Sleight of Hand
Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon, 326pp, pb
I first encountered Peter S. Beagle’s writing as a teenager when I read The Last Unicorn. It was love at first sight, a love further strengthened when I read his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, so different in subject matter yet so clearly a product of the same skewed imagination. Beagle laid out his themes early on and his best stories still return to them.
His men are often gauche but blessed with a way of putting right the deeper problems even as they fumble the everyday tasks, maybe learning a little more about themselves as well. Schmendrick, the magician from The Last Unicorn, is the classic example: in ‘The Woman Who Married the Man in the Moon’, set prior to the novel, he meets a widow and her two children, grieving for the loss of a husband and father. The story explores ways of dealing with life by telling stories, hardly an uncommon theme, but the encounter between magician and woman is so delicately drawn as to lift it out of the ordinary.
In turn, it picks up another regular theme in Beagle’s work. His characters are rarely the usual noble or evil inhabitants of epic fantasy. Instead, Beagle focuses on the ordinary people, whose smallholdings are destroyed as armies sweep by, or who make their living as servants or artisans. Indeed, the closer that Beagle moves to more conventional fantasy tropes the less interesting his stories seem to become, as though he loses sympathy for the characters. Thus, while I enjoyed the early sections of ‘What Tune The Enchantress Plays’ I found myself less engaged by Breya Drom once she assumed her powers as enchantress.
It is with the offbeat story that Beagle really shines. ‘La Lune T’attend’, in which Arcenaux and Garrigue, two Cajun old-timers who also happen to be werewolves are stalked by a third werewolf, seeking revenge, after they despatched him as punishment for a particularly vile murder, is undoubtedly a well-made werewolf story in its own right. However, what really makes this story is its portrayal of a long friendship between two men. Beagle has always written well about age, and oddly enough he also has a knack for writing about the young, as shown in ‘The Rock in the Park’, where two teenage boys encounter a family of centaurs in a New York park, and ‘The Rabbi’s Hobby’, in which an elderly rabbi and a teenage boy set out to discover the identity of a mysterious woman in a photograph. But again, as Beagle moves closer to the conventional, the stories don’t seem to work so well. ‘The Bridge Partner’ about a stalker promises much but lacks that certain spark while ‘Vanishing’ is saved only by the fact that its ageing protagonist, Jansen, is so well drawn.
Beagle strives for variety – there are several entertaining written-to-order pieces included here – but his métier is the closely observed character study. I wonder sometimes if Beagle isn’t a little too careful with his characters. He is very generous to them; they rarely die pointless deaths and they rarely die brutally. Violence is saved for those most deserving of it; Beagle’s is a very traditional view of the moral balance. Some stories teeter on the edge of sentimentality but Beagle invariably pulls back from the brink just in time. If he could be accused of anything, it would be of showing more compassion for his characters than is nowadays fashionable.
One probably either loves Beagle’s writing or else finds it a little maybe a little old-fashioned. Beagle himself has expressed a certain distaste for much modern fantasy writing. Nonetheless, few can match him when it comes to a particular mix of the fantastic and the ordinary, with a tinge of nostalgia. As one character observes, the magic is in the telling, always.