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Books, Covers, and the Judging Thereof
A Review of the Book, Traffic Life: Passionate Tales and Exit Strategies
By Stephan Wehner
By Chip Haynes
When Jim Joyce asked me to review a book of bicycling and pedestrian stories for his web site, I’d like to say I jumped at the chance. In truth, I remained seated, but did sit up a bit straighter. Jim was trusting me to tell him about this book? Brave man. Or maybe just desperate. Nevertheless, the book arrived with a cryptic note from Jim tucked inside. The note mentioned Ray Bradbury as one of the authors. There was hope yet. A moment later, the bells and whistles all went off. Ray Bradbury? Bicycle and pedestrian stories? Could it be, after all of these years?
Forty years ago I was in high school in rural Ohio. I owned a Huffy. (Tell no one.) At some point, my English textbook was a collection of short stories, nearly all of them completely forgettable, save one: Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”. It had a profound effect on me all of those years ago, and I never forgot it. No idea why. Now, decades later, here it was again. I was stunned. (And yes, the story’s still good.)
Traffic Life is an anthology, and like all anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. It’s not all Bradbury. As a matter of fact, it’s not even all stories. Sandwiched between its unassuming covers are fact and fiction, cartoons and paintings, even sculpture and music. It’s a mixed bag of mixed bags. The editor, Stephan Wehner, cast a wide net, indeed. He offers no explanation for his inclusions other than offering it all as a counter-point to the prevalent car culture of otherwise “modern” society (as opposed to “civilization”), but the overall theme is one of personal choice, responsibility and imagination in one’s life. The results are interesting, if not all actually readable.
I did recognize more names than Bradbury’s in the table of contents, and recognized at least one story I’d read elsewhere, even if the author’s name was unremembered. Much of the book is what you might call light reading, enjoyable fiction and fantasy - wishful thinking, at least. But not all. For every wonderful bit of wordplay such as Dean Wirth’s “Buscrunch” there’s a long stretch of what can only be called heavy reading, like WALK Austin’s “Documentation: Declaration of the Right to Walk and Roll”. For every story as truly timeless and thought-provoking as Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”, there’s the nearly unreadable “Traffic Zoology” by Matthew Frederick Davis Hemming.
It was easy enough to tell which stories were a fairly straight forward telling of the tale, but many came across as futuristic or science fiction, even if they may have begun with a sliver of fact. Harlan Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route” was terrifying in its futuristic reality, and I could easily see Wes Alderson’s “Parking Structure Three” as a classic black-and-white Twilight Zone episode. Robert Gregory’s “First, you buy a car” was wonderfully written, even if it did sound like the baleful voice of experience. None of the stories are labeled as fact or fiction, mind you - you’ll just have to guess as I did. I suspect more were based on fact than the authors might let on. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You read the stories and absorb the intent. Did it work for you? Some do, some don’t.
I am both a cyclist and a pedestrian, but yes, I also do drive. That makes me something of a cross-pollinated oddity, but it also allows me to see every side of the reality that is traffic in the modern world. I could identify and feel a certain empathy with almost every author’s angle, including those like Matt Hern, whose “Goulais River” short story shows that not everyone will be giving up their car willingly. Not without a fight, anyway.
I think I also need to say something about the non-written portions of this book: The cartoons, the paintings, the sculptures and even the sheet music. I’ve enjoyed Andy Singer’s cartoons since I first saw his work in “Buicks Ate My Planet!” some years ago. I like his style, and his work featured here is all classic Andy stuff. Ken Avidor’s Roadkill Bill is equally famous, of course, and a bit more complex - much closer to R. Crumb, with the correspondingly more “earthy” SoCal underground look. From there, the book also offers Sue Clancy, RedSara, Scott Massey and Jim Hoehnle, with varying degrees of success. Jeff Mann’s sculptures are interesting, but seeing them trapped in two dimensions on a page hardly compliments his style, even if the photos are in color. (Mann’s retro “Automan” looks cool.) Then there’s the matter of Jeff Younger’s musical composition: Two pages of sheet music, a composition entitled, “ROADKILL”, in the middle of the book. I would have liked to have heard this music, and maybe some day I will. (My wife, The Lovely JoAnn, does play piano.) For now, those pages remain silent to me.
So, it comes down to this: Is this book worth the asking price of $16.95? Would I have bought this book if I came across it on my own? I’m going to have to say yes to both questions, but with an explanation: I do like to read. My wife and I have our own library of literally thousands of books, and there are at least two on the dining room table right now, awaiting my stern gaze. (All were flung aside for this one.) Now, I could tell you to wait and hold off until you can buy Jim Joyce’s anthology, The Bicycle Book of Wit, Wisdom and Wanderings, coming out later this year, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll say go ahead and buy Stephen Wehner’s Traffic Life. It’s not entirely bad, and does have some great stuff wrapped up inside. (Worth it for the Bradbury story alone, if you’re me.)
My only other advice on the subject would be to any would-be editor of any sort of anthology: Narrow your focus, pal.
And keep your bike tires pumped.
Traffic Life: Passionate Tales and Exit Strategies (2004), by Stephan Wehner, published by Wandering Soliton Publications. It's ISBN is 0-973-40220-2.
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