Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
This collection contains nine highly diverse stories that range from the pastoral Greek tale “Pyrrhon of Elis” to the avant-garde dramatic fragment “We Often Think of Lenin at the Clothespin Factory.” Adriaan von Hovendaal is replaced by the Danish theology student Hugo Tvemunding, who also teaches at a high school and who is featured in “The Bicycle Rider,” “The Jules Verne Steam Balloon,” and “The Ringdove Sign.” Davenport employs unusual narrative structures throughout the collection, such as a pastiche of quotations from the schoolbooks of Nazi children in “Bronze Leaves and Red” and a botanical listing of the components of Eden in “The Meadow.”
The three longest stories concern themselves with Hugo’s gradually emerging knowledge that he should not pursue his calling to the Lutheran ministry but should rather follow his leanings toward his vocation as an artist. He boldly confronts evil in the drug addiction of one of the more attractive young men, known as the Bicycle Rider, who eventually dies of an overdose because he has lost the ability to respond on a human level to his fellow companions. It is in this story that Hugo realizes fully what the purpose of art is and that an artist’s first duty is to respond to the world as authentically as he can, regardless of how demanding those responses may become. The title story presents three male sprites, Tumble, Buckeye, and Quark, as messengers from beyond who come down to earth in their steam balloon to remind humankind that salvation lies in the ability to use imagination to transform the mundane into forms of visionary experience.