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The Sword Swallower by Ron Goulart
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review of
Ron Goulart's The Sword Swallower
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - December 28, 2015

This yr I've read an unusually high number of shite SF - partially b/c I've been trying out authors that aren't in my tried-&-true pantheon. These include but might not be limited to:

Orson Scott Card & Kathryn H. Kidd's Lovelock ( "LoveLessLock": https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/... )

Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5... )

Ian Watson's The Flies of Memory ( "The Memory of Memory": https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/... )

Ben Bova's New Earth ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1... )

Then there's Ron Goulart. He's pretty solidly pulpish formulaic & I sortof make fun of him for that:

"This is the 36th SF bk I've read by Goulart. One cd say that that's 35 too many given how similar they are to each other. Then again, one cd say that once you've eaten chocolate there's no good reason to repeat the experience - you know what it tastes like after one time. Goulart is my literary chocolate: I enjoy his SF every time (I've only read one of his mysteries & I didn't like it much). Everytime I read Goulart I'm reminded of how much I enjoy him, of how good he is at his schtick." - review of
Ron Goulart's The Robot in the Closet ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7... )

& yet.. & yet.. I keep returning to him. He's FUN & the writing is ENTERTAINING (for me at least) unlike the mostly turgid 4 works cited above. In the long run, I actually RECOMMEND Goulart: he has plenty of ideas & a good sense of humor & he can write: he's not Nabokov or Joyce or Flann O'Brien but he has style & the fluidity of good pulp SF writers like P. K. Dick. He's good at suggesting things & subverting their implications:

"the Head blinked his round wide eyes. "I'll tell you who that was," he said. He flicked a yellow disc out of a filigreed pillbox and positioned the disc on his tongue." - p 5

Maybe the guy's JUST a head, maybe not. One might take it for granted that he's a full human, that calling him "the Head" just means that he's the boss - but, so far as we know he might've flicked the yellow disc out of its box w/ his tongue. Goulart loves to play w/ flipping normality topsy-turvy:

"["]It goes without saying that our Barnum System of planets can't afford another peace scare."

""You suspect pacifists?"

"The Head put his thumb in his ear and half rotated his palm. "We have little to go on, precious little in terms of hard factual input. I'll admit there is a tendency on the part of the Political Espionage Office to see pacifists everywhere. As you already know, there is a mounting objection to the way the War Bureau has been handling Barnum's annexing of the Terran planets."" - p 6

Pacifists as a threat to the constant state-of-war. This was copyrighted in 1967 & 1968. Pacifists were propagandized as traitors to patriotism, Goulart just exaggerates an already absurd situation.

The hero is in the "Chameleon Corps", he can shape-shift. He takes on the shape of a specific old man to try it on as a disguise:

"The PEO man cleared his throat. "You'd think by now they'd have a way to make old age more presentable," he said. "Come back, you make me edgy. This medication regimen I'm on, Jolson, if followed correctly should keep me from ever looking like a Gabney." - p 8

When are we going to be able to incarcerate old people for unsexiness?

Goulart's an absurdist who cd be grouped w/ Jarry, Ionesco, & Albee.. but isn't:

"Head Mickens felt his desk top. "I have a special identifying phrase here someplace." He found a blue memo card. "Yes, this. 15-6-1-24-26-9-6. Got it? 15-6-1-24-26-9-6." He dealt the memo into the dispozhole. "On Esperanza someone will say, or more likely whisper, that number sequence to you."

""How come numbers? What happened to the poetry quotes?"

"Mickens said, "Security thought they were too controversial. Besides, it's not very masculine to have agents running around saying, 'With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb'st the skies,' and 'A violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye!' and things of that nature."" - p 9

A little touch that reminds me of Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch is the maté reference:

""Eighty-four per cent," said MacRae. He poured a fresh cup of maté for himself, scratched his ankle. "I think Political Espionage is planning another assassination, Ben. Probably out on Murdstone.""

[ Speaking of Jarry: Merdre-stone?]

""That's three on Murdstone this year."

""The problem Political Espionage is having is that the pacifist forces keep assassinating the men PEO shoves in to replace the guys they've assassinated," MacRae said. "All this pacifist stuff, assassinations, counter revolutions.["]" - p 11

Now Goulart may just be being absurdist or he may be mocking the absurdity of the militant groups of the time-of-writing who were assassinating & kidnapping. He's certainly mocking things like the not-yet-outed(?) CoIntelPro w/ PEO's complaints about their assassinations being out-assassinated. Ahh.. the problems of covert action. Gosh.

Despite the predictable technodysfunctionality of all of Goulart's SF I love it:

"The wheelchair was lost down a humid side ramp under the spaceport. "Heck," its grid voice said. "I was sure Visitor Processing was just around that last turn. Okay now, stick with me. We'll find her."

""Thunderation," said Jolson. "I don't need a contraption like you anyway. Release me and I'll trot up to the proper area."

"The chair tightened the safety belt around Jolson's low round stomach. "Esperanza Spaceport Number Two has a policy of providing courtesy rides for all you elder citizens. Stick with me, I'm getting a hunch."" - p 15

Goulart even waxes visionary here:

"At the other end of the large amphitheater two huge bulldozers and a pile driver, hooked to an eight-speaker amplifier system, ripped up a marble patio. The crowd leaped up, spun hand noisemakers, yelled.

""They never tire of this one," Rover yelled at Jolson's eat. "Our Thirtieth Floor is a really terrific draw, Gil. See, noise shows are still popular on Esperanza["]" - p 63

" There's a famous Hanatarashi [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanatarash ] performance where they did exactly that. They got all the people gathered in the space and Eye came in and just started destroying the building [ http://www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~gin/rock/... ] with people inside of it. " - Anthony Levin-Decanini - http://idioideo.pleintekst.nl/Intervi...

