Barrett's previous novels ran from weightless mysteries (Bad Eye Blues, 1997, etc.) to weighs-a-ton science fiction (Through Darkest America, 1987), so this 15-piece collection, a mad, grim, plausible, off-kilter, sometimes amusing brew, comes as a pleasant surprise. In the title piece, a struggling young playwright, swindled by her wicked uncle, befriends a stranded alien, to ultimately felicitous effect. Equally memorable are an unsettling slice-of-life on a remote colony planet, and a similarly disconcerting, hallucinatory world of endless stairways and rooms. Elsewhere, Barrett puts an agreeably flinty edge on a series of dark futures, where communist Chinese have occupied the U.S.; or whites have become a bankrupt, despised, exploited minority; or, after an effortless invasion by superior aliens, entrepreneurs trade art looted from a smashed civilization for basic subsistence; or still other alien invaders, having disappeared most of the human race, are haunted by the ghost of a man who isn't dead yet. The hilarious, well-known "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" offers a Mad Max-style future of robot hucksters, VR sex, gangster-actuaries, and seven-foot-tall, machine-gun-toting, poker-playing possums. More sardonically, a half-mile-high statue of Richard Nixon rises on the California coast. In a historical-games vein: straitlaced Emily Dickinson's ghastly adventures in Indian territory; and Sheriff Pat Garrett meets Erwin Rommel and the Wright brothers. Less convincing are the saccharine account of a deformed child's transcendent destiny, Jesus as an elementary student, and a couple of all-but-unintelligible fragments. Here, events march to an outlandish but persuasive logic: peculiar, curious, engaging.
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