The Ray Bradbury I remember reading decades ago was not this poetic. Something Wicked was a surprise, his evocative language doing so much to capture the mood of early fall and, both literally and metaphorically, the seasons of life. Clearly, he loves words in their many forms. Equally clearly, he is gifted as using those words to create a finely layered tale about two thirteen-year-old boys when the carnival comes to town. These boys are on the brink of change; longing to be older, to do more and be more. The father of one is a little bit lost in memory of what he once was, haunting their background and the library. Change is in the wind, and a few unusual events in the town seem to herald a larger shift. A lightening-rod salesman comes to call; the barber gets sick; a found playbill describes a carnival coming to town. The boys sneak out of their bedrooms to see it arrive, and it is with a mix of fascination and fear that they watch the carnival set up. Danger ensues–but is it the danger of growing up? Or of fear? Or something more malevolent?
The language is a delightful mix of specificity and metaphor: “One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight… both touched towards fourteen; it almost trembled in their hands.“
Each brief chapter is almost a poem, an image; a scene described so perfectly as to catch that edge between reckless and safety, age and youth, mystery and knowing. Threads of both exuberance and loss run through, and hints of change.
And characters! In brief sentences, he encapsulates the complexity of a life:
“And the first boy, with hair as blond-white as milk thistle, shut up one eye, tilted his head, and looked at the salesman with a single eye as open, bright and clear as a drop of summer rain.“
“Jim stood like a runner who has come a long way, fever in his mouth, hands open to receive any gift.“
“What was there about the illustrated carnival owner’s silences that spoke thousands of violent, corrupt, and crippling words?“
Bradbury’s ability to uniquely characterize extends to the carnival, arriving at the dead time of 3 a.m., setting up in the dark:
“For somehow instead, they both knew, the wires high-flung on the poles were catching swift clouds, ripping them free from the wind in streamers which, stitched and sewn by some great monster shadow, made canvas and more canvas as the tent took shape. At last there was the clear-water sound of vast flags blowing.”
Then there is the added bonus of the library. Clearly, Bradbury loves libraries and books, which guarantees affection in my books (I know, I know–the puns!). “The library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears…This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo.” How perfectly that meshes my own memory of the library!
During the second half of the book, the tone shifts more and more from that cusp of fall into the fear of winter, of death. People change, quite drastically. Will’s father has been hearing the carnival’s calliope as well, and feeling every one of his fifty-some years in distance from his son. Between the boys and the father, Charles Halloway, the viewpoint of the reader is identified, explored, honored. Do we rush forward? Gaze backwards? Which way will we ride on the most sinister merry-go-round? (“Its horses…speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth.“)
It’s even more surprising that a book first published in 1962 stands the test of time so well. To my mind, nothing dated it. Bradbury’s thoughts on meaning of life, aging and fear are well worth reading again. An amazing book that wholeheartedly deserves a second read and an addition to my own library.