Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff

If there were a Godfather of modern popular culture, Harlan Ellison would be the guy. Mr. Ellison published his first story as a teenager and never looked back. A cult hero since the 1960s, he seems to have been everywhere and met everybody.  Biographer Nat Segaloff was given unprecedented access to Ellison's archives and granted several interviews with his subject. A Lit Fuse works as a reliable introduction for those new to Harlan Elison, while providing a complete picture for those familiar with his work.

In all honesty, Ellison's been his own biographer for decades, sharing details of his life in his writings and speaking engagements.  Reportedly, Ellison spent several years on a memoir entitled Working Without a Net, but recent health problems compelled him to pass the project on to his friend Segaloff. Many stories recounted in the book are reprints of interviews Ellison's provided over the years; the book puts them all into a cohesive narrative.

So, who is Harlan Ellison? He's written in all genres of fiction including TV and film, comic books and graphic novels, and media criticism. In addition Harlan's a voice actor, lecturer, comics collector, and one of the last great raconteurs. As a public personality he's been called the most contentious man on the planet; fearless in his confrontations with anyone, anywhere. Ellison can be a loyal friend or bitter enemy (he revels in getting revenge towards those who wronged him). He gained a reputation for being litigious, but won most of his cases (most famous case being the 1984 film The Terminator).  

Segaloff recounts Ellison's chaotic boyhood in Painesville, Ohio, a place he came to despise for its backward ways. He was bullied repeatedly for being Jewish and fought back just as hard. His childhood tormentors have often appeared in his stories, same names and all. He ran away many times, driving his parents up the wall.  After getting expelled from Ohio State (Harlan punched out a professor who told him he would never make it as a writer) he established himself in the pulp magazines, served in the army for a few years, and continued writing at a rapid pace. Then he moved to Los Angeles and broke into the television industry.

Ellison's had a tumultuous relationship with television, forever denouncing producers who changed his scripts.  The most infamous case is the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever." Despite winning the WGA (Writers Guild of America) award for the script he remained angry over the changes made to his original vision. In 1970, he wrote The Glass Teat, a groundbreaking book on how television failed the public on every level. Ellison worked on the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone series, but walked off when CBS refused to film one of his scripts (a satire on Christmas and consumerism).

The author of over 1500 short stories, many of which are considered classics of the form. Just a few memorable titles are "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and "Jetty is Five" are all staples of modern fiction. Ellison's mostly written short stories, a form he believes is superior to the novel (also admits he lacks the focus to write a long book). 

Despite Ellison's abrasive personality he's fostered many friendships over the years: karate training with Bruce Lee, motorcycling with Steve McQueen, and a moving friendship with the late Robin Williams. His encounters with Frank Sinatra, L. Ron Hubbard, and irate fans are all legendary. As a teacher he championed young writers by running work shops, serving as a mentor to many.  Always the activist, he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma (wrote a compelling account) and delivered hundreds of speeches to support the Equal Rights Amendment (Governor Reagan put Ellison on a watch list and had his phone tapped). 

Ellison's crowning achievement remains his editing and supervision of the speculative fiction anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, one of the Rosetta Stones of modern genre fiction. I was hoping the book would shed light on his collaboration with Thomas Pynchon, no dice.

Segaloff divided the book into thematic chapters, avoiding the awkwardness of a straight line narrative. Details are learned about Ellison's personal life: his five marriages, acrimonious relationship with his family, and the residual pain from his childhood. 

In 2014, a massive stroke sidelined Ellison. It was sad to read about how his health problems in recent years have prevented him from writing.

Ellison often agonizes if his work will endure after he's gone. I think it will. Few of his writings have been adapted into film so the possibilities are endless.  Segaloff makes a strong case for Ellison's legacy; admiring, but never worshipful.

(Many of Ellison's interviews are available on youtube. Begin with his interviews with Tom Snyder)