Jubilee Jack Dann
HarperCollins, March 2001, tpb, 456pp, $27.50
Cover by Nick Stathopoulos. ISBN 0-7322-6719-6
Review by Jonathan Strahan
The short stories collected in Jubilee, Jack Dann's first collection since 1977's Timetipping, can be loosely gathered into three groups: early stories that attempt to understand the mysteries of death; mid-period stories which confront fears of personal mortality and look to some form of transcendence; and a small group of later stories that are altogether more optimistic and, if you'll forgive a reviewer, jubilant.
Easily the best of this latter group is "The Diamond Pit", a barnstorming new short novel written as a pastiche of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" that gives more than a nod to Lost Horizons. Paul Orsatti's biplane is shot down in the Rocky Mountains and he is taken prisoner by the richest man in the world - an eccentric who lives on a mountain made of solid diamond, and keeps anyone who comes near his home prisoner. Dann, who clearly had a lot of fun with this story, paints a convincing portrait of the eccentricities of wealth and power in what is one of his most entertaining and rewarding stories to date.
"Voices", on the other hand, is typical of the earlier stories in Jubilee. It is the story of a young boy who, not long after the deaths of the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Richie Valens is cajoled into attending a funeral by one of his fellow members of the Susquehanna River Model-Makers and Sex Fiends Association who claims to hear the voices of the dead. It's a moving look at a young man coming to understand death.
In many ways, though, the middle period stories in Jubilee dominate, and of these "Tattoos" and "Camps" are particularly outstanding. In "Tattoos" Steve takes his family on an outing to a visiting carnival where he unexpectedly meets Nathan, an old friend who is working with the carnival as a tattoo artist. Steve spends some time with Nathan trying to re-establish old connections, and discovers that Nathan is offering an unexpected form of catharsis to his customers as penance for his own failure to support his dying wife. The story has additional resonance when you realize that Dann repeatedly reuses the names Steve or Stephen and Nathan in his stories, and that they seem to stand in respectively for the younger and older Dann. In "Camps", Stephen lies wounded in a hospital where he dreams that he is a Jew in a concentration camp during World War II. It is reminiscent of Dann's classic collaboration with Gardner Dozois, "Down Among the Dead Men", and is a moving look at what it takes to survive trauma. Like "Blind Shemmy" and "Kaddish", which were published around the same time, these are intelligent, moving short stories of the highest order.
Not all of the stories in Jubilee are grim or bleak. "Fairy Tale", one of my personal favorites, is lighter in tone and is reminiscent of a Woody Allen stand-up routine. Moishe Mencken is a comedian working the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains who gets caught up in a fight between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. A World Fantasy Award nominee, it is one of the funniest and most enjoyable stories collected here. Dann is also probably more successful than any other writer in the field at recasting stories from his longer works as standalone short fiction, and Jubilee contains a healthy selection including Nebula Award winner "Da Vinci Rising" from The Memory Cathedral, "Going Under" from The Man Who Melted, and "Bad Medicine" from Bad Medicine.
An honest writer cannot help but write about himself, and Dann is an overwhelmingly honest writer. While none of these stories are overtly about his day to day life, they nonetheless carry with them the tale of a young Jewish man who grew up in the 1950s, nearly died of a serious illness (as Dann relates in his introduction), became a writer, and in later life achieved success and happiness through reinventing himself. Often haunted by an awareness of mortality, the stories in Jubilee are nonetheless leavened by hope, faith and an often devilish wit and can be seen as a new kind of kaddish, a prayer for the death of our fears and the resurrection of our hopes and dreams.