In the tradition of fractured fairy tales for adults, those hip reworkings of classic stories and fables popularized by Steve Allen some years ago, along comes When Goliath Took A Dive—in time for the holidays—Dan Rattiner’s imaginative, ingenious and amusing take on the genre but with a wit and whimsy all his own. Unlike Allen’s riffs—and far from the cartoon versions updated for kids, many conceived as aids to learning—Goliath cuts a wider and more loony swath across history, ancient and modern, as well as recasting figures and events from the bible and fairy-tale standards. The subtitle—“History, Legends & Fairytales Re-Thunk”—suggests the tone and intent but hardly the extraordinary range of Rattiner’s playful recreations.
Goliath also provides two goodies for the price of one—the 29 stories lead off with clever color-wash illustrations, Dan’s signature minimalist contour lines where less is waggishly more. Here are civilization’s first inhabitants, standing under a tree, “posing for a time-lapse photograph,” a red apple dangling overhead, a snake curling around the trunk of the tree, a jalopy parked nearby: “In July of 1951, Adam and Eve rented a house on the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas.” An apple also figures in a gently satiric way in “Isaac Newton,” one of “the greatest rags to riches stories ever told,” that shows the 17th century mathematical physicist to be a kind of accidental genius who receives a formula from a fairy that allows apples to fall easily from trees, rather than forcing farm hands to wrestle them off, which in turn leads Newton to become the world’s first apple-picking industrial giant. “It is in the history books that Isaac Newton discovered gravity,” the author acknowledges. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”. Newton dies here, by the way, from a coconut falling on his head. The zany convolutions and connections amaze.
The irony of Goliath is that although the stories are too sophisticated for children, they do, in effect, have instructive value for adults somewhat fuzzy about their recall of history. What diversity, what an impressive mining of figures, real, quasi, pseudo and faux, among them Hannibal, Lindbergh, Snow White, the Russian mathematician, Lobachevsky (d. 1856), Paul Revere, Cincinnatus, Betsy Ross (a riot), Ben Franklin, Ponce de Leon (who “discovers the fountain of the Midlife Crisis”), Robin Hood, William Bradford (one of the wildest tales with its account of the founding of the Plymouth Colony and its take on the Governor’s death, attributed here to a heart attack when he saw that a zealous admirer secretly affixed a bronze plaque to Plymouth Rock, thus defacing the sacred stone). The irony deepens because Rattiner takes liberties with recorded facts, distorting truths received and apocryphal, in the service of contemporary cultural criticism. Surely the Madoff-like hustling of The Big Bad Wolf, known as B.B., who trips into town as a philanthropist—despite That Reputation!—resonates, which is the serious fun of the best of the tales.
Whence the idea for such a book? The stories came to him, the author says, as “exercises,” somewhat like the Czerny piano lessons he took as a child. He was writing his first memoir, In the Hamptons: My Fifty Years With Farmers, Fishermen, Writers, Artists, Billionaires and Celebrities (2008), and he started experimenting with structure and style. The stories evolve with Lewis Carroll-like logic, words and sentences kept simple, dialogues embracing repetition and vaudevillian double-takes. The title story, Goliath Takes A Dive, most clearly exemplifies the collection’s nutty eccentricity, as the Biblical big guy, here with a high tenor voice and a “lithp,” is seen on video tape, courtesy of a time-travel invention at Brookhaven National Lab, taking a bribe 4,000 years earlier from the chief advisor of the Israelites, and subsequently disappearing, probably into “an Israeli witness protection program.”
As readers of Dan’s Papers well know, to appreciate an article often means separating out fact from fiction. Up to a point. The pleasure of the newspaper pieces is their mischievous ambiguity. Anyway, as he worked on the memoir, tales and legends started to mount and lo. Goliath emerged, a “book for grown-up children who wanted their minds screwed up.” He feels pretty confidant that after reading these tales, readers will never look at the originals “the same way again.”
When Goliath took A Dive can be found at Bookhamptons, Canio’s, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Though illustrated by the author, art direction and the color washes were provided by Kelly Shelley.