Only toward the end of The First Man on the Sun does the reader learn the genesis of the joke from which Richard Dillard’s odd and interesting second novel has sprouted. It is an ethnic joke told one summer day by the author’s English friend David about a Russian, an American, and an Irishman. The first toasts his native Russia, which put the first man in space; the second the United States, which put the first man on the moon and the third Ireland, “who’ll put the first man on the sun!” When the others protest that it cannot be done, the heat being too great, the Irishman replies, “Do you think we’re stupid? We’re sending him at night!” From such seemingly umpromising material, Dillard has woven his own 180-page shaggy-dog story in which a secret and largely Irish group headquartered in Dublin (Virginia, that is; just down the road from the author’s own Roanoke) prepare and launch a peat-powered spaceship, the Wandering Aengus, manned by three solarnauts who, protected by bonded slices of Irish potato, do manage to survive the incredible heat and land on the sun’s surface, which, they discover (or perhaps only dream), is covered with talking trees borrowed from one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Fables (1896).
If this sounds exactly like the kind of novel one ought to expect from the author of the original screenplay, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965), there is good reason. Dillard’s story is very funny and very absurd—as funny and absurd as its character Xhavid Shehu, the thirty-year-old commander of all six of Albania’s submarines who had them stolen by a Russian agent; that Shehu falls into a Rumpelstiltskin-like rage whenever he is reminded of his disgrace only confirms the reader’s image of him as a cartoon character or perhaps a straight man in a Marx Brothers film. Just as this slapstick Albanian becomes something of a tragic figure, however, his life darkened by the murder of his young bride, so too does the larger story become similarly complex and multifaceted. It is clearly a fantasy, as Ursula K. Le Guin has defined the term—that is, “an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence.”
In part, Dillard’s story concerns the ways in which ones life is shaped by that vast ethnic joke known as international politics. As the major and minor powers bicker and bite, Dublin sends its solarnauts to the very center of the solar system, not to claim it for Ireland but to discover how to influence sunspot activity for the benefit of all mankind. It is not only the nations of the world divided among themselves, however, but also individuals, and this is the reason so much of Dillard’s space fantasy takes the form of a love story—the wooing of Pegeen O’Rourke by her two very different lovers, Flann “Blackie” O’Flynn and Sean Siobhan. Blackie is, as his name suggests, something of a blackguard, willing to betray Pegeen as he also betrays his countrymen’s greatest (and funniest) dream, of putting a man on the sun. It is not really Pegeen that he loves but sex, which is “his one true joy, his only joy,” “the very thing above all things in the world, in the very cosmos, he values most.” His love is lyric, to a degree, but it is also limited and very definitely untranscendent. He is earthbound: man as mere matter. Sean is everything Blackie is not: poet, dreamer, lover of Pegeen, world, and spirit. Unlike Blackie, who puts the hapless Shehu, clubbed unconscious, in his place aboard the Wandering Aengus, Sean is a willing explorer and a solarnaut in a double sense: not only one who travels to the sun but also a creature of the sun. He is associated with light, space, and the expansive spirit, whereas Blackie is associated with darkness, rooms, and chairs, with all forms of human limitation.
The brief joke that gives rise to the futuristic yet oddly old-fashioned Dublin (Virginia) fantasy, which includes a variety of substories (love, political intrigue, space travel, and even forty-six pages of selected poems from Sean’s book, Confessions of an Irish Solarnaut), form only a part of Dillard’s inventive “post-Einsteinian novel.” As defined by the author, the “post-Einsteinian novel” is “concerned with events rather than characters in the usual sense” and is “composed of small, apparently discrete particles or fragments,” and at first glance, The First Man on the Sun certainly does appear fragmented. There is a seven-page list of quotations from Dante to Leigh Brackett that recalls the “Extracts” opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851); the Dublin story interwoven with entries from the author’s journal (or chapters in the form of journal entries); the confusion of verb tenses, the future-tense fantasy (“They will be in an Owl Bar”) and the present-tense journal entries; the incongruity of a space fantasy peopled by the likes of such traditional Irish (literary) types as Deidre O’Sohr (John Milton Synge’s Deidre of the Sorrows), Flann O’Flynn (Flann O’Brien, author of that wild Irish novel, At Swim Two Birds, 1939), Seamus Heanus (the contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney), and the mayor’s erotic daughter Mollie Mulligan (James Joyce’s Mollie Bloom and Buck Mulligan); the variety of styles, such as the Nabokovian chapter “Getting Off,” replete with footnotes, that follows the news of Vladimir Nabokov’s death in the previous journal-entry chapter; the...
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