Look, you. I'm a big (too big, perhaps, in a dimension or two), rugged former Infantryman who's a little rough around the few edges I still have remaining. I didn't cry at my own mother's funeral, and that's a fact. I eat nails for breakfast and drink my beer out of an old canteen cup at night. I'm so tough, in fact, that Chuck Norris makes TOSK jokes when he wants to talk about toughness.
Bravado (earned or no) aside, it really is rare for me to shed a tear. Why, then, did I do so over a book, and in public to boot?
No, unfortunately I'm not kidding. There I was, having fled the office to an Asian food buffet that's right around the corner (and makes the best hot & sour soup for when I'm feeling worse for the wear, as I was today), slurping the soup. I'd put a small paperback, a copy of one of my all-time favorites that I haven't read in years, in my coat pocket as I fled, and so one hand held the tiny (just 170 pages) book open while the other powered the spoon.
The masterwork begins with a section by Ben Bova, the legendary author and editor of Analog magazine, explaining how he'd come to meet the novel's author, Spider Robinson. I've been a fan of Mr. Robinson's books since a friend thrust a yellowed copy of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon into my hands many years ago. I've read a great many things by a great many authors, but nothing struck me as solidly even back then as Robinson's prose. There are some hilariously funny authors, after all--Douglas Adams comes immediately to mind--and some authors who really make you think about life and its meaning, but Robinson manages to do both in nearly every paragraph.
I turned back to my old favorite, then, both to escape the turmoil of today and to cozy up next to a piece of humanity I hadn't been around in years. His wit came through early in the Foreword: "In 1971, after seven years of college, with that Magic Piece of Paper clutched triumphantly in my fist, the best job I was able to get was night watchman on a sewer project in Babylon, New York--guarding a hole in the ground to prevent anyone from stealing it. God bless the American educational system." ...of which I'm a part, so I--well, I understand.
Callahan's bar is simply an epic place to be. Robinson says it's "the kind of place you hear about only if you need to--and if you are very lucky." I heard about it a long time ago, and I'm glad I did, because it opened my eyes to an entire genre of reading. It's engaging, and it deals beautifully with the human condition, and it's funny as hell.
Why, then, did I shed a tear? In part, it was a tear of happiness. I'd given the yellowed copy of Crosstime Saloon back, and so reading it once again was quite like a homecoming, a return once again to a very happy place with a very good friend. Stories of Callahan's will do that to you.
I can't lie, though. There was also a touch of awestruck delight glimmering in that tear. There's something crystal-clear and brilliant about Spider Robinson's writing, something amazing. It blazed at me before I'd ever written a word I didn't have to, and today, in the light of my experiences in populating two novels with words that kind of go together, it humbled me to my core. I can only keep writing and hope that I'm ever that good.
In the Foreword, Robinson says why he decided to write the book: "I sat up straight in my chair and said for perhaps the ten thousandth time in my life, 'By Jesus, I can write better than this turnip.'" I should add for clarity's sake that his quote was uttered while reading sci fi rather than while eating a nice turnip soup. I've said the same before, not while eating turnip soup either, and certainly not while reading Robinson's work. I can do better than many of the authors out there, I'm sure.
But not Spider. No, I'll never be better than Spider. I can only set my sights on being as good as he.