Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fantasies, by Richard Bowes

Richard Bowes – Streetcar Dreams and Other Midnight Fantasies
PS Publishing, 2006, 184pp, ISBN 1-904619-38-X (deluxe hardcover), 1-904619-39-8 (hardcover)

I read an advanced review copy from PS Publishing, so I can’t comment on the introduction by Jeffrey Ford (not included), and I offer up the hope that the proof readers get to it before the final version. Broken paragraphs, sets of inverted commas that don’t open or don’t close … not a lot, more than there should be. But for all that …

There’s a line that has stayed in my memory since I first read it in F&SF, and it’s here too. The narrator remembers getting rid of his toys when he thought he had become grown up. In fact, ‘all that had happened was a grown up had sex with me’. It’s a line about innocence not just lost but wasted. Now the character doesn’t have it anymore, he just has to get on and do without it. That is a typical Richard Bowes character. Readers will probably emerge a little less innocent too.

These stories are worlds of three levels. There is here, the normal world – respectable, middle class, tax paying, and based around the author’s own stomping grounds of New York or Boston. Then there is a level running parallel to that of drugs and prostitution and gay hustling. Some of us will be strangers to that world, though you get the feeling Bowes certainly isn’t. And it is this level that acts as a gateway to the third, where the really weird stuff happens.

Sometimes that third level is incarnate in one person, like the doppelganger Shadow that dogs the life of Bowes’s semi-autobiographical Kevin Grierson. The Shadow is a walking, talking picture of Dorian Gray – when Kevin is doing okay in life the Shadow’s life disintegrates, and vice versa. Sometimes there’s doubt in the reader’s mind, and in Kevin’s own, as to which of them is which.

Alternatively, the third level can be a completely different fantasy world, like the world reached by failing hippy Chris(tine) in ‘Someday I Shall Rise and Go’, reached through the portrait hanging in an office. Chris is a wimp who can’t even drop out properly – pushed around and exploited by her boyfriend but finding strength and worth by going on a quest into said portrait. Most of her life is spent in a pleasantly drug induced haze, and the story is sufficiently surreal that the reader would probably feel likewise, if Bowes didn’t make you feel every stabbing hunger pang of a starving drop-out in NYC.

Or the third level can be pretty well intertwined with the second, as in the touching ‘Circle Dance’ – a sort of Shadowish story, except that the two men are actual brothers, one dying and the other not – or the thoroughly unpleasant ‘Transfigured Night.’ The latter is the one story with no redemptive feature whatsoever – there’s probably a point to it that I’m not getting, but it came across as snuff fiction at its worst and at the end I was very close to giving my regrets to the reviews editor. But I was glad I progressed because I went on to read the World Fantasy Award-winning ‘Streetcar Dreams’ – sadly the only Kevin Grierson story in this collection – and the collection’s finale, ‘My Life in Speculative Fiction’, which I suspect may be the most straightly autobiographical. Like ‘Circle Dance’, it adds further layers to the story by making the central character a writer and including snatches of his fiction, but we also get the character’s fantasy monologue as he inflates and transposes the events of his life to the life of an imaginary alter ego.

Bowes’s characters tend to be recovering, discovering inner strength, working their back to normality against the odds. A lot of stories are told in flashback or retrospect, mixing the present and the past. Bowes makes no excuses – each and every one has failed through their own immaturity and they pull themselves back through their own effort. That’s if they pull themselves back. They all pass through the fire and the depths; some choose to stay there. But none chose to start their journey in that direction and the fact that it happened to them, and that we identify with them so easily, gives a good jolt to any complacency the reader may be feeling when they start to read. To coin another memorable Bowes line, you will lose virginities you never knew you had.