Locus Magazine Review

Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations, Howard Waldrop (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-13-4, $24.95, 254pp, hc) April 2003. Cover by Frank Kelly Freas.

Any reader who has followed the trials and tribulations of the career of one Howard Waldrop — national "living treasure" and occasional resident of Austin, Texas — knows of the novels that have been a quarter century in the making and of stories that exist only as a passing reference to, say, "the Egyptian story" until a convention deadline necessitates their precipitation out of the ether. Such a reader might also have wondered at the fate of the handful of stories that Waldrop wrote in collaboration with members of the original Turkey City Workshop in the early- to mid-'70s, which have been conspicuously absent from his six collections to date. Given the recent focus on alternate histories — a Waldrop specialty of sorts — it's appropriate that question be answered now, with the publication of Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations in a handsome edition from Golden Gryphon featuring eight stories and extensive story notes from all concerned.

While Waldrop trainspotters may notice the unfortunate absence of Waldrop's unfinished collaboration with Joe Pumilia, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Martians," any disappointment should be more than offset by the presence of the one original in the book, "The Latter Days of the Law." Co-written with a "seventeen-year-old snotnose" called Bruce Sterling in mid-1976, but only finished for this book, "The Latter Days of the Law" is a major novella set in 12th-century Heian Japan which tells of how the honorable private investigator Kaimamiru Firimaro is approached by a distraught courtesan eager to have him find the missing prince she loves. As Kaimamiru's investigations unfold, it rapidly becomes clear that his discoveries will involve the fate of the empire and of his clan. As with Waldrop's best writing, it's a deft piece of secret history that also shows the clear influence of the author of "Flowers of Edo."

If "The Latter Days of the Law" is the most anticipated story in the book, the best is Waldrop's first collaboration with Steven Utley, "Custer's Last Jump." The terrible tale of the four year delay in publication and the repeated promises of "a lot of money and all the prestige we can eat" doesn't begin to explain why this is the most famous story collected here. One of three stories co-written with Steven Utley, it relates in a series of note-perfect faux-academic journal articles and diary entries, the role played by Crazy Horse and the Plains Indian Air Force in the destruction of George Armstrong Custer's paratroop forces at the battle of Little Big Horn. It's the perfect example of taking what seems like an off-the-wall idea, playing it completely straight, and producing a story that manages to be both serious, substantial, and entertaining.

Waldrop's second major collaboration with Utley, "Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole," is a masterpiece of tragicomic horror that tells how Victor Frankenstein's damaged monster survives its Arctic funeral pyre, only to enter an almost Dantesque hollow Earth where it encounters everything from Lovecraftian Old Ones to its own true love. Waldrop, solo and with his various collaborators, has the knack of taking the stuff of classic pulp and, with the utmost respect, transforming it into something wondrous.

The most recent story in the book, "One Horse Town," co-written with Leigh Kennedy, recasts events from The Iliad to look at how the fall of the city affected three different people across time: Homer, the short-sighted Greek storyteller who originally wrote The Iliad; Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who discovered the Trojan ruins; and Coroebus, one of the defenders of the city, who is tragically in love with the seeress Cassandra. It's a touching, affecting piece. Of the remainder, "A Voice and Bitter Weeping," co-written with Buddy Saunders, is the start of their gonzo alternate-history classic The Texas-Israeli War 1999; "Men of Greywater Station," co- written with George R. R. Martin, is a pulp SF adventure where men desperately defend an isolated research station against intelligent fungus; "Willow Beeman," co-written with Utley, is a shaggy dog story about the last man left alive; and "Sun's Up!" co-written with physicist A. A. Jackson IV, is the story of how an artificial intelligence saves itself from a seemingly inevitable fate.

As Waldrop writes at one point, "One plus one doesn't always equal two. In collaborating, 1+1 = 2.147. And the 0.147 is smarter than both of you put together." The stories collected in Custer's Last Jump make it pretty clear that that 0.147 involved balancing Waldrop's much-celebrated uniqueness with the unique voices of his collaborators. Golden Gryphon has done Waldrophiles and short story lovers everywhere a great favor by finally publishing Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations. Not only is it one of the best collections of the year, and easily one of the longest awaited, it comes from a writer who has a reputation for killing publishers, so it took more than a little courage. And if it leaves the dedicated Waldrop trainspotter pondering the fate of Moamrath and the next collection of new stuff, it should be more than enough for the moment.

— Johathan Strahan, Locus, March 2003


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