Raise a glass, drink deep;
liquor becoming ichor.
Black print, golden tales.
"Well, it's after hours down in Harry's Bar, and the evening has just begun,
And McGyver is telling all over again how he nearly fell into the sun,
And the droid in the corner is getting well oiled, and the Wookiee has let down his hair,
And I'm sitting alone on a 49 bus and I'm wishing that I was there…"…
-from "Sam's Song, by Zander Nyrod, aka Zanda Myrande
Alien visitation hamburger joints, galactic time-traveling watering holes, the place you find by chance when you really, really need a turning point in your life the archetype of the place you go for a drink and a new direction has inspired some of the best stories ever written. To name but a few: the Callahan stories by Spider Robinson, The Draco Tavern by Larry Niven, Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille by Steven Brust, and After Hours: Tales from the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier. Well, there really is a Harry’s bar in California (although the name varies from story to story in this anthology), and you really can go there. Or if that’s too hard to do, you can read these stories of refreshment, mishap, misrule, self-discovery, and adventure, and teleport for a few hours to a place that is a vortex in the space-time continuum.
“Where Have All the Good times Gone?” by Ted Chiles orients the reader to the actual location, and then crosses the threshold. It is accompanied by the first photograph of the anthology, “Door” by Grace Rachow. And yes, it is of the door to Harry’s.
In Max Talley’s “Sitting Here in Limbo”, protagonist Michael goes to an awkward, unpleasant family gathering, only to find unexpected romance, adventure, and another kind of family. This story is good on a first reading; it is great on a second. It reminds me of Seanan McGuire’s superb novella Every Heart a Doorway, because both novella and story speak to readers in the language of poetry-disguised-as-prose about finding where you belong only to lose the doorway, and living with the resulting longing. The photo at the end of this story shows you one of the insides of Harry’s bar you can see the vintage photos on the back wall and some of the anthology’s contributors seated around a table.
“For Thee” by Chella Courington is magical. It’s perfect. Someone in need of a Master’s thesis could write a dissertation on this story. Spoiler alert: Skip to next paragraph or read on at own risk. A modern woman browsing in a bookstore is drawn into a conversation and goes for drinks with the tangible, thirsty ghost of Hemingway a writer viewed unfavorably, one could say uncharitably, by many modern women. The narrator discovers that her educational and social filters lose their moorings when she is in his actual presence. Coming face to face with the opposite aspect of something one dislikes is a soul-enlarging experience, and Courington depicts this. If I were teaching a literature class and any of my students hated a particular author, I could do a lot worse than assigning this story and then giving a writing prompt: imagine your own encounter with the author you are having trouble grokking. Another Grace Rachow image, titled “Mannequin”, is as ambiguously expressive as a Rorcharch test. Is that a wolf in the lower left? Are those birds? Surely there’s a butterfly, metaphor for transformation and for psyche, the soul. Is the human form male or female, or both?
“Buggery’ by Tom Layou starts with “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a cockroach, I didn’t wake up this way.” The rest of the first paragraph is a delicious riff on several literary classics. The story that follows is an insanely funny modern Hamlet gone meta. Having met a few of the authors at one of the annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I realized that Layou was irreverently basing ALL his characters on other contributors to this anthology. The title of the story is a multiple-entendre, because not only is it narrated by a bug, the author is f-ing with his co-authors. I profoundly wish I could have heard what each one said to/about Tom after they read what he had wrought. The story is hilarious on its own terms; if you catch the literary and personal allusions, it is orgasmic.
Matthew J. Pallamary’s offering is “How Mad Matt Won the Nobel Prize in Literature”. As in Courington’s “For Thee”, the narrator shares a drink with a presence, but this time it is with a sadly missed, much admired mentor. I have no way of knowing if Pallamary is familiar with Tales of Hoffmann, and it doesn’t really matter, but I am struck by how this story, like that opera, shows the juxtaposition of the allures of sex and the calling of creativity. (And if Pallamary does like opera, I would love to see Hoffmann with him sometime.) The story also shows how creativity, certainly writing, is always a collaborative process. What goes to print has a primary author, yes, but as any honestly written Acknowledgement reveals, there were godparents and cogenitors in the form of beta-readers, editors, mentors, friends and family. This tale may be fantasy, yet it is as true as it gets, and I had to wipe my eyes at the end.
“Nutritional Value” by Lisa Lamb is about fear and courage, and what nourishes us. I love the gentle, self-aware humor that laces this story, the kindness and mutual appreciation that underlie all the relationships. Alice, a widow, is reluctantly venturing into the dating scene, at the persistent nudging of her full grown daughter, Clara. She loved her husband and misses the comfort of him. She doubts she’d ever find anything that real again. But Alice, who has the grace of heart to recognize goodness in others, gets a second chance with a man who sees even more deeply into the human heart than she does. The bar is accurately depicted, so is the awkwardness of a first date. Lamb is a first rate writer; her ability to summon (or hear) the word or phrase that precisely serves the moment is quite extraordinary. A real gem of a story.
