Ray Bradbury used to write tales in the Twilight-Zone-meets-sci-fi vein, but with the publication of One More For the Road it appears that he has ballasted the scientific and kept the fantastic. In place of space-age dystopia we have present-day disillusionment, usually delivered with a “Tales of the Unexplained” twist. These eighteen short stories are performed by actor Campbell Scott, whose film credits include The Spanish Prisoner, Longtime Companion, and Dying Young.
Scott’s handling of Bradbury’s collection is mostly supurb, owing to the actor’s subtle manner of communicating dramatic shifts through modulations in his voice. A good example is the story “Heart Transplant,” in which a pair of adulterous lovers, at the end of their tryst, unexpectedly find solace by praying together. Their wish is that they will fall in love with their respective spouses again, and thus be free of their guilt. It is hard as a listener not to interiorize the tension that builds in Campbell Scott’s voice as the lovers gain in confidence and joy in their new state of mind. This emotional crescendo is turned on its head by the final lines of the piece, where the man, now alone, admits to himself that he was only pretending to believe in the prayer. His final words are a bitter self-accusation — “liar, liar” — delivered effectively through a guttural whisper by Scott.
Another fine moment is “Beasts,” a story whose two main characters epitomize good and evil. The character of Smith is the Devil in this drama, and Campbell Scott delivers his lines with a happy-go-lucky carelessness that underscores the seriousness of his insight into life. Smith’s interlocutor, a hapless chap named Conway, is goodness personified. His naive replies to Smith’s insistence on the dark side of life are rendered wonderfully by Scott, who makes transparent the fear and self-doubt that goes hand-in-hand with “goodness” in Bradbury’s universe.
The only part of the recording where Scott goes astray is in the opening piece, “First Day.” This story has more dialogue than most of the others, and Scott doesn’t succeed in making it dramatic enough. In the story, a husband and wife discuss the former’s remembered promise to a group of high school friends. On the first day of school, fifty years to the day, they had vowed to return, to see what they had made of themselves. Charlie — the husband — is a novelist whose anal-retentive habit of cataloging letters and knick-knacks betrays him as a hopeless nostalgic. His wife, Alice, argues with him, explaining that no one besides him saves keepsakes and honors promises. Charlie is indignant and insists that his friends will all be there. Maybe Campbell Scott’s voice is just too youthful to adequately convey the wrinkles in Charlie’s decrepit soul, but whatever the reason, I was not drawn into the character of Charlie as I was the characters in the other stories.
The more I ponder the collection as a whole, however, the more I find fault with the author and not Campbell Scott. Indeed, how profound is Bradbury’s latest offering? How many more rehashings of that threadbare theme — “what to make of a diminished thing” — will we be forced to endure? Maybe it’s just my mood, but I find too little righteousness and too much “realization” in these pages. Nevertheless, this audio recording of One More For the Road is quite rewarding, owing mainly to Campbell Scott’s romantic, yearning presence. Perhaps next time out, Mr. Scott should tackle something more suiting to his persona, such as Wuthering Heights or Faust.