Going Home Again

Going Home Again

by Howard Waldrop

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The words "inimitable" and "unique" are bandied about too often in artistic circles, so much so that critics seem to have forgotten those words were invented to describe Howard Waldrop's fiction.

Waldrop's mastery of arcane knowledge, his transcendent wit, and the way his stories explode like cheerty bombs inside a reader's mind have all made Howard Waldrop


The words "inimitable" and "unique" are bandied about too often in artistic circles, so much so that critics seem to have forgotten those words were invented to describe Howard Waldrop's fiction.

Waldrop's mastery of arcane knowledge, his transcendent wit, and the way his stories explode like cheerty bombs inside a reader's mind have all made Howard Waldrop one of the most beloved writers of the past two decades. Readers who encounter his work never forget the experience, and this new collection compiles nine such experiences (heretofore uncollected), including:

"Flatfeet!", a madcap tour of this century's first decades, courtesy of the Keystone Kops.

"Ocean's Ducks," an homage to those brave black actors of the 1930s.

Remember those "Little Moron" jokes in the schoolyard, like "Why did the Little Moron throw the clock out the window?" "He wanted to see Time fly." Now ask yourself again "Why Did?"

And beware the masked Mexican wrestlers of "El Castillo de la Perserverancia"!

Howard Waldrop's unique and inimitable talents are on full display here. Read on, marvel, and rejoice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The fantastic inventions and whimsical nostalgia in these nine stories suggest that Waldrop (Night of the Cooters) is either a pulp writer born out of his time or an autodidact from another world. Although many of these stories have appeared in science fiction publications like Amazing Stories and Omni, they are as close to Robert Coover as they are to Isaac Asimov. There's an alternate version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol and a Damon-Runyonized retelling of the fairy tale "The Brementown Musicians." Most of these stories revolve around curious what-if ideas tightly wrapped in oddball erudition and tied up with snappy dialogue. The best and subtlest of these is the opening "You Could Go Home Again," which takes place on a USA, Inc. Airship and slowly reveals its hero, a writer recovering from a near-fatal illness, to be Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe living in 1940. Elsewhere, one finds Peter Lorre, a refugee from a successful Nazi Reich, performing in a Brecht cabaret in "The Effects of Alienation" and Mexican masked wrestlers in an apocalyptic match with overtones of medieval mystery plays in "El Castillo de la Preserverancia." Only in the case of "Flatfeet!," in which a Keystone-Kops-meet-monsters scenario reflects Spengler's Decline of the West, do Waldrop's crazy-quilt themes wear too thin. To round out this collection and proclaim its roots, there is "Scientification," in which a tribe of intelligent insects lives on a dark, chilly earth in the distant future, a straight science fantasy out of H.G. Wells or Weird Tales. (July)
Library Journal
In this quirky, imaginative collectionhis seventhWaldrop proves that you can go home again, as long as you pack your rod, your singing saw, and your wrestler's mask. His introduction describes the poverty of the short-story writer's life, and Waldrop's solutionfishing. These stories include a rewrite of "The Brementown Musicians," peopled with city gangsters from the 1920s, a new Scrooge in a new "Christmas Carol," and a Mexican masked-wrestler story. In most of these stories, Waldrop creates alternative histories: what if Hitler had won, what if World War II had never happened, what if Wolfe had survived and lived on with brain damage? Waldrop is adept at using lingo from various periods and is equally adept at Spanish phrases. With slogans and lots of period detail, he vividly captures the feel of each era, and as an added bonus, after each story he gives a brief history of how that story came into being. Clever, humorous, idiosyncratic, oddball, personal, wild, and crazy, these stories will certainly attract new readers for this writer. Recommended for all fantasy collections.Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

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Going Home Again

By Howard Waldrop

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1997 Howard Waldrop
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8450-2


You Could Go Home Again

The Joint is Jumpin'

They had slipped their moorings at Ichinomaya, Japan in the early evening of September 15, 1940, amid the euphoric shouts of well-wishers, fresh from the Tokyo Olympics that had just ended.

