The Washington Post Book World

"Things That Never Happened" might be a good title for much of Howard Waldrop's work, but the stories in Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations (Golden Gryphon, $24.95) are only half Waldrop. His collaborators here include Bruce Sterling, George R. R. Martin, Leigh Kennedy, and especially Steven Utley, with whom he collaborated on the title story, which remains among his best known. Waldrop's small but enthusiastic audience has long seemed ready to break out into the mainstream and convert large numbers of readers, and if it doesn't happen this time either, it won't be for lack of a good book.

"Custer's Last Jump!" (reprinted many times since 1976, though never before with an exclamation mark) retells, through a variety of sources, the Battle of Little Big Horn, when Crazy Horse's Krupp-built monoplanes destroyed the dirigibles that carried General Custer's 7th Cavalry and 505th Balloon Infantry. First published when alternate histories were novelties (rather than, as today, banalities), the story accretes around a number of narratives (including some drawn from interview notes for Mark Twain's unwritten "Huckleberry Among the Hostiles") and manages — in its odd juxtaposition of gonzo conceit, funhouse-mirror reflection of a genocidal chapter of American history and summoning of almost-real voices — to turn a clever notion into something strange and finally moving.

All but one of these stories were written in the '70s (though the Sterling collaboration, a detective story set in 11th-century Japan, is here published for the first time), and the exception, "One Horse Town" (about the Trojan War) with Leigh Kennedy, has a notably different tone from the rest, presumably because it was not produced by a pair of young Turks in their twenties. A complex and melancholy story that intertwines threads set in Troy, the Greece of Homer's youth and the 19th century, "One Horse Town" develops according to an inner logic of its own, and culminates in a haunting image: sentries on the walls of Troy looking up to hear tramping feet and the scrape of shovels. It is the sound of Schliemann's excavators, digging.

— Gregory Feeley, The Washington Post, Sunday, March 30, 2003


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