

"Wheels" was also the basis of Thurston's novel Set of Wheels, published in 1983. Check out Tarbandu's negative review of Set of Wheels; Tarbandu not only harshly assesses the book, but the entire Ford Motor Company. 

Personally, I don't care about cars, and, as I tell incredulous MidWesterners, I don't like to drive.  ("I didn't drive for years in New York, I walked or took the train everywhere-- it was a paradise!")  I am really looking forward to the autonomous cars we keep hearing about.

Enough about me, let's talk about "Wheels."  As he tells us in the intro, Thurston's "Wheels" is about the tension between the romantic view of the car as a symbol and a means of freedom and sexual prowess, and the more recent view that the car is dangerous and bad for the environment.

"Wheels" takes place in a dystopic future in which the city is plagued by snipers, police have cordoned off the black ghetto, and cars have not been manufactured since 1979.  Our narrator is a young man with a yearning to drive, but getting a license and a car are almost impossible.  He enviously watches people in cars drive by; the drivers even shout insults at him!  So he sneaks into the ghetto and buys a battered black market '67 Mustang and drives off into the country.  Out there he joins up with a group of outlaw car enthusiasts, including a biracial girl whom he finds fascinating.  "She has white-girl-texture hair which she ties back as if ashamed of it."  She wears cosmetics to darken her skin, but she can't hide her "white girl's small-nostril nose."  In the climax of the story the narrator and the young woman are pursued by the bravest cop in the territory.

I thought this was a pretty good adventure story that also addresses "the issues of the day," like race relations and urban crime.  It has some literary affectations, like being in the present tense and using no quotation marks, but I didn't find these overly distracting.  It is easy to see why it would win the award at Clarion; Thurston has all the bases covered, and his writing style is good.  So, thumbs up for "Wheels."

"Anaconda" is three pages long. Some of the paragraphs constitute a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing, the thoughts of an American serviceman running through a Philippine jungle, worried about "Jap" snipers.  Other paragraphs are about a funeral, and the deceased's failed marriage.  It appears that the guy in the jungle and the guy being mourned are the same, and that the marriage failed because the wife was unfaithful.  The husband, after the war, became a drunk and fell down some stairs, and the ex-wife confessed to having pushed him, but was acquitted at trial.

A puzzling story, not very fun and only faintly interesting.  Thumbs down.

"The Last Desperate Hour"
Editor Robin Scott Wilson in the intro to this one tells us it is "very funny."  Thurston suggests that the story is meant to subvert or satirize old melodramatic movies in which evil is punished, because in real life sometimes "the bad guys" succeed.  I can't say I was eager to read a story making fun of old movies because they are square, but I soldiered on.

"The Last Desperate Hour" is a farce.  Eighteen years ago two bank robbers, Noodles and Butch, broke into the Glaze family's suburban home and forced the Glazes at gunpoint to allow them to use their house as a hideout.  Noodles and Butch are still there nearly twenty years later, not having left the property for one moment over that period of time.  The criminals have watched the family evolve; toddler Veronica is now a college student, and Mr. Glaze, once a radical dedicated to the class struggle and sympathetic to the robbers, now complains about his wife's "bleeding-heart liberalism."  There are weak jokes (Noodles's .45 is rusty) and feeble puns (Noodles looks at Veronica's legs and engages in "remembrance of thighs past.")            

"The Last Desperate Hour" is like a bad Saturday Night Live skit.  Thumbs down!


So far, I've read six stories in Clarion, three by George Alec Effinger and three by Robert Thurston, and have liked two of the six.  There are twenty-one pieces of fiction in Clarion; dare I read any more?

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