The Pan-Galactic Circus: Selected Stories by Kilgore Trout. NESFA Press, $28.00.
He is the most important writer of our genre, and the most infuriatingly obscure. Even Kilgore Trout did not know how many of his stories were published. He might, when his juices were flowing, write five or six a day (after all, this was a man who could complete a 60,000 word novel in the same time): all uncorrected first drafts, all of which he sent off without retaining carbon copies to dubious publishers who might, if he was lucky, return miniscule payments, but almost never complementary copies. Trout's own estimates ranged between 1000 -- 2000 published short stories; Old Bingo alone knows how many more simply vanished in the rancid offices of skin magazine publishers such as the notorious World Classics Library, or in the labyrinths of the Postal Service.
Despite his ease in a genre which is essentially American, Trout was born in the British island colony of Bermuda, in 1907. After the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, Trout became a naturalized American, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School, and promptly vanished into America's seething void. He drifted through dozens of jobs, always menial, always temporary, writing science fiction in his spare time yet knowing almost nothing about it. Like Joe Di Maggio, he was a Natural. For most of his life, like an eccentric yet eternally hopeful astronomer beaming morse code to the stars, Trout sent his fictions into the ether, shucking ideas as casually as ordinary folk shuck skin cells. He married three times; his only son, Leo, served in Vietnam and then vanished too, renouncing his country and his father. And then, toward the end of Trout's life, things came good. He fell under the wing of the eccentric philanthropist, Eliot Rosewater, and some of his 209 novels began to be reprinted in respectable editions, beginning with Dell's brave reissue of Venus on the Half-Shell in 1975. His star grew. He became a cult, and then a movement. His fictions were proven to calm the distressed and help the most anguished souls make sense of the world, and shortly before his death he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
He is our Swift, our Voltaire, our Kipling. The satire of his tender, humane comic infernos rage against the follies of the twentieth century like no other; the faux-naive wisdom of his wise aliens is minted from genuine coin. And yet we will never know the true breadth of his work. Although there have been several anthologies published before (almost none of them overlapping contents), all have been flawed. For instance, the exhaustive phonetic anaysis of Professor Pierre Versins has proven without doubt that, with the exception of the eponymous story, all of stories collected in The Meaning of Life were faked up by a well known sf hack to meet the demand for the Troutian fictive panacea.
So it is a tribute to the meticulous work of the NESFA Press team that all of the stories collected in The Pan-Galactic Circus pass Versins' stringent tests. Here, patiently riddled from mountains of foxed and tattered skin magazines of the '50's and '60's is a pure seam of Trout. Only a few, such as the frothy 'The Meaning of Life' and the Rabelasian tragedy of 'The Dancing Fool', have been collected before. Beautifully presented, with the most exhaustive bibiliography yet compiled, this is the most essential collection of the decade.