Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.

I am not sure that the dead of winter was the right time to read Dandelion Wine, as obsessed as it is with the magic of the summertime. The hero of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year old boy in Green Town, Illinois (the same town in which Bradbury's much better Something Wicked This Way Comes takes place), who on the first day of summer, 1928, realizes for the first time that he is alive. This realization gives Douglas a new lease on life, and he begins to become aware of the significance of summer's mandatory rituals: the new pair of sneakers, the bottling of dandelion wine (which, honestly, sounds gross), etc., etc. The narrative jumps from Douglas to the other denizens of Green Town, but Douglas' hyper-awareness makes him the fulcrum around which the novel turns.

Though Bradbury is characteristically poignant here, his enthusiasm gauge is stuck squarely at eleven. Sometimes the "aw-shucks factor" is overwhelming:

"The reason why grownups and kids fight is because they belong to separate races. Look at them, different rom us. Look at us, different from them. Separate races, and 'never the twain shall meet.' Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tom!"

"Doug, you hit it, you hit it! That's right! That's exactly why we don't get along with Mom or Dad. Trouble, trouble, from sunrise to supper! Boy, you're a genius!"

Oh boy, Davey! There's something slightly disingenuous about this, I think, and it's true for a lot of books about children. Children may be innocent, but it's not because they lack vices; it's because they don't know any better. In fact, children are typically vapid, selfish, cruel and prone to anger. Bradbury wants us to believe, as many do, that children occupy a purer state, but I'm not sure I buy into that, even in 1928. Not to mention my inherent distrust of the saccharine and overenthusiastic.

But Bradbury successfully tempers these tendencies with a grim streak: As in the beginning of the summer, Douglas realizes that he is truly alive, he later realizes that he, too, must die. This realization is brought on by the death of several elderly folks in Green Town, as well as the re-appearance of a serial strangler known as The Lonely One. At the book's climax, Douglas takes ill and nearly dies, saved finally by a traveling junkman with vials of exotic air. At his happiest, Bradbury is an above average prose stylist, but I think it's these darkest moments where he truly excels. When Douglas is lying prone in his bed, on death's door, Bradbury writes:

Inside redness, inside blindness, Douglas lay listening to the dim piston of his heart and the muddy ebb and flow of the blood in his arms and legs.

His lips were heavy and wouild not move. His thoughts were heavy and barely ticked like seed pellets falling in an hourglass slow one by falling one. Tick.

To Bradbury's credit, he seems to take death seriously but not morbidly; that Douglas' excitement at merely being alive and his awareness of death can coincide is the book's message and its triumph.

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