Monday, June 16, 2014

Lucius Shepard and the Irish Car Bomb Story


Ellen Datlow and Rob Killheffer arranged for what they called A Celebration of the Work of Lucius Shepard but which, let's be honest, was actually a wake for the Big Guy, at KGB Bar in New York City last night.  Usually, when Marianne and I drive the hundred miles from Philadelphia for a science fiction event in the Apple, we're the people who came the furthest.  This time, though, folks came from all over.  Jeff Ford drove all the way from Ohio and Bruce and Carlene Chrumka came down from Canada, and there may well have been others from far places.  This is how high a regard we all had for the man and now have for his memory.

If I start to list the people like Sheila Williams and Paul Witcover and Gordon Van Gelder who came to the front of the church to testify, we'll be here all night.  As it seemed at times we would be yesterday.  There were a lot of people who wanted to say how much Lucius meant to them.  Most moving, I thought, were the words spoken by his son, Gulliver.

I did not speak, because I only got around to telling Sheila I was coming a few days ago, by which time the event was booked solid. But had I spoken, this is what I'd have said:

I'm not sure when I realized that Lucius was not a great science fiction writer but, rather, a great American writer.  Sometime before he wrote "Only Partly There," surely.  Possibly it was when "Beast of the Heartland" came out.  But I suspect it was when he introduced a protagonist as "an American fool of no consequence."  Lucius was exactly the opposite of that, a man of great consequence indeed.  Alas, he was not a natural novelist and whom the gods would impoverish, they first give a particular genius for short fiction.  It's a miracle and a testimony to his hard work that he didn't starve to death decades ago.

Now he's gone.  Lucius did his part -- he left behind a tremendous amount of fiction.  We'll be sorting it all out for decades to come.  But literary reputations, in this country at least, are only half built upon the work itself.  For a writer to make it into the canon, there must be gossipy stories of him or her behaving badly.

Here's my contribution.  Jeff wants me to tell Lucius's formula for winning a Hugo, but that story's too scurrilous for tonight.  I could have told his formula for selling to Ellen Datlow, but I think I'm going to keep that one for myself, in case I need it someday.  Two people have told the Irish Car Bomb story tonight and a third has referred to it.  But I prefer my own version, not least because it involves me.  So that what I'll tell.

Years ago, at a science fiction convention, I went into the bar and discovered Lucius Shepard and Jeff Ford there.  So naturally I invited myself to their table.  Hours went by, in which I matched them -- big men both -- beer for beer, while we talked about everything under the sun.  Good talk, with the horns and hooves still attached, as Ray Lafferty used to put it.

Then Lucius suddenly said, "Well.  Time for the Irish car bombs!"

"Yeah!" Jeff said enthusiastically, rubbing his hands together.  "Irish car bombs!"

Now, an Irish car bomb, for the uninitiated is an appalling drink.  You start with a pint of Guinness.  Then you float a shot of Bailey's Irish Cream on top of it.  Finally, you take a shot glass full of Jameson's Irish Whiskey and drop it in.  Disgusting.

I whipped up my wrist and looked at it.  I wasn't wearing a watch, but if you do the gesture right, and the people you're with have been drinking, you can almost always get away with this.  "Oh my goodness!" I cried.  "Look at the time -- it's ten o'clock.  i should have been in bed hours ago!"  And I fled.

My mother didn't raise any fools.

The next morning I ran into Lucius, standing in front of the now-closed bar.  I have no idea if he'd been to bed at all that night.  But he was looking a little wobbly.  After I'd greeted him, he leaned in toward me, like a schooner keeling to the side under a heavy wind, and confided, "I had nine Irish car bombs."  Then, like that same schooner righting itself, he resumed an upright position.

He waited a beat -- Lucius's timing was always impeccable -- and then he leaned toward me again, to say, "I believe eleven is possible."

And the moral of this story is . . .

Lucius lived hard, drank hard, wrote hard.  By some lights he was a victim of the Myth of the Great Writer, the idea that true genius is such a tremendous burden as to render self-medication and, indeed, self-destruction a necessary component of one's greatness.  By others, he was the victim of an abusive father who was ambitious to become a great writer by proxy.  I don't think any of us really understood his dark side, though we could all see it was there.

But despite that, Lucius left behind not only a tremendous body of work, but also a great many friends who miss him terribly.  One would be enough to justify a lot.  Only a very few of us manage both.

Above, top:  Jeff Ford.  Above, bottom:  Gulliver Shepard.



shaun said...

Thank you for this story, Michael. I miss Lucius on facebook. That was how I knew him in real life.

Datlow said...

Hi Michael, It was me and Rob Killheffer, not Jack Womack, who organized the event.

Michael Swanwick said...

Correction made, Ellen. My sincere apologies to Rob.