In the Realms of Wonder

By Michael Dirda

The Avram Davidson Treasury

Edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

 Tor. 447 pp. $27.95

Avram Davidson (1923-1993) was one of the most original and charming writers of our time. So, it almost goes without saying, he was generally neglected and undervalued during much of his career. For the most part this bearded Orthodox Jewish autodidact wrote what one might call fantasy, of a sort, sometimes drifting into the starry realms of science fiction and sometimes into the wild gardens of the antiquarian essay (see the wonderful -- and highly idiosyncratic -- Adventures in Unhistory). Grasping fruitlessly for comparisons, his admirers have likened Davidson to Saki, Chesterton, John Collier, Lafcadio Hearn, Kipling, even I.B. Singer and S.J. Perelman. And you can see what they mean. I would add that he frequently reminds me of the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell: Two similarly brilliant stylists with a compassionate interest in bohemians, losers, immigrant culture, New York, oddities, con artists, crackpot inventors, and the passing of humane, small-scale neighborhood life.

 If people know any story by Avram Davidson, it's probably "Or All the Seas with Oysters," celebrated for what Guy Davenport calls "its crazily plausible concept that safety pins are the pupae and coat hangers the larvae of bicycles." Two of his other relatively well known charmers are "The Golem," in which an elderly Jewish couple thwart a powerful android intent on destroying all mankind, and the hilarious "Help! I am Dr. Morris Goldpepper," wherein the executive board of the American Dental Association must save the Earth from alien invaders. This last begins with delightful tongue-in-cheek portentousness:

Four of the men, Weinroth, McAllister, Danbourge and Smith, sat at the table under the cold blue lighting tubes. One of them, Rorke, was in a corner speaking quietly into a telephone, and one, Fadderman, stood staring out the window at the lights of the city. One, Hansen, had yet to arrive.
Fadderman spoke without turning his head. He was the oldest of those present -- the Big Seven, as they were often called.
"Lights," he said. "So many lights. Down here." He waved his hand toward the city. "Up there." He gestured toward the sky. "Even with our much-vaunted knowledge, what," he asked, "do we know?" He turned his head. "Perhaps this is too big for us. In the light of the problem, can we really hope to accomplish anything?"
Heavy-set Danbourge frowned grimly. "We have received the suffrage of our fellow-scientists, Doctor. We can but try."
Davidson can often be funny, as here, but it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a humorist. In a number of dark tales he describes the "sophisticated" Westerner's encounter with -- and often exploitation of -- an exotic or third-world culture. In "Where Do You Live, Queen Esther?" a repulsive, suffocating New York matron overworks her Caribbean maid, until one day the foolish woman actually dares to rifle through Queen Esther's coat pockets. In "Naples," as mysterious and unsettling as a Robert Aickman ghost story, a nameless traveler follows a shirtless guide into the bowels of the ancient city, on a quest for a certain "article," a "