Reading Ray Bradbury’s work marked the first time I ever took reading seriously. The first time I borrowed his short story collection The Golden Apples of the Sun from the library was the first time I tried to appreciate fiction for grown-ups, the first time I wandered into the quiet neighborhood of the adult fiction stacks.
To be honest, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with fiction. I’m insufferably impatient. In the fifth grade, I enjoyed reading Bradbury’s short fiction because it was ofttimes really short. (I still can’t help but peek ahead to see the glorious white space marking the end of anything.) I liked that Bradbury wrote about space travel and elementary schools on Venus and what household appliances would do after the bomb dropped, but most of all I liked how he wrote about summer.
In the introduction to the 2003 short story anthology Bradbury Stories, Ray Bradbury tells the story of a walk he took on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles one evening after dinner with a friend. Almost immediately, the two men were stopped by a police car. The police officer asked Bradbury and his companion what they were doing. Bradbury replied, “Putting one foot in front of the other.” This incident stuck in Bradbury’s craw, and inspired him to write the short story “The Pedestrian.” That story stayed with him, eventually inspiring him to write Fahrenheit 451:
I went home, sorely irritated at being stopped for simply walking—a natural, human activity—and wrote a story about a pedestrian in the future who is arrested and executed for doing just that. A few months later I took that young pedestrian for a walk in the night, had him turn a corner and meet a young girl named Clarisse McClellan. Nine days later, Fahrenheit 451 was born as a short as a short novella called “The Firemen.”
In the short story “At Midnight, in the Month of June,” Bradbury writes from the point of view of a murderer on the prowl in an idyllic American town at night:
And God, how powerful to be undiscovered, how immense it made you, until your arms were branching, growing out in all directions, pulled by the stars and the tidal moon until your secretness enclosed the town and mothered it with your compassion and tolerance. You could do anything in the shadows, anything.
How easily Bradbury’s capricious style made you forget that this was not a sympathetic character. Yet it was and is true: You can do just about anything you want out there in the shadows.
The American evening that Bradbury wrote about over and over again–that peacetime when we’re reunited with our families, bellies full, at rest–is the summation of everything we work for and believe in. It is as American as it gets, and it’s also as vulnerable as we get. Nobody expressed this particular idyll better than Ray Bradbury. Not to mention, the vacuum that it is–no more opportune time for wickedness to strike than when the whole town’s sleeping.
Still, you can step outside and look around and all you see is a great nothing going on. Crickets and barking dogs and the occasional shrieking child. Up in the sky: the Big Dipper, Venus, the waning moon, a satellite hurrying. Outside in the shadows–that’s ultimately where we find proof that people are good and everything will be okay.