Youth and old age tilt at time -- and one another -- in Ray Bradbury's marvelous little novel, "Farewell Summer."
Fifty-five years in the making, it is "an extension" of the master storyteller's memorable "Dandelion Wine," and takes place in the same fictional Green Town, Ill. -- an evocation of the ravine-skirted Waukegan of Bradbury's boyhood.
Here, blossoms touched in late August, "give down a shower of autumn rust" (and are known as "farewell summer" flowers). Falling chestnuts can be heard "raining in cat-soft thumpings on the mellow earth," and honey in a sweet shop lies "sheathed in warm African chocolate."
Here, crusty old-timers and spirited young whippersnappers, antithetical by nature, eke out a late summer's days, the old men playing chess in the town square:
"With the leaf shadows freckling their moves, the old men chewed their insunk mouths and looked at each other with squints and coldnesses and sometimes twinkles. They talked in rustles and scrapings a few feet beyond the monument to the Civil War dead."
The old men alarm 13-year-old Doug Spaulding, a Penrod of a boy -- with both a following and an imagination: "We're on the chessboard!" he tells the other boys. "Those chess pieces, those chessmen, are us! The old guys move us on the squares, the streets! All our lives we've been there, trapped on the chessboards in the square, with them shoving us around."
A civil war ensues, in the shadow of the Civil War monument, Doug and his friends first stealing the old codgers' chess pieces in the dead of night, later stopping the town clock and plotting more such mayhem.
Bradbury -- wise, witty, wonderful and recent winner of a special Pulitzer Prize -- frames their escapades within war chapters titled "Almost Antietam," "Shiloh and Beyond" and "Appomattox."
They bring us Calvin C. Quartermain, an aging curmudgeon, and his elderly comrades, known by the telling, single names of Bleak, Gray and Braling.
Braling is felled early on, apparently by the sound and spectre of young Doug's cap gun, this after years of Braling's railing against time:
"Nights when he feared his heart might stop, he set a metronome ticking by his bed, so that his blood would continue to travel on toward dawn."
Braling's death is Quartermain's call to arms -- but his will be a covert war, counting on the response of young hormones, and tempered by the guidance of the philosophical Bleak.
"Patience," Bleak initially says of the boys to the enraged Quartermain. "Someday soon you'll see them wander by with winter in their hair. Sip you revenge quietly."
While Quartermain has his Bleak, young Doug has his grandfather -- who is almost always in his library "to offer cups of good clear Walden Pond, or shout down the deep well of Shakespeare and listen, with satisfaction, for echoes."
It is Doug's sage grandfather who observes, the morning after the chess pieces disappear: "Something has been purloined."
"Purloined?" asks Doug.
"Mr. Poe used that word," says his grandfather. "If need be, you can go back and check the story and refresh your memory."
Life's lessons are learned all around in this priceless offering from the man who wrote "Fahrenheit 451," "The Martian Chronicles" and "The Golden Apples of the Sun" as well as "The October Country" and "Something Wicked Comes This Way."
Bradbury himself says, in an Afterward at the end of the book, that this is "a novel about children and old people who are peculiar Time Machines. . . a novel about learning by encountering old people and daring to ask them certain questions and then sitting back and listening to their answers."
One cannot help but think that it is Bradbury himself, at 86, smiling at Father Time when he writes of Bleak pushing the elderly Quartermain in a wheelchair "like a load of dried apricots and old wicker."
"Preach to me, Bleak!" Quartermain commands at one point:
"Bleak, obediently, preached: 'Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You've got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it. It's like boats. You keep your motor on so you can steer with the current. And when you hear the sound of the waterfall coming nearer and nearer, tidy up the boat, put on your best tie and hat, and smoke a cigar right up till the moment you go over. That's a triumph. Don't argue with the cataract.'"
Karen Brady is a former News columnist
By Ray Bradbury
William Morrow, 211 pages, $24.95