Review: “The Pottawatomie Giant”
The Pottawatomie Giant, Andy Duncan
PS Publishing, 2011, $25
Andy Duncan’s upcoming collection of short stories, The Pottawatomie Giant, is named for a short story of the same title, included in the collection. Though most of the collection has been published before, separately, the collection also includes a brand-new, 13,000 word story. “The Pottawatomie Giant” starts off the collection with a story of heavyweight champion Jess Willard and an encounter he has with Harry Houdini. The story has a twist that shows two different possible responses to a situation, with surprising results.
“Senator Bilbo” discusses racism in the most unlikely of places: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Duncan stated in the notes for this story that “The title character of this story is not fantastical, not even fictional. He is Theodore Bilbo, an infamous public racist who was a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1935 until his death in 1947, though after his 1946 re-election the newly Republican leadership of the Senate refused to seat him.” Yet Duncan moves Theodore Bilbo to the Shire, and adds a layer of prejudice against the Buckland hobbits, who are “a hotbed of book-mongers, one-Earthers, elvish sympathizers, and other off-brands of the halfling race.” Duncan also changes the character of Bilbo, known and loved from The Hobbit, to a politician who “invent[s] statistics and other facts as needed”, a somewhat bewildering difference that changes the whole story and character of Bilbo. The fact that Tolkien’s Bilbo is accepting of other races is what allows him to follow dwarves to the Lonely Mountain and, on his way, to find the One Ring. Without this, there would be no Fellowship of the Ring, much less Two Towers or Return of the King. It is an interesting way to state that those who embrace racism are missing out on some grand adventures as well as close friendships. Duncan’s Bilbo, while recognizing that some races have beneficial characteristics, sees those as reasons to put up with differences, rather than embrace them. Bilbo even goes so far as to say “Trolls, now, you could train them, they were teachable; they had their uses, same as those swishy elves, who were so good with numbers. Even considered as a race, the trolls weren’t much of a threat – no one had seen a baby troll in ages.”
Another story of note is “Provenance,” about a painting stolen by the Nazis and returned to the descendent of the original owner, who was denied ownership of the painting and so went to the media to get it back. The story is short, and the ending unexpected, but it is an excellent example of one of Duncan’s character studies, brief though it may be.
Duncan’s collection becomes more fanciful with the story “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” about a man named Railroad Pete, hobos, and a land where food and pleasure are fall at a thought. Or with the story of Daddy Mention in “Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull,” about a man in prison who makes a plan to earn his pardon by singing, though he cannot sing a note, from listening to a song on the radio. His singing is so bad that “when Daddy Mention was seven [he] told his aunt she’d be doing a boon to the Lord if she yanked Daddy Mention out of the children’s choir and gave the children a chance,” so he hatches the plan to get Uncle Monday, a magical creature if there ever was one, to give him a singing voice, ignoring the potential for consequences.
Perhaps one of the most notable stories in the collection is “The Dragaman’s Bride.” The story begins with a young girl being chased across a ragged terrain in a thunderstorm by a sheriff who wants to put her in a hospital, and proceeds along the same dramatic lines, if in a slightly more matter-of-fact tone. Pearleen Sunday is a wizard, and “was physically about nineteen, but the cold drugstore-calendar mathematics of subtracting birth year from present year yielded a number that was pushing sixty, while in my own mind I was sometimes twelve and sometimes older than Methuselah, depending on my mood,” and she has a conversation with an Old Fire Dragaman as if it is an everyday occurrence. And the Dragaman might not be as friendly as could be hoped, though he took a mountain girl for his bride, as Pearleen fears, “And did I keep turning over in my head what Cauter Pike had said, We’ll have you to supper, to make myself more easy that he had not said, for supper? I surely did that thing.” Until Pearleen meets up with a group of men searching for a girl in the mountains, the two parts of the story do not seem to match, but then pieces of the puzzle start falling into place. Even so, the ending is not one that can easily be figured out ahead of time, but the author is kind enough to give the reader directions to where the story took place, should the reader be inclined to visit.
The final story in the collection, “The Chief Designer,” tells the story of the Russian part of the “space race,” the attempt to get humankind into space. Though the story begins from the perspective of the Chief Designer, it switches to a younger man, because as Duncan’s wife explained to him during the writing process, “The problem may be that you’re still trying to make the Chief the main character at the end, but the Chief’s long dead. It’s Aksyonov’s story at the end, not the Chief’s.” In the end, it is truly Aksyonov’s story, and the reader can see that the perspective shift was a wise choice. It is an excellent story to end a collection, though somewhat long, it is full of details that are both impressive and interesting.
This collection is unapologetically in-your-face as it discusses serious topics like racism, sexism, and homosexuality while remaining an entertaining read. It also treads the realm of the imagination, with stories that may or may not be able to occur in real life. Magic is not beyond the realm of possibility for this collection, but neither are character studies. Thought-provoking and well-written, this collection is worth the read.