Science Fiction author Ray Bradbury is best known for the novel Fahrenheit 451 and his lush prose style, but his true gift, in my view, lay in the short story. He published hundreds of them, most of exceptional quality and invention. In 1953, he published one of only a couple thousand words, titled “The Garbage Collector.” It’s a workshop on taking the commonplace and finding the greatness within.
In this case, the commonplace is the title character. We never learn his name. He’s simply a Los Angeles garbage collector, a blue collar guy. We jump to the conclusion that his must be a lousy job, but he doesn’t see it that way. He works hard at it, takes pride in doing it well, and takes small pleasures in sunrises, chilly days, and being outdoors. He provides well for his wife and kids. It’s a good life.
But one day, everything changes.
He comes home from work, dejected and despondent, and tells his wife he’s going to quit his job. With the threat of a nuclear war looming, the mayor has issued an edict. In the event of an attack, the garbage collectors will have new roles; they will gather the bodies of the dead and haul them off for disposal. Unceremoniously. No other instruction; the dead are now merely garbage to be removed.
The garbage collector is at a loss, his world turned inside out, his optimistic outlook shattered. He cannot face, nor accept, these brutal new demands on his dignity and humanity.
Thus ends the story, and it packs a wallop. The miracle Bradbury delivers, in this and in others, is taking the everyday and making it worthy of greatness. It would have been easy to address nuclear holocaust through characters such as politicians and generals. But in doing it from the point of view of one who flies far below the radar of the American Dream, Bradbury wrings much more power. “The Garbage Collector” becomes a simple, passionate plea for sanity.
Bradbury tackles nuclear war similarly in “And the Rock Cried Out,” also published in 1953. He tells the story through the eyes of an American couple, vacationing in a jungled Latin American country when the war erupts. The war is fought between the big powers of North America and Europe and Asia, and their mutual destruction is both assured and swift. Third World countries exist outside the line of fire and are spared. Just like that, the world is realigned; America no longer exists, and lost Americans now tremble for their lives in foreign lands. Great lesson in geopolitics and treating others as you would have them treat you.
In storytelling, the small and the personal matter most. This is particularly true when writing about big events or issues, such as the Holocaust, or natural disasters, or war. Laying out statistics gives the picture and scope of the tragedy, but sadly, doesn’t involve the reader emotionally to the extent as do the stories of a few fully realized characters caught up in the event.
Finding that unexpected point of view with which to tell a story is often the key to finding the core of greatness.
Want to chat with the late Mr. Bradbury? As you wish, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts: