Vintage Treasures: Talking Man by Terry Bisson
Talking Man (Avon, 1987). Cover by Jill Bauman
Terry Bisson is a brilliant short story writer. He’s published five collections, including Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993), which contains one of my all-time favorite SF tales, “They’re Made out of Meat.” You can read the whole thing online here. Go ahead, it’s short. I’ll wait. Wasn’t that amazing? That killer last line!
Bisson has also written over a dozen SF novels. A fair number, but not so many that you can, you know, lose track of them. Presumably. So imagine my surprise last month when I’m minding my own business, surfing paperback collections on eBay (as one does), when I glimpse the slender spine of something that looks like “Talking Man” by Terry Bisson.
What the heck was Talking Man? I’d never heard of it. To add insult to injury, a simple internet search revealed that this was a highly regarded novel — and a major oversight for a self-described Bisson fan such as myself. It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and Publishers Weekly gave it a warm review back in 1986, saying (in part):
Having dreamt this world into being, the wizard called “Talking Man” falls in love with what he has made and retires there. He lives in a house trailer on a Kentucky hillside close by his junkyard, and he only uses magic on the rare occasions he can’t fix a car the other way. He’d be there still if his jealous codreamer Dgene hadn’t decided to undo his creation and return this world to nothingness. Talking Man lights out to stop her… The geography shimmers and melts, catfish big as boats are pulled from the Mississippi, the moon crumbles into luminous rings and refugees from burning cities choke the highways… fantastic and gothic… very entertaining.
Even Jo Walton raved about this book, at some length, over at Tor.com. Damn it, does the whole world know about this novel but me? Apparently.
[Click the images for versions worth Talking about.]
25 vintage science fiction paperbacks in great shape for $14. What a steal!
Talking Man is one of the best fantasies ever.
Terry Bisson successfully does a thing here that few people even try, he makes the everyday fantastical not with folk magic but with high fantasy. This is a book in which a broken down car transmission is fixed with the blood of an antelope, and where there’s a city at one end of time called Edminidine and at the other a tower called Elennor. It’s written in a combination of folksy high fantastical language and you wouldn’t think it could work but it does.
This is not an urban fantasy. Indeed, it’s about as rural as fantasies get…. There’s a plot. There are characters — most especially there’s Talking Man’s daughter Crystal, and there’s Williams, who comes to Talking Man to try to mend the windscreen on his cousin’s Mustang, and then to understand how it got mended by magic, and gets drawn into the quest. There’s a world, that starts out as this world and gets weirder. There’s no telling whether the world is saved, really, and that’s one of the coolest things. Most fantasy is unambiguous in a very unmagical way. Talking Man is closer to actually feeling magical than most books — if somebody wanted to make a case that the text changed between readings, I’d be prepared to listen, because I certainly find different things in it every time I read it.
This is more like an epic poem than a novel, an epic poem in a Kentucky accent about driving to the imaginary lands of New Mexico and the North Pole, using a Mobil credit card and not being able to charge anything to it except gas, living on McDonalds and Snickers bars, with the radio cutting in and out, pursued and pursuing, on a road trip to save the world.
Read Jo’s complete review here.
Well, it’s obvious what I had to do. I pulled the trigger on the auction, buying the whole lot of 25 books for $14, mostly to get this one book. It was worth it.
And on the plus side, there was lot of other great titles in there as well, including Firecode by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (didn’t know about that one either — but it looks interesting), a mint condition copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, a pristine pair of Poul Anderson SF adventures, Brian Aldiss’ Dracula Unbound, a whole mess of Bradbury, and a lot more
Easily worth a measly 14 bucks. I’m still digging through it, and I’ll let you know if I find any other surprises.
Talking Man was published by Avon Books in August 1987. It is 192 pages, priced at $2.95. The cover is by Jill Bauman. It has been out of print since 1987, although JumperCable Books issued at $2.99 ebook version in 2013.
See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.
Really enjoyed this book when I read it – a very long time ago – even though it’s a pretty quick read, mainly because it’s an American work of fantasy that draws on specifically American tropes for its source material, as opposed to the usual diet of elves and sorcerers.
That’s what makes it most interesting to me. Weird to say that an American fantasy is fresh and original by virtue of being American, but I think it’s precisely the case. Most American fantasy (especially in the 80s) was, as you say, “elves and sorcerers” in a pseudo-British setting.
I actually registered to comment just to thank you for recommending this — it was exactly what I hoped for. Fast and lean and very evocative, like revisiting 1980s America on a mushroom trip. I have pretty narrow tastes in this genre and I doubt I’d have ever found this book if I hadn’t stumbled on your website!
Thanks for the comment! I’m very glad you found us. (And how DID you stumble on Black Gate? I’m always curious about how folks find us these days.)
John, I think I found Black Gate because I was looking for people who’d written about M. John Harrison, and IIRC you have a “vintage treasures” post about one of the Virconium books.