April 6, 2009


Philip José Farmer: A River Ran Through Him (EDWARD CHAMPION, 4/06/09, Barnes & Noble)

In 1952, a febrile fabulist blooming a bit late in Peoria took part in a fiction contest sponsored by Shasta and Pocket Books. This former Air Force man, who had always put family before precocity, had just parachuted out of a glum 11-year stint at Keystone Steel and Wire to write full-time. Bolstered by the sales of two tales in Startling Stories, this wildly imaginative 30-something banged out a 150,000-word novel titled I Owe for the Flesh. Inspired by John Kendrick Bangs's A House-Boat on the Styx, the scenario imagined that every person who had ever lived on Earth was resurrected on a planet consisting of a serpentine river snaking its way through rocky terrain for millions of miles, with sustenance provided through magical grails. Decades before Stephen King's Roland, Richard Black (later named Sir Richard Burton) sought the dark tower at river's end.

The writer here in question was Philip José Farmer, who passed away in February. And this early effort was the genesis point for the Riverworld books, perhaps his best-known work. This magical quintet (along with two anthologies) affirmed Farmer's faculties for shuffling through a deck of historical and literary figures (picked up by Alan Moore in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and his peculiar form of tropical mysticism (perhaps an unacknowledged inspiration for the television series, Lost).

As it turned out, Farmer won the $4,000 prize. His novel awaited rewrites. But editor Melvin Korshak took the money and gambled it away on another book that bombed. Shasta went bankrupt. And Farmer was never paid for his labor. This financial nightmare forced him to cede his house. The manuscript was lost, and it seemed for a time that the ripe prototype for Farmer's most ambitious work was permanently stalled.

But this setback didn't stop Farmer. His relentless inventive powers and his Depression-hewn work ethic produced dozens of short stories, poems, articles, and novellas over the next few years.

I grew up reading all the old pulps I could get my hands on--particularly Edgar Rice Burroughs, Doc Savage, The Avenger and The Shadow--which led to Mr. Farmer, who'd published pseudo-biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage. Freshman year of college I read To Your Scattered Bodies Go and though it was terrific, was disappointed enough in subsequent volumes to never finish the series. However, the main character in the first, Sir Richard Francis Burton, was so fascinating I spent finals reading every biography of him in the Colgate library. Suffice it to say, he didn't appear on any of the exams.

Those early biographies are especially interesting because Burton -- translator of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra and the first Christian to visit Mecca, clandestinely -- was such a controversial figure. Between writing frankly about the sexual practices of the Middle East and Africa and various rivalries he provoked with other men, he was subject to all kinds of rumors about his own sexuality, which were only dealt with by innuendo (so to speak) back in the day. There have been some fine subsequent studies of his life and William Harrison's novel about his expedition to find the source of the Nile with John Hanning Speke and their subsequent feud was turned into a reasonably good movie.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2009 7:16 AM
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