by Charles L. Harness
Gene Wolfe’s words to the publisher sells this title beautifully, reprinted here:
“There are perhaps a thousand wonderful books. Most of us are fortunate if we so much as hear the titles of them in the course of a lifetime. Very few of us ever touch the covers of more than half a dozen. This is one of them. If you do not buy the copy you are holding, you are not likely to see one again.”
A boy crawls into a cave then exits immediately, running for his life from what dwells inside. Joe Barnes grows up and falls in love with his chemistry teacher and with chemistry, both of which impact his next few decades in unexpected ways. Joe struggles through the Great Depression, he tries to get himself drafted and he holds multiple jobs while attending night classes. Even in jobs not normally related to chemistry it’s his knowledge of the field that is repeatedly called upon. Elements of magical realism like ghosts and the Holy Grail permeate the story as Joe spins tales, saves people and blows things up. “Yes, chemists love explosions. If they say they don’t, they lie.” As he narrates the events of his life we’re swept along with the character and touched deeply as he loves, hurts and triumphs.
The book is short, about 65,000 words, but it’s enriched in ways beyond explanation. Novels three times this size can’t cover the ground here, let alone the emotional content that seems so effortlessly conveyed. As in the very best fiction, it doesn’t matter that the events in this story never happened, because they did. It’s a true story, in any meaningful sense of the term. It will touch souls, even those badly burned. Not only do you owe it to yourselves to read this, you owe it to the people next to you.
“May I tell you a fable?”
“A great explorer lifted his eyes and scanned the horizon, far and wide, in all directions, looking for the North Pole. But he never found it, because he was standing on it.”