Review: The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag

Robert Heinlein
1959

Wow.  It’s such a pleasure to read Robert Heinlein.  I haven’t actually read a book of his for… well, I don’t know how many years.  Before the era of modern communications and the Internet, I was a huge consumer of Heinlein fare.  I cut my teeth – literarily speaking – on his juveniles.  And in the last few years I have listened to practically everything of his on audio book, some more than once.  This book however, has been one that has somehow stayed low on my radar.  I have of course known of it’s existence, but never had the opportunity to take it in for some reason.  Until now.

This is a collection, the title story occupying about half of the book.  It’s a horror.  Or, it’s supposed to be a horror, I think.  Heinlein’s style doesn’t translate well to the horror genre.  I wasn’t scared, or troubled.  He just doesn’t write with enough gravity.  It reads more like a noir or hardboiled crime fiction/ fantasy crossover.  Ok, there were a couple of instances which I found a little disturbing – the necessity for the Sons of the Bird to cover their faces with their hands upon mention of the Bird – was an unusual example.  But with Heinlein’s trademark easy style and dry wit always present, there is a disconnect between the subject matter and the way it is delivered.  Don’t get me wrong, the title story is a good read (an excellent read in a couple of ways I’ll talk about later), but it doesn’t read the way it is, I think, meant to.  Some of the elements in the story also brought to mind a couple of examples of contemporary horror: the recent movie Mirrors and to a lesser extent, Stephen King’s The Mist.

The remaining stories are a mixed bag.

The next – The Man Who Traveled in Elephants –  is a strange story about an elderly man passing into the afterlife.  In that story the main character makes a passing reference to the book  And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street first published in 1937 by Dr Seuss, and there are obvious similarities between the two tales.

After that we have a time-travel tale with a twist in the mold of By His Bootstraps, a paranoid questioning reality, another bizarre story that I can only surmise is some sort of political commentary (I didn’t enjoy that one very much), and finally another reality warping play on time and space in the form of a tesseract-shaped house.

As much as I did or didn’t enjoy the stories in this book, there are some things about Heinlein’s writing I always appreciate.  the first are the puzzles or paradoxes he bases some of his short work around.  In this volume, All You Zombies— (the time-travel one) and —And He Built a Crooked House— are fine examples of this kind of work.

The other thing that I enjoy so much in Heinlein’s work are his characters.  Or more precisely, the insight he has into relationships – especially between men and women – that comes through in his writing.  The protagonists in the title story are a husband and wife team of private investigators, and I got as much (if not more) enjoyment from their interplay – both spoken and unspoken – than from the actual story itself.

Another thing I love about Heinlein’s characters from this period (his early work and the juveniles) is that they are spiritually rooted in the 1940s and ’50s.  This comes through so clearly in the vernacular they use, they attitudes they have and many of the social customs they display.

Randall had been married too long and too comfortably not to respect danger signals.  He got up, went to [his wife], and put an arm around her.  “Look kid,” he said seriously and gently, “I’m not pulling your leg.  We’ve got our wires crossed somehow, but I’m giving it to you as straight as I can, the way I remember it.”

If that isn’t pure ’40s or ’50s, I don’t know what is.

I mentioned a mixed bag earlier.  This collection is certainly that.  I suggest this is equal parts classic short Heinlein, fantasy and something from left field.  I think most everyone will find something to their liking contained within, but I think not many will like everything.

All You Zombies— and —And He Built a Crooked House— can be read online via Best Science Fiction Stories.

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