In recent years, Ray Bradbury has settled comfortably into his role as the wacky grandfather of American letters. His latest books have mostly been mined from his trunked or uncollected stories and have been as full of misses as hits. A few of those, such as the novel "Farewell Summer," have seemed like plain mistakes that should have left well enough alone.
Given his recent record, reader expectations for "We'll Always Have Paris" might understandably be on the low side -- especially given the cover, which features a grinning Bradbury holding a glowing book, Photoshopped in front of the Eiffel Tower.
And therein lies a happy surprise: Throw those expectations out the window and get ready to enjoy a fresh draft of stories the way only Bradbury can write them. Bradbury's strengths have always been in capturing something about people, places and moments. His signature tales -- "The Martian Chronicles," "Dandelion Wine," "The Fog Horn" -- wend among joy and darker emotions. Here, Bradbury often shows how much he loved the small town he grew up in, but his willingness to write about the shadows as well as the carnivals, the poison apples as well as the apple pie, is what gives his stories their depth.
In "Pieta Summer," the joy of a boy carried a mile home by his father after a long day (with two circuses and two parades) still burns brightly 70 years later. In the first story, "Massinello Pietro," Pietro believes, "The more you give away, the better it is, the more you have. Those with talent must mind the world." He is a prototypical cheery Bradburian character who dances, chirps, sings, feeds the poor and gives everything he can in the hope of goosing everyone else into admitting what a joy it is to be alive.
One of the weirder stories, and one that, given the renown of "The Martian Chronicles," can't help but be widely anticipated, is "Fly Away Home." Two rockets are sent to Mars -- the Mars of the 1950s, with "air of the finest vintage, ten million years old, intoxicating, but pure." The first rocket's 31 men arrive on the planet and the reality of being 60 million miles from home hits them hard. But we're in one of Bradbury's futures here, and reality is mutable. As the men build a fire and set up their tents, a second, relief rocket is right behind them, and here is where things get weird in the way that only an author obsessed with small towns and space travel could make it. Bradbury's stories are often about men of action doing things, but in "Fly Away Home," perhaps showing its midcentury roots, women provide support in a way that, in this setting, is more than a little mind-blowing.
From "Fly Away Home," it's easy to see the road that Bradbury's stories travel. There are many here in which the perfect summer day includes the first hints of rot and decay to come. In its four short pages, "Apple-core Baltimore" holds more bitterness than a boxful of lemons in its perfect description of the weight of childhood pain and the years of resentment a man feels at his long-ago treatment by a friend. In "Come Away With Me," a man tries to help a younger man escape his abusive boyfriend. None of the tiny verbal cuts and grand mental cruelties are missed; this is a story without hope, a familiar and hard story with an exhausted protagonist and a hopeless ending.
While some of the stories are slight, the only real bum note is the single poem, the lively but self-congratulatory "America," first published in 2006 in the Wall Street Journal, and here placed last, leaving an odd over-the-top taste after a book that is rich with subtle moments.
"We'll Always Have Paris" is unashamedly a collection of stories written decades apart, sharing no theme or real raison d'etre. And while this isn't Bradbury at the top of his game, this collection pulls its weight and hits enough weird and beautiful poetic notes to satisfy and even surprise his constant readers.
Grant is the publisher of Small Beer Press in Easthampton, Mass.