Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Re-visiting Some Old Stuff

Too hot to train dogs. Too hot to fish. Too hot to even think about the promise of fall and birds and dogs, so I'm re-reading some old favorites. Because when you're lazy the assurance of the known trumps the promise of the unknown any day...

One old favorite I just pulled from the shelf and dusted off for a read is Okla Hannali by RA Lafferty. Go on, you can admit it: you've never heard of him. Neither has anyone else. Neither had I, until I was compelled to read Okla Hannali for a western history class at OU. Who says college isn't worth it?

Lafferty was an interesting dude. He's no longer in print, but you can find most of his stuff if you look hard enough and are willing to pay. Here's a little backpage obit I wrote for our state magazine back in 2002 when Lafferty died, broken, broke and alone, in a Tulsa nursing home.

It is somehow fitting - however tragically so- that the best Oklahoma book no one has ever read was penned by the best Oklahoma author no one has ever heard of, but if history is rife with examples of literary genius discovered postmortem then perhaps Tulsa’s Raphael Aloysius Lafferty will now finally get his due.

The genre-warping author and self-described “cranky old man from Tulsa” who died in a Broken Arrow nursing home earlier this year at the age of 87, wrote dozens of books and hundreds of short stories in a career that only began in his forties. However, despite his prolific output Lafferty never achieved widespread fame, due in no small part to his eclectic subject matter and absolutely unique writing style.

While Lafferty is generally categorized as a science fiction/fantasy writer, his work has always defied such neat and tidy pigeonholes. In 1972, one year before Lafferty won a Hugo award for his science fiction short story “Eurema’s Dam” he published “Okla Hannali”, a historical novel that chronicles the history of the Choctaw tribe in Oklahoma through its protagonist, Hannali Innominee. That he could do both genres so well - and yet remain so widely unknown – is both a testament to his genius as a writer and a pointed reminder that genius is often unmarketable.

Despite the sci-fi label, Lafferty’s writing - with its peculiar style and structure - has often been compared to that of James Joyce. No matter the subject, Lafferty’s surreal tall tales exhibit a lilting, singsong cadence, an unmistakable stamp that enthralls his hard-core fans but forces some who try to read him to simply give up, hopelessly entangled in Lafferty’s syntactic jungle.

It is that slightly askew, wildly imaginative style that firmly entrenched both Lafferty’s cult status and his obscurity.

Virtually an entire generation of sci-fi writers credits him as an influence, but the vast majority of Lafferty’s work is long out of print and extremely rare, primarily because much of it was originally published in low numbers by small, independent presses.

As such, there is no such thing as a definitive Lafferty bibliography. Some of Lafferty’s work remains alive on the publishing fringes, available from the small indie and underground presses that have always sustained him, but for the most part Lafferty‘s books are now the exclusive domain of book scouts, fans and collectors.

“Okla Hannali” is a notable exception. In 1991 the University of Oklahoma Press resurrected Lafferty’s hypnotic tale of the Choctaw nation, and Oklahoma’s literary landscape is richer for it. Few books - fiction or non-fiction - capture the mood of Indian Territory as completely as Lafferty’s, and his singular style imparts a dreamy, songline-like quality to the tale.

Lafferty’s death barely registered in popular literary circles, but perhaps his passing will rekindle scholarly and the reading public’s interest in his work. Both the University of Tulsa and the University of Iowa maintain Lafferty collections, and, of course, there is that vast, amorphous body of work strewn across the dusty corners of the literary landscape, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Until then, however, R.A. Lafferty’s legacy and his contributions to Oklahoma and world literature will remain much as they always have – unknown.

Good stuff, if you ever come across it...

1 comment:

  1. I will have to keep an eye out for him-I love finding out about new authors, and the thrift stores around here stock a good quantity of rare books. Very well written obituary