The Callahan Chronicles, Spider Robinson

Various, 1977-1997, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon: Ace, 1977
Time-Travellers Strictly Cash: Ace, 1981
Callahan’s Secret: Berkley, 1986
Callahan’s Lady: Ace, 1991
Lady Slings the Booze: Ace, 1992
The Callahan Touch: Ace, 1993
Callahan’s Legacy: Tor, 1997
Off the Wall at Callahan’s: Tor, 1994

Somewhere along highway 25 in Suffolk County, Long Island (Spider Robinson tells us) once existed an inauspicious bar called Callahan’s Place. That bar wasn’t your average neighbourhood drunk-hole, however. Robinson chronicled the weird, strange and marvellous incidents that happened there: Time-Travellers, Aliens, People with special talents… or just plain unfortunate folks in need of cheering up.

As a non-drinker, non-bargoer, non-whatever, I’m far from being the ideal target audience for Robinson’s own brand of uber-hedonistic philosophy that permeates his work in general and the Callahan chronicles in particular. Despite his well-meaning tone of desolation, I like being a product of the conservative eighties, with all its petty monetary concerns, monogamous sexual relationships and cautious attitude toward alcohol.

And yet, there is a definite charm about the Callahan sequence that is very, very hard to resist. Although it’s a definite possibility that reading these books will infuriate you, you will still come away from it with a sense of goofy satisfaction.

Not least among Robinson’s many talents is the effortless prose and the engaging characters. Simply put, it’s a pleasure to read these books. When this pleasure fades -see below-, we can see the holes in the stories.

The sequence is composed, quite neatly, of three epochs:

The first one comprise the stories contained in the three earliest books. It’s the Callahan’s Place era. This period is characterized by a collection of several short stories setting up of the divergent rules that eventually coalesce to make up the universe in which the Callahan sequence takes place. In many respects, this is the best Callahan’s period: It’s fresh, exciting, invigorating and not too silly. (Fortunately, it is now contained in an omnibus volume from Tor called The Callahan Chronicles.)

The second era takes at about the same chronological time, but at another place: Lady Sally’s House, the best… er… house of pleasure in New York. The two “Lady” books are far more prurient than the opening trilogy and written as novels, not an assembly of stories. The result is more coherent but less impressive. For some reason, Robinson decides to save the world from nuclear terrorists late in Lady Slings the Booze, and that particular plot clashes badly with the remainder of the sequence. Generally speaking, Callahan’s works best when dealing with small-scale weirdness and personal problems: It’s when it tries to be too ambitious that the problems arise.

Finally, the narrator of the first trilogy decides to go in business for himself, and the two more recent books of the series chronicle his time at Mary’s Place. In a way, these two are a return to the familiar environment of the first three books. While written as novels, they’re far less linear than the Lady Sally books. Unfortunately, silliness happens (like the cluricaune and the oh-so-sensual-group-telepathy/orgy-to-save-the-world) and the effect is more ridiculous than uplifting. A curious tendency to showboating and unarguable sermonning by Robinson also diminishes the effect of the later books.

(Off the wall at Callahan’s is a compendium of quotes, puns and jokes from the first five books. It’s recycling, but great recycling.)

Still, readers will be hard-pressed to find this sequence other than enjoyable and refreshing. Reading another Callahan book feels exactly like coming back to a place where everyone knows your name. And that’s probably exactly what Robinson intended.


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