I sometimes think of Andy Duncan and Ted Chiang as two peas in a pod. Anti-prolific, each seems to take immense pride and joy in the act of writing a story. They take their sweet time developing an idea and polishing and polishing until it shines. It’s thus no surprise they produce only one or two short fiction gems per year. Perhaps knowing a decade would be needed, neither has produced a novel to date, meaning we readers get to experience the fruits of their approach more frequently. Six years since Duncan’s last collection (natch), 2018’s An Agent of Utopia remains strong proof quality over quantity is the preferred road in the glut of contemporary publishing.
The subtitle New & Selected Stories, An Agent of Utopia aims to be a retrospective scattered with uncollected material. Bringing back into print several of Duncan’s best stories from previous collections (something badly needed considering they are out of print), it likewise brings together a handful which were published since. Not collecting the handful which were published since, a few are missing, most notably the collaborative novella with Ellen Klages “Wakulla Springs”. (I assume this is due to copyright issues...)
Leading things off is the title story. Duncan trying on new clothes, the prose is dense, torqued, and unlike anything we’ve seen from him in its telling of what happened to Thomas More’s head after it was separated from his body at Tower Hill in London in 1535. Perhaps not the most balanced story in the author’s oeuvre (Duncan typically does a better job threading theme end to end in his stories), the story nevertheless delivers what might be his most action packed and suspenseful—007 in 16th century London on a very macabre mission. Switching gears, “Joe Diabo’s Farewell” tells of a Native American construction worker in NYC in the 1930s. Life precariously balanced on the narrow steel beams high above Broadway, when tragedy strikes the main character decides to have… an atypical night on the town. Packed to the brim with color and character (as seemingly all Duncan’s stories are), this is a piece of post-Depression fiction that exists at a cultural crossroads we think little about anymore, but does so in vibrant, human fashion.
A Robert Johnson, crossroads story with an agenda, “Beluthahatchie” tells of a vice-ridden blues musician from the early 20th century who meets an untimely end and finds himself on the train to hell. Meeting the devil and learning about his new living conditions (conditions immediately recognizable), it’s a flip on a stereotype that will have the reader thinking. Written in fabulous prose, Duncan draws the reader in with rich character and dialogue, and leaves them pondering over the substance after the last word. Capturing high school nostalgia and cars in a way entirely different yet not unlike Jack Cady’s “The Night We Buried Road Dog”, “A Map to the Home to the Stars” takes two high school friends, their love of girls, the dog days of summer, and spins them into one of those poignant stories about the passage of time that touches something deep inside but you don’t know exactly why. Great stuff.
Stories produced for editor Jonathan Strahan’s (now defunct) Eclipse series of anthologies, in “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” Father Leggett is called to the house of the O’Connors, and there meets their strange daughter Mary and an even stranger chicken she has named Jesus. Uncertainty and doubt creeping into Legget’s faith in the aftermath of this encounter, the religious undertones of this subtle, wonderfully balanced story run deep. In “Slow as a Bullet” Duncan tells a tall tale—or perhaps rather a slow tale. A simple premise for a simple story, on a whim Cliffert bets his buddies that he can outrun a bullet. Dripping with Southern flavor, this one-off in the hands of any other writer would have perhaps been a dud, but with Duncan’s infusion of character—in the meta sense—the story leaves an impression.
Another of Duncan’s secret history/missing biography-type stories, “The Pottawatomie Giant” tells the unknown side of life of the early 20th century boxer, Jess Willard. A massive man known for his ability to take a punch, he beat the then consensus champion Jack Johnson to become world champion. As a result, Willard skyrocketed into fame but was never really comfortable with it, as witnessed by his altercation with Harry Houdini. Duncan looking at Willard in old age, it’s an interesting story that twists on itself under Duncan’s wise pen. Another semi-biographical tale, this time of a historical figure few will be aware of, “Zora and the Zombie” looks at real-life anthropologist and writer Zora Neale-Hurston and a trip she takes to Haiti to study the local culture. Voodoo all around, Duncan uses the story to understated effect to balance feminist concerns across traditional and contemporary culture.
“The Big Rock Candy Mountain” an old hobo legend about a paradise where hens lay soft boiled eggs, bulldogs have rubber teeth, you never have to change your socks, and other hobo fantasies, in his version Duncan turns the dial up to 11 on imagination, and creates a mini-utopia/dystopia in the process. A curveball for the first several pages, it takes time for the reader to get their head around what he’s aiming for. But when you get it, you get it, and the story takes off. A bit of Florida jailhouse voodoo, “Daddy Mention and Monday Skull” takes an old man behind bars who wants to sing, an alligator who lives in a nearby swamp, and spins it into Duncan magic. Just one more story whose premise you’ll not find anywhere else…
Taking Tolkien’s famous hobbits and twisting them into a light though effective story on racism, in “Senator Bilbo” Duncan uses the alternate races of Middle Earth to analogous human effect. The story probably started as a bit of a larff by Duncan, but once the ball got rolling, really started taking solid shape—and you don’t need to be a fan of Tolkien to appreciate it. (The last lines of the story have been done before, but this in no way should detract from the message.) Closing the collection in fine style by capturing an amazing character voice, “Close Encounters” takes a look at UFO sightings through the eyes of a poor elderly man who once purported to have been abducted by aliens. Twilight Zone with human integrity, the tale concludes at a beautiful point of equipoise that likewise closes the collection in fine style.
Though only a third of the stories are previously uncollected, An Agent of Utopia nevertheless makes for necessary reading by Duncan regulars; the newly collected stories only add to the variety of flavors and spices the author writes with. For those unfamiliar with Duncan’s work, the collection likewise makes an excellent entry point given the number and quality of stories which were selected from Duncan’s backlog to be re-printed. “Zora and the Zombie”, “Close Encounters”, and “The Map to the Homes of the Stars” are among the best Duncan has written, let alone compared to short fiction on the wider market. Combined with the fact older Duncan collections can be difficult to find, Small Beer’s New & Selected Stories does its part to perpetuate the art and work of one the 21st century’s tip-top best writers of short fiction. Keep on taking your time, Mr. Duncan. The wait is worth it.
Containing twelve stories, the following are the contents of An Agent of Utopia:
An Agent of Utopia
Joe Diabo's Farewell
The Map to the Homes of the Stars
The Pottawatomie Giant
The Big Rock Candy Mountain
Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull
Zora and the Zombie
Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse
Slow as a Bullet