“Buffalo” by John Kessel
Card picked: 4♦
From: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 57 (Feb. 2015)
I picked stories from this issue of Lightspeed Magazine for Deal Me In back in October/November-ish of last year. It was an issue I had downloaded at some point in the past and I added the short stories to my list without knowing anything about them other than Lightspeed is a pretty solid mag. Around Thanksgiving I joined a read-through of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which started me on my current scientific romance kick. So it’s a bit of Deal Me In coincidence magic that brought me to “Buffalo,” a story about a fictional meeting in 1934 between H. G. Wells and Jack Kessel, the author’s father.
Jack Kessel is the son of a Polish immigrant, an itinerant family until they finally settled in Buffalo, NY. When we meet Kessel, he’s working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, clearing trees from the road that will become George Washington Memorial Parkway. On the cusp of age thirty, Kessel has worked half a dozen jobs and lived as many places. He considers himself a step above his blue-collar peers. Kessel is an artist and a reader, fond of fantastic literature, especially the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells. His one vow is to never return to Buffalo. For Kessel the city and its culture are a limiter to what he might be able to achieve.
In 1934, H. G. Wells is in the twilight of his career. He’s spent a lifetime attempting to imbue his literature with social consciousness, but he fears that it is for nought. Despite FDR’s New Deal, Wells is concerned that it is the common man who will get in the way of those who know better and can do better. He is also dismayed by the hollow entertainments of those small men, especially the sensational but bankrupt fictions of someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Obviously, when these two men meet, things don’t go well. Each is left disappointed: Wells in that Kessel sees Wells’ writings at the same level as Burroughs; Kessel in that Wells ultimately sees him as just another Polack.
Wells’s weariness has dropped down onto his shoulders again like an iron cloak. “Young man—go away,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re saying. Go back to Buffalo.”
Never meet your idols, they say.
Kessel, the author, doesn’t leave us with entirely without hope. He stages this meeting at a jazz club where these two very different men have incongruously ended up. The headliner is Duke Ellington, and Kessel asks us to ponder: What is art? What is it worth? What can it change?