Wolfe hadn't noticed the crowds. He'd arrived late, a couple of new shirts (specially tailored — the Japanese weren't used to six-foot-six men buying off their racks, and he'd had to get the address of a British men's shop from someone at the American Embassy) in one hand, his old suitcase and bulging, torn briefcase in the other, holding his coat, hooked by one thumb over his left shoulder. He'd barely made it; the boarding platform was being unbolted at the bottom as he ran up to it.

He'd been shown to his stateroom; felt a lurch as they got underway. Then he'd folded down the couch that made into an upper and lower berth, and had sprawled across the lower one and had slept for a little more than an hour.

He awoke near sunset. The bell in the dining salon was ringing. He was disoriented. Then memories of the last two weeks had come back to him; the Olympics, the crowds, being a giant once more (as he used to feel in America before the operation and the weight loss) in a world of Lilliputian Japanese.

He put on his robe, found the Gentlemen's washroom for his set of cabins, showered, then shaved, something he'd forgotten to do during the last two days of bon voyage parties.

He went back to his stateroom, made up the couch and changed for dinner. Then he laid his things out on the desk while sitting on the folding, backless stool which fit under it. (Wolfe was glad of that: he'd usually had to take the backs off chairs in the old days — his body had been so tall and thick, chairs had seemed like toys that cramped him, making him feel like a golliwog in some circus act.)

He went to the reading and writing room just after dinner (he'd had double portions of everything) and dashed off a postcard or two, which he knew he would forget about if he didn't do it then. He could have put them in the pneumatic tube that took them straight to the mailroom, but decided to take them there himself tomorrow. Instead, he read over the passenger list.

It was the usual kind for a trip going back to Europe and America from the Orient the long way, going west. Wolfe had traveled every possible way in his life: luxury liners, tramp steamers, ferries, airplanes, coal barges, buses, a thousand different trains, cars (after that National Parks thing — six thousand miles in twelve days with two guys that led up to the illness that almost killed him two years ago — he'd sworn never to ride in any automobile but a taxi cab again), bicycles, hay wagons, once even roller-skating for two miles with some kids when he lived in Brooklyn.

There were the usual two dozen nationalities on the manifest — lots of Americans, Brits, Frenchmen, Indians, Syrians, Swedes, Germans, a Russian or two (probably White), some Brazilians and Argentines, an Italian count, and several Japanese.

In all, there were 320 passengers and a crew of 142 on the first leg of this trip. Several would be leaving in India, more no doubt getting on there, going on to Egypt, then up to Italy, and the rest of the European stops.

As he read the list, a man with sergeant's chevrons on his R.A.F. uniform came into the writing salon, nodded, sat down and began scribbling on a small pad.

Wolfe heard music in the air. They must have cleared away the last of the dishes from the evening meal, the stewards would have pulled back the tables, and the band begun to play in the main salon. He finished the postcard in his (since the operation) much smaller and more controlled loopy scrawl. He looked at his watch. It had been an hour since he'd eaten. Time had a way of getting away from him lately.

He stood, nodded to the R.A.F. man, who gave him back a strange smile. The man was heavily tanned, though blondish; his eyes stood out like bright blue marbles in a brown statue. It reminded him of the face of one of the stone angels that used to stand on the porch of his father's shop in Asheville.

Wolfe checked his own reflection in the corridor mirror — brown suit, buff vest, white shirt. Thinning on top (he turned his head far to the left, smoothed the bit of hair that always stood at right angles over the scar from the brain operation), cheeks now a little sunken in a long wide face (three teeth removed, and seventy-five pounds of lost weight), eyes too big and bright. He pulled on the knot of his black tie with its Harvard Club tie tack, grimaced to make sure there was no food on his teeth, and went back to the main salon.

He eased his way through the few couples who stood talking at the doorway of the ballroom. Art Deco metal palms arched to each side of the opening, forming a heartshaped portal in a glassine wall.

