On the second page of “Men of Good Fortune”, Geoffrey Chaucer tells a friendly critic that he writes the way he does because he likes it, and, he says, “I enjoy tavern tales told of an evening.”
“Men of Good Fortune” is a kind of tavern tale, at the very least because it is set in a tavern, but it ranges over centuries of evenings. Dream meets once every hundred years with a man whose name changes over time, but who was first known as Hob. He is a man who has decided not to die (or, perhaps, who lives because he has not yet decided to die). There’s a certain Forrest Gump element to the story, with various eminent historical figures appearing or alluded to during each century (Chaucer, William Caxton, Shakespeare, Jack the Ripper…), but while such an approach in other stories can be cloying, here it is an extension of the allusiveness that has filled The Sandman so far. It serves a greater purpose, though, in setting up the final panels, which prove surprisingly moving. It’s a marvelous example of misdirection — as our attention is caught in cleverness, we don’t notice the sentiment sneaking up until it springs into view like a jack-in-the-box Athena.
With all of its famous (and infamous) characters, “Men of Good Fortune” is ultimately a story of how fragile fame and fortune are, how arbitrary their blessings. Wealth, power, and notoriety do not define people so much as accompany them. What matters, the story suggests, is not the vagaries of time and chance, the loose calamities of life, but rather the authentic connections of friendship. Hob careers from fortune to famine and back again, the tavern’s clientele changes class by the century, but two things remain constant: the idle chatter of the patrons and the friendship of two creatures from different realms who share little except their memories of the long past.
It’s an odd interlude, this story. It comes right in the middle of The Doll’s House, and yet it takes us away from primary narrative, providing a break from the grim events while also increasing the suspense by delaying our knowledge of the characters’ fates.
There’s a shift in gender focus, too. Women have been the central characters of the main story, but with “Men of Good Fortune” we have a structure that is reminiscent of “Tales in the Sand“: two men talking, with a woman is at the center of the story — Nada in “Tales in the Sand”, Death in “Men of Good Fortune”. Nada hurtles toward, then rejects, a male-identified creature (Dream). Hob hurtles toward, then rejects, a female-identified creature (Death). And through the centuries, many stories are passed from generation to generation. The details change, but not the fundamental content.
“Playing House” ended with Jed’s future uncertain, but bleak — he’d caught a ride with a death machine. Now we see that mortals can cheat death. Or not cheat it, exactly, but reject it. Reject her. Death is, in this sense, then, less fate than temptation, something desired by those who die, even if they don’t fully recognize the desire themselves. To live forever is to deny the desire for Death.
The biggest threats to Dream and Hob in the story are female: Johanna Constantine and Lushing Lou the prostitute. Lou appears at first glance like a beautiful young woman, but in close-up shows herself to be a grotesque, and Hob notes that she is known for her diseases. She is not what she seems at first, and she carries deadly, invisible contagion — she is a trap.
Lou is not without her own threats, the biggest of which to her in Whitechapel at that time was an apparently vehemently misogynistic murderer: Jack the Ripper (the canonical Ripper murders occurred in the fall of 1888, presumably a year before Dream and Hob’s meeting, each of which seems to happen in the eighty-ninth year of the century, but other prostitutes were killed, and fear of the Ripper remained strong). Lou may ensnare men, but it is a man who is the most frightening embodiment of death for her. At the same time, she is given a name that, like fear, is not bound to one gender alone.
Dream and Hob’s meeting can, in a certain sense, be seen as a triumph of homosocial bonding, a triumph over female threats. We know, though, from Lou here and from the other stories in The Doll’s House, that the most painful, violent, and evil threats are men. We also know that both Hob and Dream have committed terrible, destructive acts. Their meetings may be a vision not (or not only) of a horror of obliteration by female power, but of small, perilous, tentative steps taken toward an escape from the sort of masculinity that leads to terror and violence.
In friendship, perhaps, Hob and Dream find refuge from their imperfections and fears. Such refuge is denied men like Jack the Ripper and the Corinthian, and may prove itself the true good fortune for such men as can find and accept it.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.