"The Pottawatomie Giant" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation by Jason Erik Lundberg
In the years since, I've been delighted to see Andy gain the success he's seen, and as I struggled to become a published author myself, he always had a kind word at conventions and conferences (while surrounded by admirers), and a way of talking as if he were imparting some secret knowledge, layered over with his immense storyteller's charm. I was there, at a small North Carolina science fiction convention, the weekend his collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories was released.
One thing that you know right away upon reading one of Andy's stories is what a history nut the guy is. Many of his tales take place in the American South, though certainly not all, and his love of place is evident; any setting, whether in South Carolina, Paris, a suburb of Hell, or the Soviet Union, is fully realized under Andy's controlled pen. He writes with self-assurance that comes from someone comfortable with his own style and a wealth of historical research.
In November 2000, Ellen Datlow published "The Pottawatomie Giant" at SCI FICTION. I remember reading the story while on my lunch break at work, and I was amazed that he could invoke not only Jess Willard, the 1915 heavyweight boxing champion of the world, but also master illusionist Ehrich Weiss (aka Harry Houdini). It was a story that really spoke to me, a tale of missed opportunities, of racial tensions, of second chances. A few months afterward, Andy drove up from his home in Tuscaloosa to give a reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, one of the best (if not the best) independent bookstores in the country, a place that was and is a frequent hangout of mine, a place that had employed Andy while he was finishing his M.A. at NCSU. The reading was to promote the publication of Beluthahatchie, and afterward, I had him sign my copy of "The Pottawatomie Giant," which I had printed out from the website. He laughed at this strange juxtaposition, and signed it anyway, adding a doodle of a snake wearing a hat. Later that year, both "The Pottawatomie Giant" and Beluthahatchie and Other Stories won the World Fantasy Award.
The defining incident in "The Pottawatomie Giant," Andy explains in the afterword to the story, is a true one. Jess Willard, the "Great White Hope," did indeed have words with Harry Houdini in the Los Angeles Orpheum in November 1915, and nearly caused a riot through his unwillingness to join Houdini on the stage. In fact, the first half of the story, up until Willard dies in his Los Angeles home in 1968, can be read as an embroidered biographical account of the former heavyweight. A speculative one to be sure, with specific dialogue that Andy could not have been privy to in his research, but a credible one all the same. The words may have been different, but it certainly could have happened in the way Andy describes.
But the story doesn't end with Willard's death. He opens his eyes to find himself back in that famous theater, with some vague memory that this has happened before, but instead of haranguing Houdini and calling him a phoney, this time he agrees to Houdini's request and joins the other volunteers on stage. He takes the other path, and earns admiration instead of scorn. Willard is offered a chance at redemption, and he takes it.
There are some wonderful paired opposites here: the hugeness of Jess Willard's frame versus Houdini's small stature; Willard's discomfort with his fame versus Houdini's revelry in his; Willard's reliance on his physical strength versus Houdini's reliance on sleight of hand and misdirection. And, as with Andy's other stories, he sprinkles in just the right details to give that lived-in feel to his 1915 Los Angeles: the derby hats, the cuspidors, peanuts sold in paper sacks, the combined "reek of horseshit and automobiles."
It's unclear whether Willard's second chance is a version of the afterlife or a form of time travel, but that's really beside the point. Just as with the fiction of Kelly Link or Aimee Bender, the fantastical element is unexplained, and is not the focus of the story anyway; it's what Willard does with that second chance that matters. And in this, Andy has proved to be a bit of an illusionist himself, first through the medium of written communication, and then through the slight alteration of events.
Andy's superb vision, combined with Ellen Datlow's uncompromising desire for literary excellence, has made this such a wonderful and lasting tale of the fantastic. This story most likely would have been published anyway, but without Ellen's careful editorial style, it may not have had the impact it did, or won the World Fantasy Award. Oh, what a horrible world that would be . . .
Link to story.