It was smoky inside. Candles were lit on the tables; waiters went back and forth between the chairs and the dimly-lit bar on the right side. Wolfe made his way toward it, where other men traveling alone, and a few women, stood watching the band.

Bars were always something Wolfe had liked in the old days.

The band — clarinet, banjo, violin, cornet, drums, bass and piano — were on a small raised platform. The unused piano looked dull and grey from the bar area. Probably the light, thought Wolfe. The band was in evening wear. They played "Marie" but, as no one was singing, it sounded thin. A spot for dancing had been cleared; no one was taking advantage of that, either.

"Bourbon and Coca-Cola," said Wolfe to the barman. That was one thing about a trip like this. Everyone was first-class: there were no passenger divisions, no one-deck-for-you-Mr-Average-Guy, the other for the Hoity-Toity. That was one reason Wolfe had chosen to travel this way.

He got his drink, turned, and leaned against the aluminum bar with his right elbow. He saw, with some discomfort, two women looking at him, talking back and forth. He knew, without a second glance, that they were asking each other whether that could be him; no, he's tall but too thin-looking, and much older than his photos. (The one on the jacket of his newest book had been taken two years ago, before the operation. Not that he didn't look bad enough then, he just looked differently, and worse, now.) Wolfe focused his attention toward the front of the salon. He'd had plenty of shipboard flings in his time. (The great love of his life, so they told him in those fuzzy first days at Johns Hopkins, had started on the Berengaria in 1926. To him it was only a skewed memory. When he had seen the woman, Aline, for the first time during his recovery, he had been puzzled. This woman — twenty years older than me, hard of hearing, hair going grey — was the love of my life?) But in the last two years, some memories had come back. (Wolfe sometimes viewed himself as standing on the far northern shore of Canada, looking out to sea, and occasionally an iceberg, heavy with remembrance and emotion, would drift toward him from the North Pole of Time, crash into him, immersing him in a flood of scents, thoughts, visions, from a past usually as closed off to him as if he were locked in a vault with no key.) He recalled some of the affair with Aline; the memories were fragmentary. He remembered fights as often as lovemaking, jealousy of her theater friends as well as the quiet afternoons in Paris hotels, an attempt of hers at what he first thought of as suicide, which wasn't.

Now, he was on his way to Germany to see another woman.

As he turned toward the band, Wolfe saw a huge light-skinned black man with a pencil-thin mustache sitting at a table near the front, deep in conversation with two other Negroes.

It was then that Wolfe realized how unobservant he had become. The last thing he would have thought was that the T. W. Waller on the passenger list was Fats.

Wolfe had seen him many times before. He dimly remembered trips to Harlem in the late twenties when he had still been an English instructor at Washington Square College. They'd gone to Connie's Club, where Waller was playing to packed houses. He'd had quite a following among the jazz-mad students. One night Wolfe had been surprised to hear Waller on the radio, singing some novelty tune. Then suddenly, he had been everywhere. While Wolfe had been struggling to be a playwright, Waller had three or four reviews or musicals running in the late twenties — and unlike other songwriters and composers, Fats had been right there every night playing the piano for the shows.

Wolfe had seen both movies Waller had made in the thirties. He lit another cigarette, signaled for another drink. The band finished its number, "Nagasaki", a corny tribute to the land they'd just left.

The bandleader — surprisingly, the banjo player — stepped up to the star-webbed microphone (there were loudspeaker boxes at the rear of the salon so people there could hear as well as those up front) and said, "Thank you, thank you," to polite applause. "We're the Band in the Stars, and we'll be with you for the whole voyage. But enough about us —" the drummer hit his tomtom thump! "Tonight, we're honored — we really are — gee whiz! — to have a special appearance, a special guest, one of your fellow passengers — I think he'll be with us to France —" There was a yell from the audience "England!" "— England, but he says he needs some sleep, so, tonight only, he'll be sitting in — er, ladies and gentlemen, the Band in the Stars, and the Ticonderoga are proud — well, here he is, the one, the only, Mister Fats Waller!"

