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The Bible Repairman And Other Stories
Tim Powers
Tachyon paperback $14.95

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

The Bible Repairman And Other Stories by Tim Powers, is a short volume, containing only six stories, five of which are quite short, while the other one A Time To Cast Away Stones, weighing in at 77 pages, is intended as a pendant to Powers' early novel, The Stress Of Her Regard. I note this because it seems to me that the short story is not Powers' natural territory; not when one considers his main fictional interest, the secret history, and his working methods, which involve immense amounts of reading and research in order to locate the elements which don't quite make sense. Bridging the gaps between those points provides the impetus for Powers' work. As he says himself, in the introduction to this collection, "In my stories, I try to have plots - I try to set up apparently disconnected events and then make sense of them" (page xvii). This is all very well within a novel but how might such a method work within the constraints of a short story?

Setting aside A Time To Cast Away Stones for the time being, and turning to the other five stories, my feeling is that the closer Powers sticks to his own formula, the less successful the results are: A Journey Of Only Two Paces is a case in point. Here we have Kohler, by his own admission "pretty ... lacklustre," being vamped by Campion, the friend? the lover? of Jack Ranald, for whom he is acting as executor. Ranald is supposedly an old friend, although Kohler has never been clear why Ranald insisted on such a claim. The atmosphere of the story, and indeed Mrs Halloway's attempts at conversation are such as to heavily signal to the reader that something is amiss, although Kohler is so lacklustre it only belated occurs to him that "Something's happening here and you don't know what it is" (page 102). Later, after a series of strange events involving a magical ceremony "Kohler found that he was not sure enough about what had happened, not quite sure enough" (page 107), yet the reader is only too sure. One could of course enjoy the sense of certainty but the premise of Kohler as the rare book dealer who never bothered to look at his own stock seems a little thin.

Thinner still is Parallel Lines, the story of Caroleen Ann and Beverley Veronica Erlich. Beverley Veronica, or BeeVee as she was known, has, prior to the story, committed suicide because the pain of her cancer had become too much to bear. Now, weeks after her death, BeeVee is communicating with Caroleen through automatic writing, except, as Caroleen quickly comes to realise, it's not her that BeeVee is talking to but Amber, the impressionable teenage girl who runs errands for them. BeeVee appears to be blissfully unaware that her sister is eavesdropping on her plans, while Amber appears not to understand the ramifications of BeeVee's proposal that Amber invite her in. Granted, there are interesting possibilities for this story: Caroleen's response suggests that her relationship with her twin sister was not all it might have been, and BeeVee's plan suggests that the fault might lie with her. Yet, Caroleen acts so fast to forestall BeeVee one is left with only the vaguest sense of what might have happened.

The Hour Of Babel posits a more intriguing central idea: Kurt Hollis knows that when he was young something happened to him at the diner where he worked, but he can't remember what it was, only that he woke in his own apartment the following day, suffering from sunburn. After 31 years, something has drawn him back to the place where the diner was, only to find it perfectly preserved inside a larger building, even down to the dough circles lying on the counter when the event happened. Also present is a group of scientists - time travellers, who are trying to find out what happened that night. So far, so good, as is the concluding revelation, but the scientific hand-waving in the middle is pretty much that, obfuscatory bridgework to cross the gap between two events, although there is also a clever if intentional, even cleverer if accidental, secondary layer of references and allusions underpinning the story, but are they enough to hold it together?

I could ask a similar question about A Soul In A Bottle, concerning the poet, Cheyenne Fleming, and her sister Rebecca, one dead, one alive, each claiming that that the other had attempted to murder them, and caught in the middle, George Sydney, who finds a copy of Cheyenne Fleming's book of poetry, with one poem in a substantially different version. Like Kohler, Sydney is a character who doesn't seem to quite know what is going on, while for the reader it is only too obvious, and that suspicion is confirmed. There is a difference between a character who is strategically ignorant and a character who is genuinely has no idea what is happening; here, and in A Journey Of Only Two Paces the main character is ignorant because the story all too plainly requires it, not because it is in the nature of the character not to know, and that is frustrating for the reader.

