SCI FICTION, September 01, 2004

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"Left of the Dial" by Paul Witcover

Paul Witcover's novelella, "Left of the Dial," begins slowly, almost pastorally, via Johnny Weber's first person meander through nostalgia and upscale, suburban Virginia.   It ambles along, enveloping the reader in a poignant cocoon of grief and worry that caring for a terminally ill parent brings about, before gravitating into a high school flashback.  The story of Johnny's dying mother unfolds, punctuated by memories of a high school suicide, faded adolescent accusations, and withered friendships.

There's a literary, sometimes lyrical rhythm to Witcover's prose, which makes it easy to submerge into the texture of his story, despite the less-than-explosive opening. The speculative element in "Left of the Dial" doesn't emerge until mid-way through, but when it does, it picks up the pace with fierce intensity, developing organically without any suspensional hitches of disbelief. Though both ghosts and time travel are hardly fresh subject matter in the genre, Witcover introduces both so gracefully that the "it's been done" issue doesn't intrude.

"Left of the Dial" is a story of redemption, change, and reflection that will especially resonate with thirty-something Generation Xers (like myself).  Though wistful revivals of the past are a common focus in fiction, I've encountered none before that have so intimately evoked my own memories and feelings.  While classic SF writers–a la Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison–receive (well-earned) accolades for the clarity of their imagery depicting times decades past, and while I do appreciate their ability to bring to life their generation's character, it was always an era that required a calculated skip and hop for me to fall into.  But, being of GenX, I grew up in the same culture that Johnny  did.  The melancholy reminiscences in "Left of the Dial" are from my time: Dungeons & Dragons, Avalon Hill strategy games, Speed Racer, Pink Floyd, and recreational drug use sensibilities from before "Just Say No."

To my mind, good storytelling isn't about making readers happy; it's about constructing omething that makes an impression, an impact. "Left of the Dial" wasn't a kick in the teeth, nevertheless it still left its soulful brand on my jaded psyche.