The editor’s hand invisibly waves, and the story that follows is “My Dinner at the Boy Restaurant” by Shelly Lowenkopf. Lawyer Ken ignores advice from his sister Meg as he overplans how to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Meg tries to explain that Perry’s is a boy restaurant, a place guys go to relax, not the sort of place a girl dreams of when she imagines accepting a proposal. But Ken wants to share his favorite place with the woman of his dreams. What happens when expectations sabotage the mission and drive a stake through the rubber floor of the lifeboat? What I love about this story is how it shows, with terrible clarity, with impartial honesty, how unattractive certain emotions are, how ugly they render us. It also shows a certain kind of disillusionment, the kind that leaves you balanced, integrated, readier for the next good thing. Kudos to editrix Silver Webb: the segue from “Nutritional Value” to “My Dinner…” leads you to expect (ha!) a wedding and happy ever after scenario. Instead we get… something subtler. Snarky, Webb, very snarky.
In “Ghost Moose of Clary’s Cafe” by Nicholas Deitch, William Jeffers grumpily debates the nature of revenge with the mounted head of the moose that, decades ago, killed his hunter father. There is thickly spread irony and almost slapstick humor here, but there is also profound respect for the men’s world of hunting for sustenance, enduring war, retaining friendship over years of distance and silence, joking about death, and the ability to share a drink with your enemy. For some reason, this story reminds me of the old Merry Melody and Loony Tunes cartoons, and it seemed to generate its own soundtrack in my imagination as I read.
In “The Third Hurricane” by John Reed, Andy Culver, homeless, derelict, gets an impossible call from the woman he yearns to be reunited with, after he senselessly drove her away with his demands. But the way back to her is fraught with peril. Reading “The Third Hurricane” is like trying to follow a fox trail laid down by a kitsune. Reed is a magician. He provides all the clues, yet astonishes you at every turn.
“East Toward the Sun” by Christine Casey Logsdon is about a woman, Veronica Martin, who is one of a loosely knit group of people who can travel in time and try to modulate events. But Veronica is encountering opposition, and not only do her jumps keep going wrong, she is coming under attack. As another character, Juan, warns her, “Your soul was being torn apart.” So she has to take refuge. How she does so is a tantalizing, imaginative use of the props of place. This is the only story in the collection that seems to demand a sequel (there are several that deserve a sequel) in that it feels unresolved, for all that it is exquisitely crafted. Every time I read it, I look for “To Be Continued” at the end, but if the words are there, they are invisible.
“Closing Credits” by Dennis Russell tips its sombrero to the era of the films and faces displayed in the photos on the walls at Harry’s: westerns, singing cowboys, actors and memorabilia. Nearly all the stories in this anthology confront the reality of death, whether directly or indirectly, but this time it’s personal.
“The Hurricane: Mercury in Retrograde” by Silver Webb is one of those tremendously fun to read stories in which all the foreshadowing is cast by looming events, where characters know themselves and don’t know themselves, where the wordplay pulls you away from the story arc only to slingshot you back into it at high velocity, and where poetic justice burns down the barn. Jenny Mandisi is just trying to sell her manuscript, but the potential buyer wants to get his sweaty hands on more than the pages. What’s a girl to do? Turns out it’s a really bad idea to piss off a telekinetic firestarter.
The last story, “A Turn with Worms” by Stephen Vessels, is futuristic sci-fi buffoonery, as sharp as a molecular vibra-knife. Detective Nathan Origen is assigned to help his former partner, Ian Pine, crack a case involving the disappearance of a diplomat from a bar much frequented by the invertebrate, tech-savvy aliens colloquially referred to as worms. Since galactic goodwill and interspecies trade can be adversely affected by bad publicity, there are all sorts of risks of repercussions if things go wrong. But with Pine leading the investigation, there is a very high proof likelihood that things will start out sideways, go wrong in very public ways, and probably pass through an inter-dimensional rift before they find their broken, bleeding way home. What follows is 15 minutes of high speed, action-packed irreverent schaffenfreude. It’s even funnier when you know that this is one of the stories that, like Layou’s “Buggery’, shamelessly incorporates fellow authors as characters. (Vessels even drops little name clues.) The ending is one of those evil-genius little twists that, when you read it, you simultaneously go “I did not see that coming” and “I should have seen it; all the clues were right there in plain sight.” Or words to that effect. Expletives are optional.
I’ve read many anthologies set in bars, but this is the one that most strongly evokes “Sam’s Song” as I read. So we’ll end this review as we began, with another verse:
"I'll have one more photon torpedo, Harry, and make it a litre or more,
And if I should happen to fall off my seat, just let me slip to the floor,
'Cause it took me too many years to come, but I'm where I wanted to be;
Home is the Hunter, home from the hill and the sailor, home from the sea"
First to last, strongly recommended. - Chris Wozney