Jul 15 2010 1:33pm

The fantasy geography of America: Terry Bisson’s Talking Man

Talking Man is one of the best fantasies ever.

Terry Bisson successfully does a thing here that few people even try, he makes the everyday fantastical not with folk magic but with high fantasy. This is a book in which a broken down car transmission is fixed with the blood of an antelope, and where there’s a city at one end of time called Edminidine and at the other a tower called Elennor. It’s written in a combination of folksy high fantastical language and you wouldn’t think it could work but it does.

This is not an urban fantasy. Indeed, it’s about as rural as fantasies get.

“Talking Man was a wizard who had a small junkyard on the side of a hill on the Kentucky Tennessee line. He sold parts and cars, swapped guns and cars, fixed farm machinery and cars, dug ginseng and mayapple in season, and had a 1,000 pound allotment of burley tobacco which he let his daughter raise... He looked anywhere between forty-five and sixty, but he was older than that. He was older than the hills. He was older than the words people used or the things they talked about with them, older than the ground he hunkered down on when he was making a trade, older than older than stone.”

As you can see, the writing is simultaneously poetic and folksy, and it’s all like that. It is both real and specific and close up as to place, and increasingly fantastical as it goes on. The characters quest across the mythical geography of America, across the north-flowing Mississippi, past the mountains of southern Illinois, across the great flat plains and past the great cliff of the Rockies rising on the side of the freeway. The land they come back into is even stranger, but just as American. The first time I read this, which seems to have been 1987, I missed a lot of this, because I didn’t have the knowledge of US geography to appreciate it properly. (I’m genuinely amazed it even got a British edition.) I recommend reading this on a long train ride (or road trip) across the US, because there never was a book so full of American landscapes and cars.

There’s a plot. There are characters—most especially there’s Talking Man’s daughter Crystal, and there’s Williams, who comes to Talking Man to try to mend the windscreen on his cousin’s Mustang, and then to understand how it got mended by magic, and gets drawn into the quest. There’s a world, that starts out as this world and gets weirder. There’s no telling whether the world is saved, really, and that’s one of the coolest things. Most fantasy is unambiguous in a very unmagical way. Talking Man is closer to actually feeling magical than most books—if somebody wanted to make a case that the text changed between readings, I’d be prepared to listen, because I certainly find different things in it every time I read it.

This is more like an epic poem than a novel, an epic poem in a Kentucky accent about driving to the imaginary lands of New Mexico and the North Pole, using a Mobil credit card and not being able to charge anything to it except gas, living on McDonalds and Snickers bars, with the radio cutting in and out, pursued and pursuing, on a road trip to save the world.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
seth e.
1. seth e.
I've been meaning to look up Terry Bisson's novels, after enjoying his stories here on This one sounds great, and just the kind of fantasy I've been looking for more of. I agree that "ost fantasy is unambiguous in a very unmagical way." There needs to be more of the other kind.

Thanks for pointing this one out!
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
[quote][i]Indeed, it’s about as rural as fantasies get.[/i]
Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories are probably a little more rural in that there aren't a lot of highways and McDonald's. For me, the bit you quoted was very reminiscent of Sliver John, not necessarily in the language itself, where John is folksier, but in the rhythms. Put that bit in an Appalachian patois and it could be Wellman.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
Another one to add to the "want" pile...
4. AlecAustin
Planet Stories just put out a collection of Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, for those who are interested in a comparison.

I personally don't have any experience with Appalachian dialect, so I can't speak to the authenticity of Wellman's language, but it's a very assured colloquial voice.
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
Won't it be great when all of these are available as etexts? I am beginning to grow a sizable stack of used books that are near to falling apart (I hate that old paperback book smell of decay!) when they come out of the shipping package from whatever used book seller I could find who had it!

Thanks again for your reviews of all these books I somehow never knew of.
Pamela Adams
6. PamAdams
Well, I've read my way through Howard Waldrop, thanks to the review of THEM BONES. Waldrop led to Effinger, led to....Time to start on Bisson. (several free stories on his website, plus the work) Hooray for inter-library loan.

Thanks again for the re-reads. It gives me a chance to read authors that I may have missed or just forgotten about.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
I don't deliberately review books that are out of print. In fact I'm delighted when I find that something has been reprinted and is out there and available -- whether in an e-book edition or in solid paper. My own copy of Talking Man is a good condition paperback I bought when it was new and have cared for since. I have had paperbacks fall apart from age and over-reading, but it's very rare -- I can remember the specific cases.
Jeff Domer
8. jqueasy
I'm a long time fan of Terry Bisson. He is a master of short fiction, but I didn't really enjoy this book. Maybe it's just me, but it didn't have the charm of his short works. If you want a really great Bisson read, pick up Numbers Don't Lie. FANTASTIC.
Andrew Barton
9. MadLogician
That's the third book this week where I've read your review and immediately ordered it. This one only seems to be available used but there are several copies around.
Kevin Maroney
10. womzilla
I have for decades described this as "one of those books that makes you glad you learned how to read." Though I imagine it reads out loud very well, too.

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