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'Little Book' Tells A Wonderfully Big Story

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Selden Edwards' debut novel, The Little Book, has what they call in the publishing biz a great "back story." Edwards began writing the novel in 1974 when he was a newly minted English teacher; during summer vacations (and, I would guess, tedious faculty meetings) over the next 30 years, Edwards kept plugging away at his novel. Now, at long last, the magnum opus has been published.

Given that Edwards' tome was some three decades in the making and that it amounts to roughly 400 pages of text, a reader would be justified in being a wee bit leery of it — after all, The Little Book exhibits all the outward signs of being the fiction equivalent of those eight-hour, suck-it-up-for-art, marathon theater productions of Mother Courage. But here's the surprise ending to this back story: It turns out Edwards was working for a third of a century on something that's fun! A narrative bauble! A veritable meringue of a tale! Not once throughout The Little Book does Edwards, as one might dread, wedge in a homily on The Meaning of Life. Instead, he's labored long and hard on a historical time-travel fantasy that's an ideal late summer reading getaway — complete with screwball hidden identity plots and even lively background music. Forget Mother Courage; think Mamma Mia!

The Little Book is all about plot — that's what makes it both an entertaining mental escape and a tough book to do justice to in a review. The minute I begin telling the story, I inevitably spoil some surprises. Therefore, I'll strip the rococo plot to its bare foundations. On the first page of Chapter 1, we readers meet our hero, middle-aged Wheeler Burden, who has just found himself transported from San Francisco in the year 1988 back to Vienna in 1897. A few pages away from the end of this novel, we find out how and why. In between, we learn, among other things, that in his 20th century life, Wheeler has been a baseball phenom, a rock star who shared the stage with the Stones at Altamont, and a reclusive writer. Life is even more riotous in turn-of-the-century Vienna, where, in coffeehouses and concert halls, Wheeler (bemused, but intrigued) meets youthful versions of his grandparents, listens to Mahler — live! — and goes into analysis with Sigmund Freud. Wheeler meets other famous (or infamous) folks, too, but you'll have to grab a copy of Carl Schorske's classic 1982 study, Fin-De-Siecle Vienna, to puzzle out for yourself whom they might be. I've already said much too much.

Edwards handles the hectic demands of a multistranded plot with deftness and humor. One of the most amusing subplots involves Wheeler's efforts to support himself while stranded in Vienna: He comes up with the brainstorm of fashioning a wooden prototype for — of all things — the Frisbee. Especially delicious are the scenes in which Edwards imagines Wheeler's sessions with Freud. Of course, the Sage of Vienna regards Wheeler's time-travel story as a sign of delusion. Undeterred, Wheeler, with the benefit of hindsight, tries to give Freud a sense of the revolution in consciousness that his work will ignite:

A large part of the pleasure in reading time-travel tales lies in the jolt a reader experiences when reading a passage like that one. A world without Freud: Imagine. Edwards doffs his hat to Mark Twain's classic time-travel tale A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, but in its suspense plot and thickness of detail The Little Book is most reminiscent of Jack Finney's magnificent Time and Again, although Edwards' tale lacks the melancholy that graces Finney's book. Instead, The Little Book is a lot like that Frisbee Wheeler tries to bestow upon the world before its time: a soaring thing of joy whose only purpose — and I mean this as a compliment — is to delight and entertain.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.