Friday, June 29, 2007
Relative difficulty: Medium-Hard
There's nothing like a Byron Walden puzzle. It's not just that his puzzles are uniformly good - it's that they have a very particular flavor: an unmistakable personality, identifiable at a glance, like the work of any great artist. Almost every Byron puzzle I've ever solved manages to be A. hard as hell (often right on the edge of doable), B. astonishingly daring and inventive, and C. fair. Now his tournament puzzle from 2006 is infamous and many boo-hooed that it was so hard that it was unfun. And I wasn't in the tournament then, so under tournament conditions, I might have wanted his head on a platter too. But when I solved the puzzle in question, in the privacy of my own home, I really liked it. Took me forever, and I had two wrong squares, but given the horror stories, I counted myself successful. This is all to say that anyone can make a hard puzzle (just cross two patently obscure names, and voilà), but to make one that really tests good solvers and has the added bonus of being legitimately entertaining - that's something. I mean, Really Something. Today's puzzle is not his greatest creation, but it's deeply impressive nonetheless; and if I have a few complaints (and I do), they don't come close to diminishing my appreciation for the artfulness of the puzzle as a whole.
I'll start with the weak parts: the entire SW corner is really sub-Byron (with the exception of 52A: It can keep ballfields dry (alcohol ban), which I loved). I mean, REAL ESTATE (55A: Lots to offer - good clue, btw) over TELEPHONES (57A: Bank holdings?) ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. The Downs don't help much. LEELEE (41D: Sobieski of "Joan of Arc") might have been interesting if I'd never seen it in the puzzle before (I have). Had trouble getting into this corner because of the unknown-to-me IL POSTO (40A: 1961 film also known as "The Job"), but once I got in: Easy (not a word you see associated with Byron puzzles very often).
The SW is a big weak spot - but it is the Only weak spot, and the entire upper half of the puzzle is so hot that I can forgive the SW and then some. I should say that after about 5-10 minutes of trying to solve this thing, I had the saddest, sparsest grid (resembling what my scalp will surely look like in another, oh, 3 years or so). INSIDE INFO (16A: Dirt) and AMARILLO (2D: Title city in a 1983 George Strait hit) were the only 6+-letter answers I had filled in, and they were crossed by only a few meager, fossilic answers like ALER (23A: D-Ray, e.g. - good ol' ALER, first answer into the grid), OMOO (15A: Novel that ends "By noon, the island had gone down in the horizon; and all before us was the wide Pacific"), and EDEN (9D: The river Pison flowed from it). I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to get MOE'S (4D: TV tavern). That's like an opera singer failing to get ARIA. It's a "Simpsons" clue, for god's sake, and an easy one at that.
In the end, there were two key answers that gave me serious momentum. First, GUTTERBALL (18A: Alley oops - tremendous clue), which I got only when I allowed myself to consider that 7D: Polaris or Procyon might be [single letter]-STAR (in this case, F-STAR), even though I'd never heard of such a thing. F-STAR gave me the "T" that gave me GUTTERBALL, which gave me two ten-letter answers, one on top of the other - and I was on my way. The other, unexpected hero of the grid was CLARET (30A: Shade of red), which wouldn't come and wouldn't come and then just appeared to me like a revelation. It put the "R" in BRO (26D: Good bud - I had the much lamer PAL) and the first "T" in GIGGLE TEST (5D: Check for credibility, in modern lingo - which is not part of any modern lingo I've been known to use, or hear, or read). So sometimes innocuous-seeming answers can prove to be crucial moments in the solving experience.
The "W" provided by LOCAL LAW (3D: Ordinance) gave me the little nudge I needed to get the marquee answer in today's puzzle, SOW ONE'S WILD OATS (32A: Be profligate, in a way). The bottom half of the puzzle was a cinch after that, even with Obscure and Obscurer (aka AMU DARYA - 35D: Aral Sea feeder - and D'ABO - 51D: Actress Maryam) lurking in the SE corner.
Love UGLY SCENES (28D: Melees) in the grid, but the clue is too tepid and vague. Every time I look at the grid I keep wondering to myself "What the hell is a U-PLATE?" But of course it's UP LATE (44D: Burning the midnight oil), which is what I am, and so, The End.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld
P.S. the 10-year-old in me just wants to add: TITI (8D: Furry tree-dweller of the Amazon)