TALKING MAN by Terry Bisson, Arbor House, 1986
This is the 61st in my series of Forgotten Books.
Back in the day I used to do some of the big conventions – the WorldCon and World Fantasy. At one of the World Fantasy shows, I asked David Hartwell to recommend a book to me that I might not have heard of which I should be reading. He pointed to TALKING MAN and it took me almost 5 seconds to decide to buy it.
This was the book to establish Terry Bisson as a writer to contend with, though his previous novel WYRLDMAKER had shown that he was good. TALKING MAN took that talent to the rarefied air of someone like a Cordwainer Smith. The novel was nominated for a World Fantasy Award eventually losing to Patrick Susskind’s PERFUME, another possible Forgotten Book title. The competition that year was tough including Charles L. Grant, Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, Gene Wolfe, and Margaret Mahy, all with extremely good books up for the Award.
TALKING MAN is a fantasy novel, but not the kind of epic fantasy like A GAME OF THRONES or David Gemmell’s work. It is a quiet rural fantasy, as much about the South as any work you might read. The characters care about cars, tobacco planting, Snickers bars, bartering tires or batteries for food and gas, and racing across the country. The cars themselves are as much a character as the protagonists.
The novel’s leads are Talking Man (who never talks on page and verbalizes very rarely); Crystal, his daughter who grows tobacco and smokes a lot; William Tilden Hendricks Williams, who borrows his cousin’s Mustang and is spending his inheritance playing Missile Command rather than going to law school.
Talking Man is a wizard from the end of time or maybe the beginning of time, they are pretty much the same who enters our world, meets Mountain Laurel a singer and fathers a child, Crystal. He has left Dgene at the end/beginning of time and she is not happy. Talking Man has taken an owl figurine which keeps her from destroying the world. So Dgene comes to our dimension/world, steals the owl, and with a mason jar of Unbeen heads to the North Pole where she plans on unmaking the world. Talking Man steals the Mustang which Williams has brought to his repair shop to have the broken windshield repaired. Crystal and Williams follow Talking Man across a vastly changing American landscape into areas never before seen by man and on toward the North Pole. Dgene and her two henchmen who look suspiciously like a local thug known as Hey Hoss (after his most common greeting). Conflicts and adventures follow.
This book reads fast and smooth with rarely a flicker of inconsistency. I picked it up the other day to consider re-reading it for the Forgotten Book and I was suddenly 65 pages into it. I think it selected me more than I did it.
Bisson has gone on to do some truly ambitious work, including the short story “Bears Discover Fire” (the title piece to his first short story collection, FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a utopian novel; PIRATES OF THE UNIVERSE; and he completed the sequel to Walter M. Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ entitles ST; LEIBOWITZ AND THE WILD HORSE WOMAN IN 1997. Check out his work, it is worth the effort.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.