Of the five short stories, The Bible Repairman is the most satisfying, in part because there is a much stronger sense that beyond Powers' basic idea, there is a fully developed world in which what he describes as a "peculiarly pragmatic Hispanic style of magic" (page 16) seems to work and in part because the protagonist, Torrez, is fully engaged with his world rather than bumbling through it in a state of detachment. Indeed, he is so engaged with it that his work, bizarre as it is, has used him up. Confronted with one final magical case, he recognises that the time has come to make certain decisions. The denouement teeters on the brink of sentimentality but Powers nudges it in a slightly unexpected direction that makes the story much darker as a result.

Each of these stories is followed by a brief afterword in which Powers describes how the story came to be written. In each case, he mentions two or three incidents that he decided to put into a story. They are, as he notes at the beginning, disconnected, but I am struck by the fact that, unlike in his novel, the disconnections don't emerge naturally from coherent research but are, from the beginning, forced into existence. Indeed, the more points of disconnection there are, the weaker the story seems to be, perhaps because it requires more manipulation in order to bring it to some sort of sense. Powers may argue that fiction is "albeit vicariously, a more satisfying sort of reality" (page xviii) but if ""[w]e want to see sense - not necessarily happy endings but effectual actions and significant outcomes" (page xviii), clearly it needs more than a little bit of juggling with disparate ideas.

Oddly, though, the five stories already discussed are united by a theme - Powers says that he is happy to leave "fictional themes, such as they may be, to sort themselves out" (page xv), but though he cannot squeeze an entire secret history into a short story, all the stories in this collection are engaged with ideas of supernatural return linked to characters who are either ineffectual or somehow lacking in agency. Which is not to say that supernatural experiences will change their lives or provide narrative closure but more than once Powers seems to suggest that it offers a slight shift in direction, a hint of future possibility, if not actual significant outcomes.

The longest story in the collection, A Time To Cast Away Stones, is billed as a postscript to The Stress Of Her Regard, Powers' seminal novel about the romantic poets, among them Byron and Shelley, and a secret history of early 19th century Europe, in which the nephilim are calling the shots. In A Time To Cast Away Stones, attention turns to Edward Trelawny, known as 'Byron's Jackal', a fantasist who constructed an elaborate set of fictional adventures for himself, in which claimed, among other things to have been a pirate. Trelawny followed Byron to Greece when he decided to go and fight for Greek independence, and it was at this point in his life that Trelawny's actual life became akin to fantasy. As Byron's agent, he travelled further into Greece, eventually meeting the mountain warlord, Odysseus Androutsos, whose stronghold was on Mount Parnassus, and fighting alongside him.

Many of the events referred to in this story, including Trelawny's being shot in the back by an Englishman, William Whitcomb, while Trelawny was in charge of Androutsos' men, and his stoical recovery, are true. What Powers does is to weave into this a story concerning Trelawny's attempt first to use the powers of the nephilim to promote the cause of the Greek rebels before realising, suddenly, what the cost of this will be and then working to stop what he had originally begun. It's been many years since I read The Stress Of Her Regard and this story seems to stand alone quite happily. What strikes me, though, is how much stronger Powers' storytelling is when he has more space to manoeuvre. He is clearly more confident, perhaps because he is on moderately familiar territory, perhaps because Trelawny himself is a more confident character, perhaps because there is space to include his supernatural foes.

As I said earlier, the short story does not seem to be Powers' natural territory. Most of them are pleasant enough so far as they go, but the truth is that they really don't go very far at all, and certainly not as far as I would have liked. Only The Bible Repairman hints at greater possibilities beyond the story itself, while A Time To Cast Away Stones is itself firmly attached to a greater story. Of the rest, they represent an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon but they lack the strength of Powers' novels. This is a book, I think, for the completists.

The Bible Repairman and other stories by Tim Powers



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