And the James Gunn series continues.
Review: “The Man with One Talent”, James Gunn, 1996.
This was Gunn’s 42nd story. I’m not sure when it was written, seemingly in 1953 based on Gunn’s autobiography Star-Begotten.
Like “Jackpot for Julie”, it was an attempt to do a light romantic story for the higher paying “slick magazines”. And, like that story, it works just fine for what it is.
This one is borderline science fiction, and I can almost see it as an episode of The Twilight Zone though I suspect Rod Serling would have rejected it for being a bit too happy in its ending.
Essentially, it’s a story of two people, one cursed by money, one cursed by a freakish talent, and how love solves their problem.
The narrator, Sol, is a music “impresario” taking his rich friend Ellen to Reno for yet another divorce after she caught her husband cheating on her. For some reason, their route from New York City to Reno takes them through the Missouri Ozarks. My blogger diligence doesn’t extend to looking up 1950s roadways and what interstate highways were then built. My suspicion is that it was a credible route, but that mainly Gunn set the opening of the story in the Ozarks because he had taken a vacation there with his wife.
While getting their tank filled, Ellen casts her eye on the attractive young man pumping the gas.
It’s Luke, our man with one talent, and Gunn’s description of him hints at the notion of that the gods sometimes give curses when they hand out gifts.
. . . a boy, really, with dark, regular features, innocent eyes, and black, curly, untrimmed hair spilling over his forehead – a misplaced pagan god.
Ellen and Sol, while having a cheese sandwich at the gas station, experience an earthquake.
Well, it seems like an earthquake. The gas station owner yells, “Luke!”, and it stops.
Luke asks Sol and Ellen how long somebody could live in New York City on $50. Not long, he’s told. Ellen asks why he wants to go to New York. “Got to sing”, he whispers.
Ellen tells him to stay put, avoid that “bitter road”, stay in the Ozarks, get married, have kids.
Then Luke sings:
Then I heard the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever known. It was O Paradiso, the tenor aria from L’Africana, but like no one had ever sung it before exquisitely perfect.
The problem is that Luke’s voice is freakishly powerful – as in breaking every bit of glass in the gas station.
Luke gets fired and then hired by Sol.
On the way back to New York City, Luke belts out various pieces from French and Italian opera. He’s perfect in every way. It seems his maternal grandfather in Italy was a “noted tenor” whose voice gave out in his sixties. He came to America to live with his daughter who had married a GI and left Italy. Luke’s grandfather developed his talent rigorously. He not only is a perfect opera singer. He knows the repertoire already.
But, as they drive the highways through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, Luke’s singing leaves thousands of broken windows in its wake unknown to Sol.
Ellen admonishes Sol that he’s to try no tricks, that his handling of Luke is to be strictly above board.
For Luke’s audition, they rent Carnegie Hall. Luke’s voice shatters chandeliers, lights, windows, and eyeglasses. Most of the audience flees. But those who remain in the dark hear “beauty, pure, unalloyed”.
Sol conveniently doesn’t confess to Carnegie Hall the reason for the damage. They think he was just engaging in some ugly trickery. He also hasn’t fessed up to the multi-state clasticism of Luke’s voice.
Next stop is a performance at the Metropolitan Opera with the predictable effects.
The Director knew magic, but he knew, too, when magic was impossible. ‘Magnificent!’ he said, ‘but how can we present an opera in darkness?’
Recording Luke isn’t anymore successful. The glass in the recording studio shatters. Luke’s voice is even harder on microphones than glass.
Sol tells Ellen that talent is like money. Neither are practical unless you can use them to make you happy. They can’t exist for themselves.
Predictably, Ellen, who still has plenty of money left from the fortune her grandfather made, has fallen in love with Luke.
And she comes up with a solution. She spends money to buy 1,500 acres with a “natural amphitheater” where Luke gets to sing for selected audiences and teach aspiring singers “but not quite as good as he can because when talent gets big … it starts eating up the man.”
Sol is taken care of though. Ellen funds research to design a microphone that can withstand Luke’s voice though the records say “WARNING – DO NOT PLAY THIS RECORD ON A HIGH-FIDELITY PHONOGRAPH”.
Well, you can, if you don’t have any glass in your house … or you can rent Sol’s “glass-free music room” to hear “half an hour of pure magic”.
It’s a charming story. I suppose, if had Gunn had made it darker, it would seem less anodyne in just making the observation that talent and money don’t solve everything. But, of course, Gunn probably wouldn’t have written such a story for his intended market.