If Hampton Fancher did nothing else, he would still be esteemed by cinephiles worldwide for authoring the original screenplay for “Blade Runner.”
Ponder the significance of that for a moment. As author Paul M. Sammon explains in the fascinatingly in-depth production history, “Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner,” it was Fancher who first bought the rights to Philip K. Dick’s story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (As he told Sammon, “I immediately saw a chase movie, with a detective after androids in a dystopic world.”)
Fancher, then, set in motion one of the greatest – if not the greatest – science fiction films of all-time.
And if his name is remembered far less than director Ridley Scott’s, his role in bringing to life Dick’s tale of Deckard, the replicant hunter, must be acknowledged, and respected.
Fancher’s recently released literary debut, a short-story collection called “The Shape of the Final Dog and Other Stories,” is not “Blade Runner.” Nor is it “The Minus Man,” Fancher’s woefully underseen 1990s directorial debut. (“Minus” is a wonderfully creepy serial killer thriller starring a shockingly effective Owen Wilson.)
“The Shape” is instead an unremarkable collection of oddities, a brisk but wholly unmemorable 280-plus pages.
Take “Cargot,” the tale of a wannabe actor – “Way back when he was big, I knew Troy Donahue” – who dies and comes back as a garden snail. “I hear Troy is gone,” he says, “but I’m still here, and today I come out of my shell.”
He finds himself in the garden of a Hollywood executive he once knew, an agent named Barkus. They have history.
“Barkus talked like I was going to be a star,” the snail pontificates. “One of those short-lived enigmas who flame out fast and become legends, I guess. Who knows? But I was never fast, never caught fire.”
Now, he is slowly, steadily, approaching Barkus’ wife Gloria, a former high-class call girl. He squirms onto her foot, then her upper thigh, then her stomach, then her breast. But then Barkus appears …
It’s a one-joke story – clever, yes, but not particularly funny, nor illuminating or original. In short, it epitomizes what’s wrong with “The Shape of the Final Dog”: It’s a formless, shapeless mass that ultimately goes nowhere. Just like our friend the snail.
“The Climacteric of Zackary Ray” is better, another tale of a failed actor, this one adept at playing bad guys, but as his career lurched along, he became washed up: “… except for a couple DUIs, he couldn’t get arrested.”
This, too, heads to an odd, not particularly enticing place – literally, I mean, to a small desert town – but its lead is more compelling than the snail.
“The Black Weasel” is a story in two parts, a rambling tale about a bartender and man “following [him] like a dog,” named Mot. It’s the longest and most complete, of Fancher’s stories, and also the most emotionally affecting.
There are eight others, and they vary in quality and interest level. They are always readable, but nothing more.
Fancher should not forever be held to the standards of “Blade Runner” and “The Minus Man,” but they nevertheless create an expectation of greatness that is hard to escape.
“The Shape of the Final Dog” is not, after all, the first work from a Ph.D. candidate, or a bored math teacher. It’s the humdrum first literary effort from a writer capable of greatness, and that’s just not good enough.
To quote a beloved replicant, “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe” – many courtesy of Hampton Fancher. Let’s hope the author can make us feel that way again.
The Shape of the Final Dog and Other Stories
By Hampton Fancher
288 pages, $25.95
Christopher Schobert is a staff editor at Buffalo Spree and frequent Buffalo News contributor.