Sometimes a book — especially a funny one — grabs you right from the get-go. It happened to me with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: As soon as Uncle Vernon “picked out his most boring tie for work” on page two, I knew that I was going to love this series. And it just happened to me again — on page two of Uncle Brucker the Rat Killer by New Paltz author Leslie Peter Wulff, released this month on Skyhorse Publishing’s fantasy and science fiction imprint, Night Shade Books: “Uncle Brucker twisted something out of his beard, held it between two fingers, put it back where he found it.” With these words, dryly delivered, I was hooked, irrevocably. Nor was I surprised. I already knew that Les Wulff is a very bright and funny guy, and I’m happy to report that his time to shine has finally come around.
When Les first moved to New Paltz as a SUNY student, in 1966, his game plan was to get certified to teach, go on to a Masters in Education and most likely end up an English teacher. But what he really always wanted to do was to be a writer — “ever since I read Fahrenheit 451, for the second time,” he says, noting that the Ray Bradbury classic was the first book that he ever restarted as soon as he finished it once.
While still attending high school in Freeport, Wulff decided to send Bradbury a writing sample and ask his advice. He made it as simple as possible for the science fiction superstar to respond, enclosing a multiple-choice checklist with his questions. Wulff mailed the missive in care of Bradbury’s biographer, William F. Nolan (best-known as the author of Logan’s Run). As it happened, the two saw each other regularly in a weekly writers’ group, and Bradbury got back to the young aspiring author within a week.
So, by the time Les Wulff got to college, he and one of the most famous authors in the SF universe were already corresponding. “He taught me how to write,” Wulff says. In 1969, he managed to have lunch with Arthur C. Clarke when he came to speak at SUNY New Paltz promoting the soon-to-be-released movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And not long after that, on his third try, he tracked down Kurt Vonnegut Jr. at his summer home on Cape Cod. “He was cleaning a fish in his back yard in West Barnstable,” Wulff reminisces.
Clearly, the field of science fiction/fantasy literature was his true calling. Even with a Master’s, he never did end up with a full-time teaching position; the only offers he got were from districts on Long Island, and he had fallen in love with the mid-Hudson and didn’t want to go back. So he married his college sweetheart, clothing designer Sandy Sardis, moved into a house on a lovely piece of bucolic property in the Plutarch neighborhood and went into retail. “I owned a shoe and leather repair store in town, the Village Cobbler,” he says, and later managed the New York Video Exchange store for many years, before a gradual erosion of fine motor skills brought on by Parkinson’s disease forced him to give up the gig around 2003. Ironically, that blow to his health was what made it possible for him to concentrate on his writing full-time, and to come up with a novel good enough to catch the eye of noted SF editor Richard Curtis, who used to be Richard Matheson’s literary agent and still is for Harlan Ellison.
Over the decades when he was fixing shoes and renting videos, Wulff finished several novels and tried to market a few, but was never fully satisfied with the results. Story ideas come to him easily, he says, and he pitched one after another to the members of his writing group. He experimented with a number of genres; but everything he tried ended up migrating into the realm of fantasy. And even his more serious projects — thrillers, mysteries — turned humorous, because that’s the way Les Wulff thinks. Here’s what Barnes & Noble science fiction blogger Joel Cunningham had to say in an article in January titled “96 Books Sci-Fi & Fantasy Editors Can’t Wait for You to Read in 2017”:
“To be completely honest, I’d read a whole book that was just Walt and Uncle Brucker driving around in a car talking, shootin’ the breeze. Les Wulff’s characters leap off the page at you in the most memorable of ways. But when a novel is this completely and charmingly original, with the breezy air of a classic Sunday comic strip, it is easy (just like in a Sunday strip) to miss the biting social satire at its core…. it’s a square peg we couldn’t be happier and more enthusiastic to jam into the round hole of genre publishing.”
Another reason why Uncle Brucker the Rat Killer is so instantly captivating is the immediacy and consistency with which the author establishes the voice of his narrator, a 16-year-old boy named Walt who runs away from home to live with his eccentric uncle. The book’s tagline is “a Novel of Tall Tails and Other Dimensions,” and, although set in the recent past, it has the tone of a frontier yarn like Paul Bunyan, or a shaggy dog story told by some rural neighborhood’s best liar. Young Walt isn’t entirely pulling our legs, but he’s an unreliable narrator for sure — and not the sharpest knife in the drawer, however understated and seemingly logical his reportage of his surreal adventures hunting rats from another dimension who are planning to take over the Earth. Imagine a contemporary dark fantasy as told by Huckleberry Finn, and you’ll get the general drift. Here’s another sample:
“Uncle Brucker thought about it for a while. I always say that but who knows what he’s thinking about really. Maybe he went on to something else and came back. Or maybe he just sat there.” It’s all very laconic and matter-of-fact, even when the reader is being schooled in the finer points of rat language and culture (to them, every day is Thursday, and wrestling is their favorite sport). The teenage protagonist gets more enthused talking about the latest junk car that he’s repairing than he does over his uncle’s strange line of work — that is, until Uncle Brucker ventures into the Rat Dimension on a military mission and doesn’t come back. Then young Walt has a bit of growing up to do, and both uncle and nephew will need to rethink their notions about interspecies relations.
Uncle Brucker the Rat Killer is a bizarre story, requiring considerable suspension of disbelief and willingness to go with the flow as mysterious characters and situations pop up and disappear with minimal explanation. “There are a lot of things you have to swallow,” Wulff admits. And yet it feels utterly homegrown, falling neatly into that same strain of imaginative Americana that embraces both Twain and Vonnegut. A more recent B & N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog article by Sam Reader, “Eight Books about the Horrors of Adolescence,” groups Wulff amongst such exalted company as Stephen King, Charles DeLint, Clive Barker and…yes, Ray Bradbury.
Not bad for a 1970s SUNY New Paltz grad who never got beyond substitute teaching. If there’s any justice in this world, Uncle Brucker the Rat Killer will become a cult favorite if not a best-seller, and Les Wulff will never need to be a writer-slash-anything again. The novel is available now in paperback at a bookstore near you (ISBN-13:9781597808941). Keep an eye out for live book talks with Leslie Peter Wulff at Inquiring Mind in New Paltz — probably in September — as well as in local Barnes & Noble outlets.