When I read Harlan Ellison’s Jeffty Is Five back in 1978 (in Terry Carr’s collection The Year’s Finest Fantasy), it blew me away. When I reread it a few years ago (this is another re-edited post from my own blog), I found it well executed, but unmoving. I think that says more about me and my life than the story (though it may say a little about the story).
Ellison’s narrator, Donny, is hitting his midlife crisis hard. Life is good, but he’s pining for all the awesome stuff he remembers from his youth. Barsoom. The Golden Age of Hollywood movies. The Shadow on the radio. Linoleum instead of vinyl. Real cream in restaurants instead of Half-and-Half containers. Movie serials. He knows the world is improved from, say, 1940, but he feels, as so many nostalgists do, that we’ve lost something and he wants it back.
As far as old media goes ,Donny’s not satisfied rereading old stuff or watching old movies on TV. He has zero interest in pulp pastiches or imitations. He wants the impossible, new old stuff. New Barsoom stories from Edgar Rice Burroughs. New episodes of Captain Midnight. New issues of Weird Tales containing Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Seabury Quinn stories. Impossible, of course … except it isn’t. The narrator discovers his childhood best friend, Jeffty is still five years old, and time realigns itself around him. When Donny hangs out with Jeffty they can hear Little Orphan Annie and Terry and the Pirates on the radio. They can catch The Man Who Would Be King starring Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart (no question that would be awesome). They can read more Barsoom stories. But athe present inevitably destroys the past: Donny lets Jeffty out into the real world too often, tragedy occurs, Jeffty winds up dead. The magical mystery trip back to the media of forty years earlier is over.
It’s easy, looking back, to see why I connected with the story back in ’78. In my teen and pre-teen years, I was shy, often withdrawn, and bad at connecting with people. At times, in the words of Savage Garden, reaching out for human faith was a journey I didn’t have a map for. Fiction compensated for that. I could connect with fictional characters. I could live vicariously through them connecting with each other.
By 1978, I was in a much better place (part of that is my high-school drama teacher, without whom I wouldn’t have come out of my shell half so well). I’d learned to connect, though often awkwardly. I had close friends. Still, my emotions were very much caught up in the stuff I read or watched. I hated it that some series I loved were finished, never to have a single new story. I could identify with Ellison’s protagonist.
I was in a very different place when I reread the story in 2013. Even before I married TYG, my connections with the real world were much stronger. I still consume a lot of fiction, but I didn’t depend on it for emotional sustenance, Beyond that, I couldn’t identify with the narrator’s nostalgia. Obviously I have a lot of love for the comics of my youth (as witness my on-going Silver Age reread) but I’m not frustrated there are no more Broome/Infantino Flash stories or Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange. I have the complete Silver Age run of both, and that’s a lot of reading material. I’m quite happy to move on to good new stuff.
I think Ellison does a great job capturing middle-aged nostalgia, but I have little sympathy for Donny’s ending fear that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t so much better off now. Sorry dude, but civil rights, women’s rights and antibiotics are a fair trade for never getting a sequel to ERB’s Skeleton Men of Jupiter. In hindsight, I wonder how much of Donny’s despair was Ellison’s too. Ellison was in his forties and beginning his transition from Angry Young Man to Grumpy Old Fart. A decade later, in his column in Fantasy & Science Fiction he blasted Marvel for creating the New Universe (what if it became so popular, Marvel stopped publishing the classic Lee/Kirby characters?) and DC for disrespecting older Superman fans by rebooting him.
If DC and Marvel aren’t supposed to create new characters and aren’t supposed to reboot them, that leaves only one option: continue doing the same characters the same way. Ellison’s embracing the classic delusion that the characters he grew up with are the definitive versions.
So maybe Jeffty Was Five captured Ellison’s own middle-aged blues. Or Ellison had a milder midlife crisis and cranked it up a notch. Either way, at 63 years old, I don’t buy it any more.
#SFWApro. Cover art top to bottom by uncredited, Matt Fox, Ernie Chan and John Byrne.