Posts tagged ‘John Kornbluth’

Cyril Begins to Blossom

His Share of Glory by C.M. Kornbluth

When Cyril’s bad luck dumped him into the Infantry just when Hitler caught the American Army with their pants down in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a machine-gunner. What happened with him in that worrisome period before Patton, plus thousands of fresh reserves, kicked Hitler’s troops back into Germany I don’t know, because Cyril refused to talk about it. The end result, though, was that he got two things from that period of service. One was a Bronze Star. The other was a bad case of what they called severe essential hypertension, which was Army talk for heart trouble.

For a time after the war Cyril dealt with that situation by ignoring it. At some point he had married Mary G. Byers, the Ohio femmefan he had smuggled into New York City over the efforts of the uncle who, as her guardian, had done everything he could to prevent it. When Cyril’s draft number came up (I believe from things Cyril said), they were married.

While Cyril was serving in Europe, Mary was (again, I understand) alone, and not doing well. I believe that was when her drinking problem first surfaced; but when Cyril came home, he entered the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and, at least for a time, things went well for both of them, especially after he took on a part-time job working for the newswire service, Transradio Press.

That job he got by invitation of our mutual old Futurian friend, Dick Wilson, who got there a little earlier than Cyril and had already become head of Transradio’s Chicago Bureau. (I must write something about Transradio some time, because it loved hiring Futurians, including, occasionally, me. But not now.)

Cyril had stopped by New York before moving on to Chicago, and he and I had kept in contact. I was then operating the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, helping Dirk to make it a career (his own war injuries having made it impossible for him to hold a normal job.) When Cyril began writing, and selling, an occasional postwar sf story again, I coaxed him to do more.

He ultimately gave in, quit Transradio (and quit the university too) and moved back east. I think, again from things Cyril said, that part of the reason for leaving Chicago was because Mary was involved in some drinking there. I know (from Mary herself) that Cyril tried really hard to help her quit, including some pretty harsh measures.

He and Mary set up housekeeping near where I was living with my family in Red Bank, New Jersey. For the next few years Cyril-the-writer was not only vastly productive but getting better and better at it, almost by the day. That’s when he was producing such winners as “The Luckiest Man in Denv,” “The Silly Season,” “The Little Black Bag” and many more. Cyril had a nearly in-born gift for graceful writing and excellent spot-on characterization. His only real weakness was in plotting. By then he had taught himself — maybe with a little help from those Futurian writing orgies — plot structure for short stories and, soon thereafter, novelettes and novellas. Some of his work from that period I would match against almost anybody’s best stories ever, including “The Marching Morons,” “Two Dooms” and a good many others. (The intelligent folks at NESFA have put all those stories in a single volume, entitled His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth.) None of them won any Hugos or Nebulae. The reason was just some of Cyril’s bad luck. The awards hadn’t been invented yet.

Apart from the writing, Cyril’s life was unusually ordinary — that is to say, mostly quite apparently happy in those years. He and Mary shared many interests, not least the two sons, John and David, that Mary gave him in those years. Fatherhood, I must say, revealed a side of Cyril that I had not suspected to exist. He was an archetypal proud papa, he worried seriously when John developed some problems that none of their doctors seemed able to cope with (but which, apparently, the boy ultimately outgrew). From outside, even a quite close outside, the ultimate cynic seemed to have transmuted himself into a perfectly normal young married.

There was one small puzzle. One time when he and I were in my car, on the way to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, our conversation got much more than usually personal. And when, leaping from earlier remarks between us, I asked Cyril what he would most like to change about himself, he clenched his teeth and, “I wish I were less cruel.”

I didn’t ask him any questions about that remark, but I did give it a lot of thought for a long time.

More coming along as soon as I find time to write it.

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An Ohio farm, 1941.

Mary Byers longed to leave Ohio farm life to become a New York Futurian.

Mary Byers was a science-fiction fan who lived on a farm in Ohio with her uncle and a few other family members. Through fan talk, she heard of the New York Futurians and yearned to live that kind of life.

When the chance came, she jumped on a bus (or a train) and headed for New York City. Her uncle, though, followed after, and when he caught up with her, he brought her back. She got away a couple more times with the same result. But then Cyril Kornbluth made a more complicated escape plan, with more help, and Mary got away.

After a while, Cyril and Mary married. They lived for a time in New England, where Cyril took, and passed, a wartime government course in machine shop, after which he was considered a skilled machinist. World War II came along. Cyril got caught up in it with the consequences that ultimately killed him, and all the time he was soldiering in the ETO, Mary was alone, going through her own kind of hell in Chicago. And somewhere in this period Mary became a stone alcoholic.

An alcoholic is not just a drunk. An alcoholic is a person who, having taken the first drink, cannot stop drinking until she, or he, has become sodden.

(Read up on it or Google it. I don’t know many details, and some of what I do know I wish I didn’t.) Cyril’s attempts at dealing with it were sometimes brutal. Once, when he and I were driving somewhere, I think to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, Cyril took a deep breath and said, “I wish I was not so cruel.” The bad times for Mary, I know, without knowing many more facts than the ones I have told you, were very, very bad.

But not all the times were bad. When Mary was clinging to AA and resolutely not taking that first drink, I think they were quite good.

This is in itself a puzzle to me. When things were good with Mary, she seemed to be the perfect wife, he appeared to be the standard-issue Brady Bunch husband and, all in all, Cyril behaved in astonishingly unlike Cyril ways. They were — for other people — quite normal ways, but for Cyril totally unexpected ones.

He began to be a father — two boy babies, John and David — he was writing well on his own constantly improving stories and he and I put out a ton of collaboration work as novels for Ian Ballantine. Things were suddenly very conventionally good for the little Kornbluth family.

That was when my money problems began to sting.

Mary proved she was a perfectly normal sf wife by nagging Cyril to dump me as his agent.

When I lost Cyril as a client, I had lost everything. I began to make plans to close the agency down.

During this period, Cyril and I had lost contact. It wasn’t just the money. It was the fact that there were the two clients I had led the farthest and expected the most from, Cyril and Isaac Asimov, both gone.

I didn’t see him again until, completely by chance. I ran into him at, I think, Horace Gold’s apartment. I prize that chance meeting because we were easy with each other again — “What are you writing?” “Hey, that was a pretty good novelette in Galaxy last month.” Shop talk of two old friends.

The reason I prize it most was because I never saw Cyril alive again. One morning not long after that, the phone rang. Carol answered it. It was Mary, quite hysterical.

Cyril had had to go into New York for a business meeting that morning, but it had snowed during the night, so he had to shovel the driveway before he could get the car out. When he got to the Long Island Rail Road station, the train was already there and beginning to load passengers. He parked the car as fast as he could, ran for the train and dropped dead of a heart attack on the platform.

Part 2 coming up shortly.

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