"Winter Quarters" by Howard Waldrop: An Appreciation by Deborah Layne
Say that again. He ran *away* from the circus?
Have you ever tried to tell someone who is not familiar with Howard Waldrop's work about a Waldrop story and found yourself saying things like, "Well, it's about the circus, and extinction and mammoths, but not really because it's also about World War II and, um, no that's not exactly it . . . look, you just have to read it . . ." And then the person gives you that puzzled look that says, "Um, yeah, I'll run right out and read *that* one." Only, you know they need to. You know everyone needs to run out and read something by Howard because it will twist his or her brain into a quadruple helix and what good is making stuff up if you can't twist people's brains into quadruple helixes. At least that must be what Howard thinks, because God bless him, he does that to me with nearly every story.
"Maybe I should begin 'As circuses go, it was a small one. It only had two mammoths.'"
Two what? Oh, boy.
In an interview, Howard said of "Winter Quarters" that he had two beginnings and he kept trying to decide which one to use, and when he couldn't make up his mind, he used both.
"I'll just start at the beginning: The phone rang."
He didn't mention the third one, but there it is. The beginning. The beginning.
Feeling your brain starting to twist yet? Good. Keep reading.
"Winter Quarters" is about some people who were in college together, and who meet up years later when a strange (maybe) Frenchmen of their acquaintance is in town with the circus. The small one. The one with only two mammoths.
Like so much of Howard's work, it's also about Times Gone By and Something We've Lost, but it carries no trace of the kind of cheap sentimentality that often goes with nostalgia in fiction.
And like so much of Howard's work, I found myself reading it and saying, "Wait, did he make that up? Is that something that kinda sorta happened . . . I gotta look that
up . . ."
And off I go with my twisted brain to Google something. Reading Howard's work engages me intellectually and emotionally in a way that is entirely unique. I can think of no other writer who does what he does, so deftly, so consistently, and with so few seams showing.
Someone else talked about the sheer joy and excitement of seeing that a new Waldrop story had been posted at SCI FICTION. It saddens me that we're losing that.
Deborah Layne is publisher and co-editor of the Polyphony anthology series. She also published Waldrop's collection Dream Factories and Radio Pictures in 2003 (Wheatland Press).
Link to story.