by wjw on January 15, 2014

NealBarrettOur field has lost another unique voice: Neal Barrett, Jr., who died on January 12th at the age of 83.

I got to know Neal sometime in the early Eighties, when I was breaking into the field.  I can’t say I knew him well, but I enjoyed his company and his wry observations, which always came from a slightly different quarter than you might expect

As did his mature writing.  As Emily Dickenson might say, Neal “told it slant.”  His characters were eccentric when they weren’t bizarre, prone to stopping in the middle of the story to enjoy crotchety arguments with one another, or engaged in strange quests while careening about in even stranger vehicles.  I always got the impression that Neal spent a lot of time in Central Texas, listening to people talk in bars, or maybe on front porches, or in the Winn-Dixie parking lot.

Ultimately, what a writer has to sell is his voice, and Neal had voice to spare.

The Hereafter Gang, Through Darkest America, “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus,” Piggs, all fine examples of his dark western gothic vision.

He also wrote a series of seriocomic thrillers like Pink Vodka Blues, which takes the old Hitchcock trope of an innocent man being pursued for reasons he doesn’t understand, and rings its own peculiar changes.  Quite a lot of mysteries feature alcoholic detectives, but this one deals with the consequences of drunken crime-solving in a completely logical, if skewed, manner: the hero, hiding from gunmen, gives himself away because he’s so loaded he has to puke.  Imagine someone dodging bullets, throwing up, and eloquently complaining all at the same time.  That’s a Neal Barrett character.

That is, perhaps, an unfair example, because Neal was as capable of sense of wonder as any of us.  And sometimes I provoked the wonder myself.  Every so often, I’d don my stage magician hat, and at Neal’s insistence I’d do the old needle-through-the-arm trick.  I’d do it close up, sitting in the chair next to his at the hotel bar, and he could never figure it out.

I’ll have to retire the trick.  There was never a better audience than Neal, nor better company.

He made his backlist available in electronic formats at all the usual places, and I recommend them to you all.

TRX January 18, 2014 at 4:12 pm

I’ve only read one of Neal Barrett’s books. It was ‘The Gates of Time”, half of an Ace Double, circa early 1970s. I still have that book on the shelf, survivor of dozens of cullings over the decades.

Unfortunately, though I’ve kept an eye out, none of his other books have hit the local stores, so I’ve never read any of his other work.

Looking at his bibliography, it looks like “The Gates of Time” might not by typical, though.

wjw January 19, 2014 at 6:56 am

Most of Neal’s better fantastic fiction was from small presses, so it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t be in local stores.

The mysteries were from St. Martin’s, and were sold wherever St. Martin’s hardbacks might be found. Wherever those are.

But at least they’re all available via epub, so hurrah!

pecooper January 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm

I still remember Barrett at an Aggicon, talking about quitting his job and writing full-time: “My family was appalled. You had a secure job with an airline, they said. How could you quit working for Brannif?”

He was an original.

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