Some people were taken aback — there were gasps and oohs — as the huge man stood up at his table. Waller was dressed in a black pinstriped double-breasted suit with a black vest, white shirt and a flamingo-pink tie, wide as a normal person's leg. He waved to the crowd. He would have seemed incredibly round, except that he was so tall, he seemed only plump. He walked to the grey piano — like all huge men he had a smooth grace about him, not as if he were moving in slow motion, just that thin people moved too fast; his motions reminded Wolfe of Oliver Hardy's.

"Thank you, thank you," he said, pulling out the piano bench. "I never played on an al-loomin-eum piano before. Let's see —" he ran his fingers over the keys, "— my, my, that's sweet. I see it's tuned in the key of R. Well —" Blang! he hit the keys. "Here I am, one night only, 'cause gee I'm tired." The man at the table with him brought him a full gin bottle and a glass and set them on the piano. "Oh, suddenly I ain't so tired any more!" He took a drink straight from the bottle. "Wow! That's the stuff. Now I feel like I can play till we hit an iceberg!"

The passengers laughed.

"All right. Here I am, Mrs. Waller's Harmful Little Armful, Mr. Fats himself. Let's go. One two three —" he pointed at the band, who had no idea what was coming, so waited. He broke into a medium stride measure, his left hand covering ten keys between notes, his right way down at the other end, and he began "The Joint is Jumpin'", and the Band in the Stars jumped in right behind him.

As he sang, Fats noticed a great big galoot watching him from the bar with his eyes all bugged out.

The audience roared when they finished the song. Fats drank more gin and leaned back, making tiddling noises with his fingers on the keys.

"Ain't this band sharp?" he asked the audience. "Dressed like that, you'd think the only song they knew was 'Penguins on Parade', wouldn't you? And me as the walrus. Haha."

Then he struck up "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", and the bandleader and he did sotto voce repartee over it, making fun of the lyrics, themselves, the passengers. It was totally unrehearsed, so it worked.

"Like working with Charlie McCarthy," said Fats, when it was over. "'Cept he always brings that guy Bergen along. I don't know why he don't split up the act. We knows who's got all the talent in that team, don't we?

"I worked with everybody," said Fats. "'Bout the only two I ain't performed with is Donald Duck and Goofy, and I hear tell Disney's trying to book me with them three weeks at the Apollo next year!"

There was laughter and more applause.

"Next thing you know, ol' Fats will be selling U.S. shares and singing on the floor of the Stock Exchange with Ferdinand the Bull! That'd be a tough act to follow, wouldn't it?"

He took a drink. "Well, we gonna hafta do it sooner or later before drunks start yelling for it, so we might as well give Hoagy his two cents now."

Then they did "Stardust" and the cornet man took a surprisingly good solo, for somebody in a ship's band.

"Most beautiful music this side of the Monongahela!" said Waller as they ended the song. "I can say that without fear of obloquy."

They went into a medley of five of Fats' songs, the band shifting tempo and lyrics with him as soon as they heard a few notes; these guys, they shouldn't just be playing here.

When Waller looked up again, wiping the sweat from his mustache, reaching for the bottle, he noticed that the big guy at the bar was gone.

* * *

Wolfe crossed the promenade deck and turned starboard. He went out to the observation area, with its open louvered windows and its delicate decorated aluminum railings.

They were steering west-southwest, so there was still the last vestige of a late summer sunset out the windows. A slight breeze blew in, but much less than Wolfe had expected. He barely felt it in his thinning hair. There was also a hum, like the wind, barely noticeable.

The western sky, over the South China Sea, looked like a peeled pink Crayola left forgotten to melt against a dark blue windowpane. There were stars out up from the horizon. Wolfe looked down at the sea. It was like a flat sheet of dark leaded glass full of the dot and wink of stars, merging with pale red where it met the afterglow.