Goulart never ceases to amuse me. The trope of humans playing computers at chess & losing is varied here w/ the computer being a gangster & the game played being monopoly:

"Another half hour and Alberto had nothing left to liquidate. When he drew a hundred-dollar fine he wasn't able to pay. "Damn," said the computer, "Wiped out. Boy oh boy, how could that happen?" He rubbed his hands together slowly. "Look, you can't leave it like this. You got to give me a chance to make a comeback. What say to another game, pal?"" - p 80

""This is something else. I have to find him. Where does he usually hang out?"

"The girl said, "The Seven Types of Ambiguity a lot in Bascom Alley. Or the Ultimate Chockhouse."" - p 90

I already knew that "The Seven Types of Ambiguity" was a literary reference:

Sir William Empson, professor of English literature at Sheffield University for nearly twenty years, "revolutionized our ways of reading a poem," notes a London Times writer. The school of literary criticism known as New Criticism gained important support from Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects on English Verse. This work, together with his other published essays, has become "part of the furniture of any good English or American critic's mind," G. S. Fraser remarks in Great Writers of the English Language" - http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/w...

SO, I figured I'd better look into "Bascom Alley" & "the Ultimate Chockhouse" too since I suspected they were likely to also be literary references:

The "Bascom Alley" results were ambiguous to me yielding results like this one:

"Birth: Oct. 31, 1913
Death: Dec. 6, 1992

"9 Dec 1992
Wayne County Outlook

"Bascom (Batch) Alley, age 79, of Columbia Avenue, passed away
December 6, 1992.

"He was born October 31, 1913 in Wayne County, the son of Susie
Russell Alley and Willie Alley, both of whom preceded him in death.

"He was a lumber broker." - http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg....

I doubt that that's what or who Goulart was referring to but it's an interesting name, eh?! "the Ultimate Chockhouse" was similarly unproductive except etymologically speaking b/c I did at least learn that Blind Lemon Jefferson did a song called "Chock House Blues" that he recorded in 1926: https://youtu.be/D5Q5pTT361Y . One of the lines of that is: "Baby, I can't drink whiskey, but I'm a fool 'bout my homemade wine". This led me to at least learn the meaning of the word:

""Other terms commonly associated with the jook house or juke joint include 'roadhouse,' 'honky-tonk,' 'hole in the wall' and 'chock house'- which refers to a very potent form of home brew. Barrelhouse, defined as a 'cheap drinking house,' refers to serving liquor out of barrels and selling it by the cup and to a type of makeshift bar with a plank set across two barrels" (Juke Joints and Jubilee5)." - http://www.oberlin.edu/library/papers...

But what about this one?:

"Jolson grabbed up the bass fiddle, swing it hard by the neck as the first member of the quartet came springing.

""He's pulling a mingus," warned Gramps." - p 111

Clearly that's a reference to the famous bassist Charlie Mingus maybe just making a joke off of "swinging" in the musical sense even tho I don't think that Mingus is, strictly speaking, commonly associated w/ swing jazz.

Now "fanzines", wch later became "zines", are sd to've originated w/ SF fans: "A fanzine (blend of fan and magazine or -zine) is a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon (such as a literary or musical genre) for the pleasure of others who share their interest. The term was coined in an October 1940 science fiction fanzine by Russ Chauvenet and first popularized within science fiction fandom, from whom it was adopted by others." ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanzine ) & I've been under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that they originated even earlier w/ the Futurians in the late 1930s (perhaps they weren't named as such at the time):

"John B. Michel (1917-1969) was a science fiction fanzine editor and publisher, who also contributed art, articles, poetry, and fiction to most of the prominent fanzines of the 1930s and early '40s.

"Michel was actively involved in the early years of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. In summer 1938 he ran for the organization's Presidency. He co-edited the second and third issues of FAPA's newsletter, The Fantasy Amateur, and solo edited the fourth issue. And in 1940 he was honored with the FAPA Laureate Award for best fanzine artist.

"Michel was also one of the twelve charter members of The Futurian Science Literary Society (later the Futurian Society of New York), which held its first open meeting on September 18, 1938. (The other charter members were Donald Wollheim, Rudolph Castown, Robert W. Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, Jack Rubinson, Walter Kubilis, Jack Gillespie, Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, and Herbert Levantman.) In 1941, Michel was elected Director of the Futurians." - http://zinewiki.com/John_B._Michel

In Goulart's The Sword Swallower we get this:

""Fanzines," she said. She patted her bare knees and laughed. "I'm actually a fanzine writer."

""Are you?" said Jolson.

""Am I what?"

""A writer for some kind of fan magazine."

"She slapped her knees, wrinkled her nose. "I'm a greenhorn in the business. Otherwise I'd be faster on the uptake. I'd sense your questions and field them better. Yes, I write for a chain of cemetery fanzines, based back home on Murdstone.["]" - p 116

In Goulart's exaggerated future a 'generation' is no longer the time it takes to generate a new human biologically as much as it is the time it takes for subcultural shifts to happen:

""Don't read too much," said Jolson. "Visual stuff, that's what I like. And noise."

""Of course," replied the blonde. You're in the eighteen to twenty generation. I myself am in the twenty-three to twenty-five generation and there's a certain, what we call, generational gap between yourself and me."" - p 116

In short, don't underestimate Goulart - just b/c he's entertaining & easy to read doesn't mean there aren't other things going on too.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 18, 2015 – Finished Reading
December 28, 2015 – Shelved
December 28, 2015 – Shelved as: sf

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