I have struggled with this long-promised blog because Spider Robinson is a man I must do justice to -- and when I describe him and his work, you're likely to ask why that is.
He's not a literary giant, although I feel he should be. His stories are beloved amongst the small circle who have read them; they would be just as beloved by the much wider circle who should. And I can write dozens of sentences of hype like this, which does you, my reader and hopefully his, no good. You want to know what's so special. You want to know why I feel these stories ought to be read by human beings everywhere.
Let me cop out and use Spider's own words to give you an answer. This is from the Foreword to "Off The Wall at Callahan's", a collection of aphorisms, puns, and songs shared in the Place over the years.
Callahan's Plaxce, the now-vanished tavern in Suffolk County, New York, owned and operated by Michael Callahan (a.k.a. Justin of Harmony) was an unusual establishment in many respects. (Understatement of the millennium!)
Among the many peculiarities of that merriest of oases:
Aliens, cyborgs, transvestites, talking dogs, telekinetics, telepaths, clairvoyants, immortals, Intergalactic Travelling Salesmen, time travellers, vampires, victims of severe Tourette's Syndrome, and even editors, were all made welcome there from time to time.
Patrons were encouraged to smash their glass in the big fireplace after drinking -- as long as they were willing to propose a toast first, naming the reason they felt like smashing a glass. Exercising this prerogative doubled the price of your drink...to a dollar. (Mike got a bulk rate on glasses.) [Ken intrudes: also, Callahan's was open from the mid 1940s until sometime in the 1970s.]
Punning, and competition therein, was encouraged -- nay, actively abetted -- by Callahan, himself a hopeless and utterly shameless paronomasiac.
Privacy was defended by force: any patron heard to ask snoopy questions of another patron was customarily blackjacked by Fast Eddie the piano player and dumped in the alley.
But perhaps the most remarkable and most important thing about Callahan's Place was the converse of the last paragraph: any customer who displayed any desire to discuss his or her troubles received the instant and undivided attention of everyone in the room.
That right there is the core of Callahan's and what makes it special. The puns and assorted antics make me giggle: the empathy shown towards a range of difficult issues, and the healing wisdom imparted, give these lightweight short stories heft and substance.
This is a bar you can spend the night in and forget to get drunk. (Mike Callahan's wife, Lady Sally, runs a brothel you might spend the night in and forget to get laid, too: the principles there are the same, it's just that the merry therapy in Lady Sally's Place tends to happen in the nude.) Even better: this is a bar where they'll cure your alcoholism. Best of all: this is a bar you might walk in to rob and find yourself a welcome patron in a few short hours. It's happened more than once.
You can perhaps see how this set of stories lands right in my sweet spot: a surfeit of empathy liberally mixed with terrible puns basically describes the contents of my own personal meat sack. To add enticement: Jake Stonebender, the author's stand-in, is a folk singer who sweats melodies.
These people (Ralph von Wau Wau, the talking German Shepherd and a genuine son of a bitch -- says 'please' and 'thank you', and Lady Sally insists that where she comes from, anyone who does that is human) -- are called on in successive stories to save the world, the universe, and the macroverse, and like Frank Sinatra, they do it their way. A great deal of fun is had by all as they seek to get telepathic with each other, in the meantime leaving everyone who enters the Place better for having done so.
He doesn't shy away from some challenging material, either. The most divisive entry I ever wrote in this blog concerned a story from THE CALLAHAN TOUCH, a story I am quite sure is real, with only some names changed. Here's a link. The Eddie in the story is the same Fast Eddie I referenced above, but the events actually happened to Spider or a close friend of his, I'm entirely convinced.
However you come away from reading that, you can't deny it was handled with caring and compassion. That, more than the puns and wordplay, keeps me reading and rereading CALLAHAN'S novels.
The full series consists of:
LADY SLINGS THE BOOZE
CALLAHAN'S CROSSTIME SALOON
TIME TRAVELLERS STRICTLY CASH
*(this and the previous two entries together make up THE CALLAHAN CHRONICALS)
THE CALLAHAN TOUCH
~Eva's gift for me for my 50th birthday was a signed, limited edition of this last instalment, which instantly became among my most treasured possessions
The guy who introduced me to CALLAHAN'S was named Kevin Cogliano and he was an abrasive and annoying colleague.I have forgiven his abrasion and annoyance. When I met Eva, she lent me a bunch of books from a pulpy post apocalyptic series called DEATHLANDS, and soon after that a book by Gary Jennings called AZTEC (both book and author are among my favourites). I in turn introduced Eva to Spider and CALLAHAN'S, and through Spider, his idol, Robert Heinlein.
Final note: Spider lives alone on Bowen Island, off Canada's west coast. He lives alone because his wife Jeanne and daughter Terri died of cancer within eight months of each other in 2009-2010. With them died Spider's muse. He still has a small web presence (ha) here, where he occasionally spits out a little bloglet. But there will be no more CALLAHAN'S PLACE tales.
Pity, that. But it's okay, because what he has written has deeply impacted my existence. Look no further than Callahan's Law:
SHARED PAIN IS LESSENED, SHARED JOY INCREASED; THUS DO WE REFUTE ENTROPY.