He heard people passing by toward the salon behind him and the subdued music. Part of him wanted to stay here, watching full night come on, the farthest from home he'd ever traveled. The other half wanted to drink in every note from the piano. There would always be beautiful evenings somewhere in the world; there might not always be a Fats Waller.

With a last puff, he took his cigarette from between his lips, gripped it between thumb and back-curled middle finger, and with a former paperboy's sure aim, flipped it far out away from the window railings.

He watched the orange dot blinking in a long arc; leaning closer to the window he saw it part of its way down the three thousand feet where it would land in the dark, star-pinned sea.

Looking up and out, he could see one of the ten Maybach twenty-cylinder engines that pushed the U.S.I.A.S. Ticonderoga through the cloudless sky. He imagined, as he looked at the propellers, that the hum in the air was louder, but it wasn't.

He turned and headed back down the promenade.

Ain't Misbehavin'

He finished "Honeysuckle Rose", the fingers of his left hand splayed far across the keys between each bass note. The right hand came down in another triplet, and the salon was still. Then the roar was deafening.

"My, my, yes," he said. He smiled at the crowd. "You better stay awake, because as soon as Fats is through, he's gonna be asleep for the entire rest of this trip. Them Japanese people done partied me for a week. I've eat more food and drank more sake than Carter has Little Liver Pills.

"What'll we do next, boys?" he asked the band. "Maybe we could do something I played with the Little Chocolate Dandies? Or McKenzie's Mound City Blue Blowers? How 'bout the 'West India Blues' I did with the Jamaica Jazzers?"

"We don't know that!" the band yelled back.

"Well, I could do something I learned from James P. Johnson. That's how I learned piano, you know, listening to his piano rolls. I used to turn the drum one note at the time, put my hand on the keys when they went down. Seemed like the only way to learn music to me." He grinned at the passengers. "Course I was only about nine years old then.

"I went in and auditioned for Willie 'The Lion' Smith — he needed a piano player for when he was taking a break. I was 'bout twelve years old, corner of Lexington and 114th, went down there and played for him. He pretended he wasn't even listening. I got through and says, 'what you think, Mr. Lion' and he says, 'no pissant gonna play intermission piano for me in shorts' and he marched me next door and bought me my first pair of long pants.

"Well, enough of this frothy badinage, let's get busy, boys! Hang on!"

He made a run, the bandleader started snapping along with his fingers, pulled his banjo up, and the band joined in on "(You're Just a) Square from Delaware".

Fats looked up as they played. "Uh. You know that, huh?" he said over the music. "Looka that man with the horn. Blow the end off it, Lips! Oh. Here comes that hard part again. There it comes. Think I got it. Yes, yes! Let's see if we can't get the last eight bars in six!" The music got faster, lost nothing. "O-Kay!" he said, as they slammed to a finish. During the clapping, Fats reached out and shook the bandleader's hand, nodded to the others.


Excerpted from Going Home Again by Howard Waldrop. Copyright © 1997 Howard Waldrop. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Howard Waldrop has been dubbed a "national treasure" by Locus magazine and called "the resident Weird Mind of his generation" by The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of one acclaimed novel, Them Bones and coauthor (with Jake Saunders) of The Texas-Israeli War: 1999. However, he is probably best known for his many short stories, including the classic "The Ugly Chickens," which won both the World Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award. His stories have been collected previously in Night of the Cooters, Howard Who? and All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past. Born in Mississippi, he lived in Austin, Texas, for many years before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
Howard Waldrop has been dubbed a "national treasure" by Locus magazine and called "the resident Weird Mind of his generation" by The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of one acclaimed novel, Them Bones and coauthor (with Jake Saunders) of The Texas-Israeli War: 1999. However, he is probably best known for his many short stories, including the classic "The Ugly Chickens," which won both the World Fantasy Award and the Nebula Award. His stories have been collected previously in Night of the Cooters, Howard Who? and All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past. Born in Mississippi, he lived in Austin, Texas, for many years before moving to the Pacific Northwest.

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