"Bulldozer" by Laird Barron: An Appreciation by John Langan
I wasn't prepared for "Bulldozer," Laird's first story for SCI FICTION. Gordon Van Gelder had called my attention to "Shiva, Open Your Eye," which I had found lyrical and ominous. It had placed Laird Barron in my "To Read" column. "Old Virginia," his next appearance in F&SF, was taut and suspenseful, the story of CIA agents encountering a terrifying creature. I was struck by its narrator's voice, hard-edged and compelling, and by the fact that this horror story actually was frightening. When I learned that Laird's third story was up at SCI FICTION, (which, for reasons of exposure, prestige, and, yes, money had become a personal grail), I printed it out.
Here's the beginning of "Bulldozer":
Then he bites off my shooting hand.
Christ on a pony, here's a new dimension of pain.
The universe flares white. A storm of dandelion seeds, a cyclone of fire. That's the Coliseum on its feet, a full-blown German orchestra, a cannon blast inside my skull, the top of my skull coming off.
I better suck it up or I'm done for.
I'm a Pinkerton man. That means something. I've got the gun, a cold blue Colt, and a card with my name engraved beneath the unblinking eye. I'm a dead shot, a deadeye Dick. I was on the mark in Baltimore when assassins went for Honest Abe. I skinned my iron and plugged them varmints. Abe should've treated me to the theater. Might still be here. Might be in a rocker scribbling how the South was won.
The more I consider this opening, the more I find to admire in it. The first sentence, for example. Don't begin a sentence with "then": at what point in grade school was that maxim hammered into me? Laird cheerfully disregards it, and in doing so announces his story's concern with varieties of time. But there's more to that sentence than adverbial daring. We come into the story not just in the middle of the action, but at its height. Really, we begin with the as-yet-unnamed narrator's defeat. Who/whatever he is facing has disarmed him (sorry), and in doing so dealt him a potentially fatal wound.
From there, the story gallops along, carrying us full-tilt into its narrator's interior monologue. After the colloquial oath of its second line, we careen into its first full paragraph, a constellation of images, sounds, and tactile sensations designed to convey the explosive agony of having your hand bitten off. They do more, as well; there's a good deal to unpack in them. The white that bursts across the narrator’s consciousness is visualized first as a plethora of dandelion seeds—small, natural, suggestive of rebirth—-then a storm of fire—-large, inventive, suggestive of destruction. Though both drawn from nature, the images oppose one another, as do the pair of sounds that follow. The roar of the Coliseum's audience, (presumably on its feet to watch the climax of a mortal combat), and the thunder of a German orchestra, (playing Beethoven? Wagner?), originate in European culture, yet the one invokes bloodsport and the bloodlust of the crowd, the other music and aesthetic experience. The paragraph's final pairing is of tactile sensations: the first of a cannon firing inside the narrator's head, the second of the top of his head blowing off. Migraine meets gun-wound, both presage the story's concern with the disintegration of the self.
(And, in the interest of my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies, may I point out the pair of allusions to nineteenth century American literature I read in this paragraph? The first is to Melville and Moby Dick; I find it in the paragraph's concern with whiteness. The second is to Dickinson's poetry; I find it in the phrase, "the top of my skull coming off," which echoes her famous description of poetry as that which makes her feel as if the top of her head were being taken off. Given the story's setting in the late eighteen hundreds American west, the allusions are at least historically accurate—-and since we'll learn that the narrator is a Harvard graduate, they're psychologically plausible-—but they add to the story's thematic concerns in ways it would take a short paper to map out.)
The story's next line highlights the immediacy and desperation of the narrator's plight, and then we're plunged into a brief precis of his personal history. Interestingly, we still don't know his name; instead, he identifies himself by his profession, that of Pinkerton man. He's a detective, albeit of the corporate, as opposed to the individual, variety. His markers are his gun and his card, with its "unblinking eye." Unhesitating violence and unwavering vision distinguish him. Yes, this is a mystery story, but less it the sense of whodunnit and more in the sense of whatdunnit, and what that hints of larger matters. While such adjectives as "Lovecraftian" and "cosmic" have become so overused they tend to obscure rather than clarify, they are not out of place here. This is not the faux-cosmicism of Lovecraft-derived role playing games; what Laird accomplishes shares more with the work of such writers as Caitlin Kiernan.
Before we lose ourselves in unutterable unspeakableness, however, there's the end of this paragraph to consider. Through its reference to Lincoln and its slang, it places the story historically. This is another of "Bulldozer's" strengths, and perhaps the most unexpected: its firm grasp of the historical milieu in which it occurs. The narrator's voice is so convincing, so of its time and place, that my first time through, there was only one turn of phrase whose historical accuracy I questioned; given how accurate the rest of the story was, I gave Laird the benefit of the doubt.
I suppose I could have condensed all of the above discussion into the statement that Laird Barron is a poet. The problem with such a description is that, all too often, it indicates a style that's vague, cliched, flowery as bad wallpaper. What it should point to is an attention to language that's condensed, nuanced, and allusive. The jagged edges of the narrator's voice unfold into phrases of startlingly beautiful geometry.
If I say I could go on and on discussing "Bulldozer," this look at its opening lines offers some explanation why. Of course, my first encounter with the story, I didn't engage in any of this analysis, (not consciously, anyway). I was too caught up in the relentless forward drive of its narrative, in the complexities of its narrator, (Jonah Koenig, just for the record), and in the monstrousness of the man he has pursued to a California mining town that might have been imagined by Gustave Dore. I was busy following the story's leaps back and forth in Koenig's personal history, in the connections it was drawing among a multitude of late-nineteenth century figures and events. I was caught in the way the plot unfolded, to quote the story's end, like "a terrible flower." I won't say I had no appreciation of its accomplishments before I re-read it; it was more a case of my re-reading expanding that appreciation in ways I wouldn't have guessed.
I'm tempted to say that "Bulldozer" kicked off the story-cycle that would include "Proboscis" (my favorite of Laird's stories) and "The Imago Sequence" (a brilliant, condensed novel). That isn't true, though; the cycle had started with "Shiva, Open Your Eye." What "Bulldozer" did was announce, more dramatically than either of its predecessors, that this writer was upping the stakes, that his ambitions were larger than we thought, and that he owned the talent to make good on them.
Like everyone else who's heard the news of SCI FICTION's demise, I've railed at the crass ignorance of the decision. In some ways, my consideration of a story like "Bulldozer" makes me feel the loss of such a venue-—and of Ellen Datlow's fine, perceptive editing-—even more acutely. However sharp that loss may be, however, there's no denying the magnitude of what Ellen has been able to accomplish on the site. Laird Barron's story is only one example of the quality of fiction we have been privileged to read. There's no doubting Ellen has a bright future, any more than there is for Laird Barron. All the same, it's nice to be able to recognize both their accomplishments, and thank them for them.
Link to story.