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Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt

March 9, 2013 3 comments

Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt

Collections often give us an insight into the central preoccupations of the authors and Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille by James Van Pelt (Fairwood Press, 2012) is no exception. We’re dealing with people who are for one reason or another, uncertain of themselves and how to deal with that sense of inadequacy. It may be sexual in that a man may not truly understand mating rituals or a woman may be caught up in an eternal childhood innocence and find the practicality of sex rather distasteful. It may be an adult who was abused by his father and is now uncertain how he should relate to his own son. Or a small boy who, when confronted by the unbelievable, can do no more than tell the truth as he understands it and leave it to more experienced adults to decide how to react. A teacher who’s disillusioned with his job and doesn’t know whether to quit, an alien who finds it more comfortable to spend time as a human. The list goes on, and it’s an interesting and sometimes thought-provoking group of people to think about.

“Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille” suggests that the art of breaking the ice in a singles bar matches the techniques sometimes adopted by WWI pilots. Many would come out of the sun to take an enemy by surprise. The kill was all that mattered. Others would consider that unsporting and would issue a challenge before engaging in combat. But there were always those odd days when two enemy pilots might see each other and decide not to fight. “Father’s Dragon” is one of these interior monologues in which a man who grew up without the benefit of a father’s love considers how he should relate to his own son. Or he could always run away. “Just Before Recess” is a slight joke while, “O Tannenbaum”, albeit only marginally longer, contrives to avoid being overly sentimental with a simple message about the pervasiveness of human kindness and the importance of friendship. “Night Sweats” is a deeply romantic but elegant conflation of a supernatural ghost story and the science fiction possibility of multiple parallel universes which may occasionally bleed into each other. “Teaching” is a message story about the depersonalisation of the profession and the alienation of those on both sides of the learning process.

James Van Pelt: a talented  writer

James Van Pelt: a talented writer

“Working the Moon Circuit” is an interesting take on identity and whether we would become or less as an individual if we could enter a group consciousness. In a way it also captures the essential uncertainty of love. Shut off in our own bodies, how do we get to know the other person and build up enough trust to commit ourselves to a longer term relationship? “Plant Life” is a delightfully macabre way of continuing the examination of how people make and then maintain their relationships. Sometimes, even something destructive is better than nothing when you’re full of self-loathing. “That He Might Yet Find the Unknown” is a wonderful story. It matches an attack on gene technology corporations that might claim ownership of a human being if he had been tweaked to have certain characteristics, against the simple love of a runner to train for and run marathons. “Floaters” is one of these time paradox stories that isn’t, i.e. determinism isn’t always what it seems. There can be cause for hope. “The Road’s End” is also a kind of paradox because, in a sense, it’s merely where we choose to stop walking or not, as the case may be. “One in a Thousand” is also about moving forward. Almost all will fall but there’s always one who manages to keep going. Except, of course, the temptation to stop always remains. If it was in the “Rock House”, this might promise immortality but who can say whether such a state is desirable. The uncertainty might undermine the supposed value of the rewards. “Mrs Hatcher’s Evaluation” wonders how you might teach the Long March or any other historical event. A good teacher can make it feel as if you’ve actually been there when it all happened.

“Far From the Emerald Isle” is a gentle fusion between science fiction and fantasy as a generation ship gets help from an unexpected source when the crew is asleep and there’s an emergency. Similarly, “Howl Above the Din” wonders whether committed scientists could teach the remnants of the wolf population how to survive when humans continue to encroach on their territory. This might involve transmitting the behaviour of other animals that have managed to survive in close proximity to men, like foxes or coyotes for example. “No Small Change” is also about people learning new skills. In this case young girls realise their potential as heart-breakers. “The Saint From Abdijan” is a slightly supernatural story about the blood diamond trade as a do-gooder gets into the thick of the action to save the “natives” from exploitation. “Ark Ascension” is somewhat sentimental but does offer hope for humanity after a mutagen skews reproduction in humans and animals alike. “Working Pushout” is a slightly strange story about how dreams may affect people while performing even the most mundane of jobs. “Notes From the Field” takes us back to the study of mating rituals although, this time, it’s more a study in loneliness as our anthropologists are trapped in their roles. “Classroom of the Living Dead” is a teacher’s eye view of what it feels like to stand in front of some classes of students and, finally, “Savanah is Six” is a story of tragic loss and the guilt associated with it. Sometimes, you can’t escape even though you know you should.

Taking Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille as a whole, you can’t help but admire the craftsmanship of this author. There are some truly excellent individual stories here. But when you step back, there’s a sense he just fails to make the top grade as a short story writer. There are times when the ideas are good but the execution is fractionally superficial. I know I’m being overly critical but I was not quite as excited by this collection as I was by his previous efforts.

For a review of another collection by James Van Pelt, see The Radio Magician and Other Stories.

The Radio Magician and Other Stories by James Van Pelt

April 23, 2010 3 comments

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.

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