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A READING LIFE

A life, and an oeuvre, plagued by shadows

A man crosses in a makeshift vessel -- a life raft, actually, rigged out for an immensely long voyage it was never designed to sustain-- from an exhausted, depleted land to one still vital, still verdant. Not a man, actually; Thomas Newton is at one and the same time something less and something more than a man. He carries with him a great cause: He is to be the savior of his people.

"After two miles of walking he came to a town. At the town's edge was a sign that read Haneyville: Pop. 1400. That was good, a good size. It was still early in the morning -- he had chosen morning for the two-mile walk, because it was cooler then -- and there was no one yet in the streets. He walked for several blocks in the weak light, confused at the strangeness -- tense and somewhat frightened. He tried not to think of what he was going to do. He had thought about it enough already.

"In the small business district he found what he wanted, a tiny store called The Jewel Box. On the street corner nearby was a green wooden bench, and he went to it and seated himself, his body aching from the labor of the long walk.

"It was a few minutes later that he saw a human being."

The intention, the plan, is simple: Thomas Jerome Newton will, first by selling the gold he has brought with him, then by exercise of patents on advanced technology, amass a fortune that he will direct to the creation of a huge ship, an ark, which will recross the void to his dying planet and bring a handful of his people to safety. But "Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow." And this is a novel about shadows, those that fall between ourselves and the light, those that fall across and obscure all that is best in us.

Walter Tevis never thought of himself as a science fiction writer. And when he wrote of aliens among us, or of the end of civilization, he did so as though he were inventing the form; wrote, in Jonathan Lethem's words, "with a sort of beautiful literary amnesia . . . refusing genre."

The passage quoted above is from "The Man Who Fell to Earth," first published as an original paperback by Gold Medal Books in 1963. Though Tevis had had a huge hit with "The Hustler" (novel 1959, film 1961), "The Man Who Fell to Earth" was multiply rejected. Editors at the time must have wondered what a respected, successful literary novelist was doing writing, of all things, science fiction. Many of us now consider it among the best science fiction novels ever written.

Following a 17-year silence, years spent teaching and drinking, Tevis reemerged with "Mockingbird" (1980), "The Steps of the Sun" (1983), and "The Queen's Gambit" (1983). (A potboiler "Hustler" sequel, "The Color of Money," also came out in these last years.) Each confronts in its own manner much the same theme as "The Man Who Fell to Earth." Thomas Newton believes desperately in his mission but finds himself unable to achieve it. Eddie in "The Hustler" is forever drawn thin between the poles of his drive and his inability to follow through. "Mockingbird," an end-of-civilization story, and "The Queen's Gambit," about an alcoholic chess prodigy, are in many ways positive retellings of, respectively, "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "The Hustler." "The Steps of the Sun" is a fable of adolescence and of the simultaneous redemption of a man and his world.

Nabokov placed the mark of literature's greatness in its infinite readability, a standard that "The Man Who Fell to Earth," a novel I've read as many times as "Lolita" or "Pale Fire," attains.

On the surface, "Man" is the tale of an alien who comes to earth to save his own civilization and, through adversity, distraction, and loss of faith ("I want to. . . . But not enough"), fails. Just beneath the surface it might be read as a parable of '50s conventionalism and of the Cold War.

One of the many other things it is, in Tevis's own words, is "a very disguised autobiography," the tale of his removal as a child from San Francisco, "the city of light," to rural Kentucky, and of the childhood illness that long confined him to bed, leaving him, once recovered, weak, fragile, and apart.

It was also -- as he realized only after writing it -- about his becoming an alcoholic.

Beyond that, it is, of course, a Christian parable, and a portrait of the artist.

It is, finally, one of the most heartbreaking books I know, a threnody on great ambition and terrible failure, and an evocation of man's absolute, unabridgeable aloneness.

"For a moment Bryce stood quiet, staring at him. Then he walked around the table and, kneeling, laid his arm across Newton's back, and held him gently, feeling the light body trembling in his hands like the body of a delicate, fluttering, anguished bird.

"The bartender had come over and when Bryce looked up the bartender said, 'I'm afraid that the fellow needs help.'

" 'Yes,' Bryce said. 'Yes, I guess he does.' "

James Sallis is on the faculties of Phoenix College in Arizona and Otis College in Los Angeles. Late fall brings a new collection, "A City Equal to My Desire," and "A James Sallis Reader."

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