In the Realms of Wonder

By Michael Dirda

The Avram Davidson Treasury

Edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

 Tor. 447 pp. $27.95

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was one of the most original and charming writers of our time. So, it almost goes without saying, he was generally neglected and undervalued during much of his career. For the most part this bearded Orthodox Jewish autodidact wrote what one might call fantasy, of a sort, sometimes drifting into the starry realms of science fiction and sometimes into the wild gardens of the antiquarian essay (see the wonderful -- and highly idiosyncratic -- Adventures in Unhistory). Grasping fruitlessly for comparisons, his admirers have likened Davidson to Saki, Chesterton, John Collier, Lafcadio Hearn, Kipling, even I.B. Singer and S.J. Perelman. And you can see what they mean. I would add that he frequently reminds me of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell: Two similarly brilliant stylists with a compassionate interest in bohemians, losers, immigrant culture, New York, oddities, con artists, crackpot inventors, and the passing of humane, small-scale neighborhood life.

 If people know any story by Avram Davidson, it's probably "Or All the Seas with Oysters," celebrated for what Guy Davenport calls "its crazily plausible concept that safety pins are the pupae and coat hangers the larvae of bicycles." Two of his other relatively well known charmers are "The Golem," in which an elderly Jewish couple thwart a powerful android intent on destroying all mankind, and the hilarious "Help! I am Dr. Morris Goldpepper," wherein the executive board of the American Dental Association must save the Earth from alien invaders. This last begins with delightful tongue-in-cheek portentousness:

Four of the men, Weinroth, McAllister, Danbourge and Smith, sat at the table under the cold blue lighting tubes. One of them, Rorke, was in a corner speaking quietly into a telephone, and one, Fadderman, stood staring out the window at the lights of the city. One, Hansen, had yet to arrive.
Fadderman spoke without turning his head. He was the oldest of those present -- the Big Seven, as they were often called.
"Lights," he said. "So many lights. Down here." He waved his hand toward the city. "Up there." He gestured toward the sky. "Even with our much-vaunted knowledge, what," he asked, "do we know?" He turned his head. "Perhaps this is too big for us. In the light of the problem, can we really hope to accomplish anything?"
Heavy-set Danbourge frowned grimly. "We have received the suffrage of our fellow-scientists, Doctor. We can but try."
Davidson can often be funny, as here, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a humorist. In a number of dark tales he describes the "sophisticated" Westerner's encounter with -- and often exploitation of -- an exotic or third-world culture. In "Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?" a repulsive, suffocating New York matron overworks her Caribbean maid, until one day the foolish woman actually dares to rifle through Queen Esther's coat pockets. In "Naples," as mysterious and unsettling as a Robert Aickman ghost story, a nameless traveler follows a shirtless guide into the bowels of the ancient city, on a quest for a certain "article," a "little something" that just might be death. About "Dagon," in which an American military officer acquires a Chinese concubine, with strange consequences, one can only say: Borges couldn't have written a better metaphysical horror story or Conrad a more haunting parable of colonial exploitation.

 Still no precis of a Davidson tale can do more than hint at the enchantment of his storytelling or even the vast register of voices at his command: the high-toned diction of a 19th-century English remittance man, the mumblings of a crazy Hispanic inventor, the learned discourse of Dr. Engelbert Eszterhazy of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania (it borders on Ruritania and Graustark), or the broken English of an old Slavic grandma: "In this one is chopped spleen stew with crack buckwheats. And in udder one is cow snout cooked under onions. Wait. I give you pepper." And who could ever forget the fast-talking market researcher T. Pettys Shadwell, "the most despicable of living men" ("The Sources of the Nile"), or that vile and legalistic Southern slaver, Mr. James Bailiss of "The Necessity of His Condition"?

 A few of Davidson's stories close with an O. Henry-like snap (try that short-short classic, "And Don't Forget the One Red Rose"), but some of the best remain tantalizingly imprecise. What does Dr. Eszterhazy detect when he phrenologically palpates the head of a sideshow impresario in "Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman"? Is the title character of "Sacheverell" a talking monkey or not? The atmospheric "Manatee Gal, Won't You Come Out Tonight" -- one of the Jack Limekiller adventures set in the Belize-like British Hidalgo -- can be read again and again, just for its leisurely descriptions of a lush tropical littoral. As Peter Beagle once noted, "Only in Avram's own sweet, sinister while do we come -- far too late for our comfort -- to the realization that those were not digressions at all, but coils. . ."

The Avram Davidson Treasury carries the subtitle "a tribute collection," which means that each of the nearly 40 stories in this handsome volume arrives with a short prefatory essay by a notable writer and Davidson fan. So Ursula Le Guin writes about "The House the Blakeneys Built" and Thomas M. Disch introduces "The Power of Every Root." Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury contribute more general appreciations, as does editor Robert Silverberg. His co-editor, Grania Davis, is Davidson's former wife and sometime collaborator (she recently completed Davidson's dark fantasy novella, The Boss in the Wall, available from San Francisco's Tachyon Press). Though one may regret the absence of a few personal favorites -- the very funny "Lord of Central Park," in particular -- on the whole this collection really does collect its author's best. Not merely a treasury, it's a genuine treasure.

 Having read and loved Avram Davidson's work for years, I've often thought about how to characterize his inimitable magic. The writer once said of himself, "I should like to have travelled slowly and leisurely throughout the odder and lesser-known corners of the world, writing of their history and ambiance." In a way, he did. He made himself into a prose laureate of "the Old Country." He celebrated vanishing cultures and foods and customs and places, most of them now absorbed in the homogenized tele-glitz of modern American mall-life. There is no better sketch of the Slavic immigrant culture of my own youth -- almost entirely gone now -- than "The Slovo Stove," while the portraits of Jewish dentists and Hispanic cooks and old scholars from "Chairmany" and 1950s admen seem just as true and apt. Apparently Davidson spent much of his adult life in a series of rented rooms, enjoying the company of the raffish, the outcast, and the hardworking poor. Friends say he was a terrific raconteur, but from the evidence of his fiction he was an even better listener.

 In his 70 years -- too few, too few -- Avram Davidson, born in Yonkers, served in the Navy during World War II, fought with the Israeli Army in the 1948 war for independence, spent long periods in Mexico and Belize, resided in California for a while, and ended his life in an old veterans home in Washington state. Though he never finished college, Davidson devoted himself to arcane historical learning with an entirely rabbinical zeal. In just one instance, he filled 25 huge notebooks and generated more than 5,000 file cards of background information for the Vergil Magus fantasies (based on the medieval legend that Vergil was not only a great poet but also a great sorcerer: see The Phoenix and the Mirror).

 In his later years Davidson grew downright cranky, but didn't he have cause? He'd written some of the best short stories of his time, yet aside from a small circle of admirers he was virtually unknown and most of his work was out of print. The Avram Davidson Treasury, despite occasional misprints, is the kind of substantial hardback the man deserved instead of a lifelong series of mainly paperback originals. Some of its pages will carry you away to strange seas and shores, others will show you the marvelous within the seemingly ordinary, and just about all of them will take your breath away. But then that's what magicians do.

 Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Originally published in The Washington Post, 11 October 1998.

Return to the table of contents page