My earliest exposure to Ray Bradbury was the short story "The Man," a Jesus-in-space tale (to which I'm subtly nodding in my next "Old Man" story) which appeared in an anthology of science fiction stories collected by Boy's Life. After that came "The Chrysalis," which I ran across in R is for Rocket. The first full collection I read was The Illustrated Man, and by then I was going full-bore for Bradbury, buying the Bantam collections with the bust of Bradbury on the covers. (Covers that broke from that imprint style included the all-horror-story October Country and I Sing the Body Electric.) Aside from Bradbury's face, the covers promised science fiction and fantasy scenarios, with odd images and the cover blurbs "A Masterwork of Fantasy" and "The World's Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer."
So what was a Bradbury reader like me to make of the collection Machineries of Joy, of which fewer than half of the stories could be seen as "speculative fiction"? And, as a young reader groomed to have certain expectations of the writer's tendencies (though I'd certainly encountered the occasional non-fantastic piece in the other collections), how was I to understand the subtle, almost plotless first short story in the collection, "The Machineries of Joy"?
Here again were the familiar Bradburian priests (who'd led me to assume for years that Bradbury was Catholic or at least raised Catholic; little did I know that he was using Catholics (in a bizarre turn of events for a once-suspect faith in the U.S.) as a kind of safe, all-American religious default the way Capra and other filmmakers would in the middle of the century). Erudite and theologically relaxed, as always, the characters engaged in discussions that, for me at the time, were elliptical and obscure, with some ill-defined Italian/Irish conflict among this community of men (were they all at the same parish? Not knowing what a rectory was, I thought they were all wandering around some giant house together for unknown purposes), and the occasional mention of outer space and the pope. At the end of the story, the faux conflict resolved, the men sit to watch a space launch, but, since I assumed I'd been reading a work of fantasy and I hadn't been able to grasp the nature of the priests' conflicts, I thought they were in a rocket ship and all being launched into space. This made the story rather more strange and haunting than Bradbury intended.
Rereading the story last night, I found it to be pretty successful. The characters don't all sound like Bradbury, or even entirely like each other (similar-sounding speakers is a problem that would severely harm Bradbury's later work); even the priest who gets to make speeches keeps the ranting reined in. The prose is sharp and clear and economical, and the ending is beautiful. The story first appeared in Playboy, as did a half dozen of the stories in this collection; many of the rest appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Looking back now on Bradbury's career, a collection like this is evidence that you couldn't pigeonhole Bradbury, who wrote more non–science fiction than otherwise; it's odd to think that, at the time, he was still being marketed as a science fiction writer (and those SF and F stories remain the most resonant for readers), though he was selling diverse, smart middlebrow work on the strength of a reputation as a "genre" writer. Could such a thing ever happen again?