Salon Fantastique: Dust Devil on a Quiet Street

Per Rich’s request, this was meant to be a post about Jedidiah Berry’s story, “To Measure the Earth”. Unfortunately, I find myself with nothing of interest to say — it seemed to me far and away the weakest of the Salon Fantastique stories I’ve read, largely because of the extent to which it embraces obliqueness. At one point, one of the characters notes that “Questions distract”, and we’re apparently meant to take her seriously, despite the fact that insisting on answers is exactly what any half-way intelligent person would be doing. But “To Measure the Earth” isn’t about people, it’s about ciphers; they’re held at arm’s length, and the vagueness of the precise relations between some of them, or the meaning of some of their actions, is more frustrating than suggestive.

So, instead, this post is about Richard Bowes’ story, “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street”, and the difference is striking. The mystery at the centre of Bowes’ story is perhaps more obscure than that at the heart of Berry’s, but far more compellingly portrayed, with its effects rippling out through a multitude of characters. Like its namesake (an episode of The Naked City), “Dust Devil on a Quiet Street” is a New York Story, and drips with references to places and people. I suspect it has more named characters than any other story in the book, deftly orchestrated and all introduced with economy — “In high school, he had an obsessive compulsive disorder. She was bulimic. Now, and it almost seems to follow logically, he is a painter. She is an actress” — and almost all part of New York’s past or present alternative arts scene.

The next-but-one issue of Vector includes a transcript of a panel on Fantastic Cities from Interaction a year and a half ago, in which Jeffrey Ford makes the observation that “every city is really a palimpset of history”, with the new overlaid on the old; “Dust Devil” embodies that attitude. The narrator, an unnamed science fiction writer, is already experiencing a season of reminiscence (“That summer, the whole city, maybe the whole world seemed to be in a similar mood. Books were all memoirs, every concert was a reunion, every museum exhibition a retrospective, every Broadway opening a revival”) when he attends a memorial service for a critic of the local scene, Robin Saint Just. The circumstances of his death set off a chain of memory and investigation for the narrator that rambles across months and between incidents. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the story, to my mind, is that I didn’t feel excluded: I’ve been to New York exactly once, when I was much younger, and I really have no sense of the cultural milieu that Bowes is describing, yet it didn’t seem to matter. Many of the details are decodable from context, and those that aren’t merely add to the sense of the narrator’s New York as a place that is layered, cluttered but vibrant.

You may, quite legitimately, be wondering what the fantastic element is. As in most of the other stories by Bowes that I’ve read, it is notably low-key, probably having something to do with the soul of Callimachus, the first critic, trapped in a ring. (If I have a reservation about liking this story, it’s that in part it’s about the relationship between critics and the scene they comment on, something about which I am perhaps less than objective.) Alternatively, the fantastic resides in the dust devils of the title, which the narrator and a friend once decided, on a whim, “were actually the small gods, the spirits playful and malign, of Manhattan”. Or the magic is in the art itself. You decide.

4 thoughts on “Salon Fantastique: Dust Devil on a Quiet Street

  1. Of course, none of the things I said about the critics in the story apply in any way to you!

  2. Oh, I wasn’t taking offence — it was more that I was worried I was cutting the story slack because it raised what you might say is a fairly niche issue that I happen to be personally interested in. :)

  3. The place of the critic in fields like the visual arts especially can be pivotal and the ability to guess right can yield financial rewards. Dust Devil has an a clef aspect. The story’s long dead critic Jack Moore, for instance, is loosely based on the wonderful poet and MOMA curator Frank O’Hara who heralded abstract expressionism. The original for Saint Just claims to be still alive.

    I was impressed that you dug out the fact that I stole my title from an episode of the early ’60’s Naked City TV series.

  4. The place of the critic in fields like the visual arts especially can be pivotal and the ability to guess right can yield financial rewards.

    Ah, if only sf worked like that. :)

    As for the Naked City — pure serendipity. That show was another thing Jeff mentions in that panel transcript, and on a whim I put the two into Google together.

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