Consideration of Works Past: The Revolving Boy

(Picture from here.)

By now it cannot be a secret that I like small stories.

These are stories where there might be a major cataclysm, catastrophe, war or other great event but that is backdrop. It might impact the story and the characters. It might not.

But the story of the characters is what interests me.

I read The Revolving Boy when I was a boy. It had resonance with me then. It has resonance with me now.

The author of TRB is Gertrude Friedberg. That’s about as much as I can say. The wiki article says she wrote two plays that were well received– one, Three Cornered Moon, had Ruth Gordon in it and was almost immediately made into a film. She wrote three SF stories and one novel. She was admired but, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have much impression on the internet as a person.

This is a shame. I would love to know more about her.

I do know a lot about The Revolving Boy in that I’ve read it more than once recently.

First, like any SF book of that era, it has a lot of SF tropes like flying cars, fancy home machines and the like. I think the problem with a lot of those works is people didn’t expect to actually reach the future. One of the interesting things about current near future fiction is its conservatism: people have read those dated works and don’t want to have their own works suffer the same fate.

But Friedberg wrote TRB in 1966 and she was fifty-two. She’d already seen how works dated. Much of the future stuff is a bit over the top. I suspect Friedberg was having fun.

That said, it’s a minor criticism and can be easily overlooked.

The book is the story of Derv Nagy from his early childhood until his late middle age. As I said, this is a small book. The big things happen around in his life and don’t necessarily affect him all that much. The book is tightly focused on Derv.

Derv is born (and expresses at an early age) a marvelous sense of absolute direction.  He can tell north without thinking about it. He feels twisted over the course of daily life relative to his sense of direction– to the point of unwinding over the day.

Later in his life (early in the book so I’m not giving much away) he determines that his sense of direction is relative to something absolute. He doesn’t know what it is. He only knows where it is and he must bend his life around that direction.

Friedberg has done something remarkable here. She takes something as simple as a sense of direction and pins it down as a pivot around which someone orients his life in a very real, physical way. By doing this, she shows us how people are bent by simple things. It’s easy to extrapolate from this to higher moral conundrums but she does not. She stays with this simple, fundamental thing Derv must accommodate. Derv revolves.

Derv is a true character. He has a sense of humor. Like anyone, he tries to find his place (and a place for his uniqueness) in the world. He does not become a hero or a captain of industry. He finds love. He finds a life. He finds a job. There is nothing dramatic in what he does except where those things are dramatic to him.

There were a couple of things I pulled from this book– reinforced by other books I was reading at the same time. Derv reminds me of Huckleberry Finn. Huck also makes his way through his life. He does not accomplish great things. The world is not greatly changed by his passing through it any more (or any less) than Derv’s world is changed. Raintree County is another book I read at the same time.

What these books have in common is the placement character in the context of the larger world. The world is unchanged by their movement through it– and that is just fine. Most of us don’t change the world much. We change our little piece of it in our friends, our family, our children.

I have no illusion that my writing will change the world– it won’t. The wheel of the world will go on pretty much unswerved by anything I do. But I do like to thing I have made some things, some people, some situations, a little better for me having passed through by. No doubt those changes will be swallowed up by time. I don’t have a problem with that.

I never knew Gertrude Friedberg. I wish I had so I could tell her that her book made a difference to me. And I hope that difference will shine through my own work and further its effect, as little as any effect I have might be.

While the differences she made will likely outlive my own, they won’t last a thousand years.

So what? What does?




Consideration of Works Past: The Revolving Boy — 3 Comments

  1. I too enjoyed “The Revolving Boy,” which I read in its 1968 Ace edition.

    A week ago I unearth a copy of the original Doubleday edition (ex libris), which I had picked up somewhere. I knew that copies must be scarce, so I saved it, even though I had (and still have) another copy.

    Would you like to have it?

  2. Thanks, Steven! You make important points about the ripples we all make moving through the world. What matters doesn’t need to change the “whole world.” It sounds like a delightful little novel.