The Radio Magician and Other Stories by James Van Pelt
According to the mother of Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates. As similes go, this is of indifferent quality. With my waist expanding, I now rarely indulge in chocolate but, were I to resume consumption by the boxload, I would look carefully at the listed contents. Although not allergic to nuts, I actively dislike the taste of most varieties commonly found lurking inside bonbons. This is a consistent part of my approach to life. I never buy a pig in a poke, but always insist on reasonable certainty as to what my money is going to deliver. Indeed, the very notion of abandoning predictability in favour of happenstance is extraordinary on matters of personal taste. Why would anyone prefer random outcomes in life? Given freedom of choice, I suspect most of us fall into the life is a bowl of cherries camp.
So where does that leave me with my habit of buying collections and anthologies? Well, it comes down to trust. When you know the author’s work, you expect similar levels of performance regardless of length. With editors, past experience shows their taste is reasonably adjacent to mine. Yet, even with the best buying strategy, it’s a practical impossibility to ensure every book is a perfect match to my own taste — as some of these reviews all too clearly show. All you can do is hope for the best based on the track record of those involved.
This means I was filled with optimism when I picked up The Radio Magician by James Van Pelt (published by Fairwood Press). He’s a consistently engaging writer whose sole novel and other collections are well worth exploring. As an editor, I always aimed to open with one of the author’s strongest stories. This gives the reader encouragement to keep on reading. I also left the strongest story to the end so that the reader would be left with the best impression of the book and, hopefully, create good word-of-mouth. In this case, the lead and titular story is a singularly pleasing balance between realism and schmaltz. As children, our dreams are based on what we believe about the world around us. Today, our young are buried under an excess of information. There’s just too much noise in the environment. Yesterday, a child’s only view of the outside world came through the radio. The converse problem of a single source of information filtered through the commercial and other sensibilities of those running the medium of communication. Neither offers reliability. Yet, in one sense, there’s hope. Today’s increasingly sophisticated young can become their own filters. In the days of radio, the young were naive. Their inexperience could lead them to believe in the reality of magic — something obviously undesirable — except, in this case, it might just give real hope to the sick.
Pursuing the question of children, the Jesuits like to think they have made you in their image by the age of seven. The rest of us can be continuously surprised about how we are turning out as we mature into adults. Life has a strange way of finding the hero for the hour or the villain of the piece. As a youngster, you are untested and have no way of knowing what you are really capable of. A visitor from the future might be able to advise were he given the chance. Equally, there may be unexpected ways in which we might be able to avoid threats. The use of nuclear weapons has been a constant background fear in our lives since the end of W.W.II. For a while, states postured and paranoia spread. Now it matures into the more personal danger that a small terrorist group might be able to build and detonate an atomic bomb. It could be tempting to escape this reality even though the precise nature of the escape might be uncertain.
It’s often said that our lives are dominated by dreams. With the money available and the will, cosmetic surgery can remake our bodies. If the technology existed, we could terraform worlds. It’s a kind of Darwinian impulse to keep on growing and developing as an individual and a species. Would there come a point in time when the drive to modify and change dissipates? A kind of emotional entropy with energy decreasing as the world around us grows inactive. If so, what emotion would replace it? Equally, what emotion would you experience if you were told to give up your dog? There’s this loving animal who barks so adorably when you share time together. When it comes to a final decision, whose view matters the most: your own, the dog’s or the third party who intervenes?
One thing is, of course, clear. Children are potentially obsessive — even if it’s obsessing about rebelliously doing the opposite of what their parents want. Yet a monomaniacal focus of energy on a single activity can sometimes produce the breakthrough no-one thought possible. Except, in selfishness lies loneliness and the loss of family relationships. This is not to say, however, that an army of voices talking at you would make for a better life. Sometimes being in touch with every aspect of your environment would be overwhelming. Unless, that is, the environment is a single organism. In such a case, it might be useful if you could understand what it was trying to tell you.
It’s often said that time travel would be impossible. There would be too many paradoxes. Van Pelt’s explanation is one of the most original I have ever read! There are other stories I will leave you to discover for yourselves save, perhaps, for the last. In a final concert, when weeks of rehearsal all come together, the power of the music can free the mind to soar. Van Pelt’s music certainly does that except there’s a price to be paid by every major artist. While their rare talents remain unnoticed in childhood, their lives can be their own. But when the world notices, it can take them away, and leave friends and family behind.
Overall, this collection is a bowl of cherries and no nuts. Well worth dipping into at random or otherwise.
For a review of another collection by James Van Pelt, see Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille.