Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jim the Boy

I'm ashamed to admit the first time I tried reading this book I put it down. "What a dumb title for a book," my wife said when she saw what I was reading. Last summer, about sixty pages in, I put it away, thinking it too simple and quiet.

But of two of my good writing friends were unwavering in their testimony about this novel, so I picked it up again a few days ago, and I am so glad I did.

Jim the Boy is a wonderful novel, one of those books other writers pass around. It's the kind of book people will still be reading fifty years from now. From the perfect metaphors to the indelible scenes-- a twilight baseball game, a town blazing with new electricity--this novel draws you in to a universal experience. I love the stories of Jim's father, which come second hand through his uncles. I've dogeared passages that I'd like to share with you below.

Compelling Scenes
It's one thing to be a sensory writer, to write in such a way that the reader sees, hears, tastes, touches, or smells the moment we are trying to capture. The hard part is rendering that moment so that it also resonates on a deeper emotional level. Here's Jim, describing what should be a joyous moment, when electricity finally comes to Aliceville:

"Jim climbed up on the steps and looked down onto Aliceville as if he were a prince and the town was his kingdom. Soon he felt weighted by a prince's worries. The brightness of a few lights burning in Aliceville only magnified the darkness that still surrounded the town. The uncles' electric lights drew fragile boundaries around their houses; around those boundaries a blackness crept that suddenly seemed as big and powerful as God. Jim had never noticed the darkness before. He felt on the verge of knowing something that he didn't want to know. He jumped off the steps to be closer to the uncles" (149).

Notice how this moment derives its power. Jim is a "prince," the darkness is "God," or the "unknowable." What could have been a simple image, a town lit up, instead has all of these mythological connotations. It's not what we were expecting and that rendering of the moment, emotionally complex and even contradictory, is what takes our breath away.

Potent Metaphors
"Jim stepped closer to Mr. Carson without realizing it. He had heard every story his mother and uncles had to tell about his father so many times that over the years his father had become less vivid. It was as if each story was a favorite shirt that had been worn and washed and hung in the sun so often that its fabric, while soft and smooth and comfortable, was faded to where its color was only a shadow of what it had once been" (104).

Now that's a rather plain metaphor plucked from a lovely book. It does convey how the telling of familiar stories dims their power over time, rendering them comfortable. And then along comes somebody one day who shakes up how we see things.

Starling Description
Here's Jim viewing his grandfather, the despised Amos, for the first time. "As his eyes adjusted to the light, he made out a bed pushed close to the window. In the center of the bed lay an old man, naked except for a sheet bunched around his waist. His body appeared to be constructed of sharp sticks, covered with the gray paper of a hornets' nest. Yellowed claws twisted from the ends of his fingers and toes. His head lay in a matted nest of long white hair: a bramble of scraggly white beard sprouted on his sunken cheeks. From the dark oval of his mouth came a liquid, metallic rasping. Jim realized in a rush that his grandfather was going to die soon" (222).

This is an old man of the mountains, a whiskey runner who's spent time in jail. I love all the wilderness imagery wrapped up in the description of his body. He almost becomes fairy-tale like, a troll. Through tight observation and startling metaphor the old man becomes otherworldly.

And then there's that final bugaboo, the way to keep a reader involved. Notice how the Uncle's telling of a story Jim has never heard before hooks both boy and the reader hovering over the scene...

"Mountain boy like your daddy ain't scared of nothing, Doc. So there they were. They didn't have a gun and the lantern was broke. They didn't have enough pine knots to keep the fire burning all night, and there was the panther stalking them, just waiting for that fire to die out. And the dogs--and these were dogs that would run a bear to ground--were crawling around their ankles, whimpering, scared to death.'

'What did my daddy do then?'

'Well, just as the fire was about to die out, the panther screamed a second time. And it was closer. This time it sounded like it was right there in the light where they were. And then it spoke.'

'It spoke?'

'It spoke. It said, in a woman's voice, 'Help me for I am killed.'

'What happened?' Jim asked. 'What happened then'" (191)?

By writing the scene in dialogue, Tony Earley adds a second layer to the story. The boy's prodding questions add to the urgency. If we were primed for a ghost story, many contemporary readers might roll their eyes, but the way this story is told, in homespun simple dialogue, is chilling. It adds an extra chill knowing how Jim's father died.

These are just a few scenes from a great book. "What happened? What happened then?" That's the question we want our readers asking.

And there is darkness in this story, too. I won't forget Uncle Al shooting those vultures that have come to feed upon horses a farmer killed to keep the bank from taking them. I won't forget Abraham, an African-American, risking his own life to save Jim and a friend after town "roughs" surround them. I won't forget the folklore-tinted story of Jim's father and the "haint" who puts a chill in his heart.

Such scenes, it seems to me, defy summary. I have one final thing to say. If you care about craft, if you care deeply about the human condition, and all the possibilities for goodness that exists in each one of us, then read this book.

Here's the link to my Goodreads review"View'>">View all my reviews.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Imagined Realities

How much of this really happened? At readings and author events this question ranks right up there with the standard where do you get your ideas from? But I’ve been thinking about it recently since my family moved back to Minnesota where we are spending the summer on a small family farm. Last summer, I baled hay with my father-in-law at sundown. There was a rain-cooled wind, a storm on the horizon, and the swallows skimming insects just above the mown hay. We raced to beat the rain and it was a perfectly lovely time. The next day I wrote this idyllic passage about haying for my second book, Little Wolves, a redemptive scene that follows a dark moment in the book. There’s too much else happening in the novel to explain in a short blog entry. Little Wolves is based on a true story of murder and betrayal I heard in a small town we lived in. I’d like to show just a brief page-long passage here and then discuss whether or not it’s realistic. Did I really capture the truth of hard physical labor?

Late afternoon finds them in the hayfields once more, the old man driving a lumbering International tractor that is trailed by a baler and Bear standing on the hayrack. The tractor glints silver; the baler licks up lumps of hay from the green ground and spits out neatly-roped, twenty pound bales that Bear catches and stacks on the hayrack behind him. He has to keep a wide stance as the rack sways over the uneven ground and the bales come without ceasing. Each bale has to be wedged in tight, a mountain of hay that might all come tumbling down if Bear’s aim is not quick and true.

Hay sticks to sweat-streaked skin. Blades of it probe for tender places to make fresh wounds. He breathes in the tractor’s exhaust and dust and bugs kicked up from the fields.

And yet it is beautiful to be with the old man in the hot sundown. Swallows dip and dive around him, hunting insects the tractor stirs up from the soil. The fields shine emerald in the fading light. From this upper meadow, they have a view of the river valley and the old man is turning now to point toward the west where black clouds are flexing into thunderheads. They will have to hurry before rain comes. If the hay gets soaked, it will mold and rot and all their hard work will be for nothing. The wind already carries the sweet smell of wet. A shadow from a chicken hawk passes over the field and chases away the swallows. Bear takes the bales and forms neat square stacks while Seth kicks the tractor into a higher gear. They work in wordless rhythm, moving faster to beat the rain, the old man’s focus on maneuvering the tractor in tight turns, Bear yanking out bales and tossing and stacking.

Then the work is done and Bear rides down the hill standing atop his lurching hay mound, sapped but triumphant. From his perch, twenty feet above the mowed ground, he can see Aden’s Landing on the other side of the valley and the copper glitter of the river, and beyond it the rim of the world itself, turning black now with storm

There’s more to this scene as the storm unleashes itself and Bear fights wind and rain to get a tarp stretched over the rack in time to save the hay. Did I capture the truth of the moment, what it’s really like to bale hay? It’s easy to sentimentalize physical labor. Think about it. Writers spend all day in dark basement rooms fighting off carpal tunnel syndrome while working on stories, poems, and chapters and sometimes at the end of the day they throw all that work away! There’s something deeply satisfying about the outdoor life, about working with your hands. But since writing that scene I’ve baled many racks of hay and alfalfa. I’ve climbed into the loft of the barn where the temperature roasts well over a hundred degrees. I’ve been gashed and bled and drained and inhaled so much alfalfa chaff that even my teeth went green.

Is it true? Is it a realistic scene? Would I write it differently after coming to know the labor of haying so much better this summer?

No. I don’t think I could change that moment in the book. It has to happen. Our work shapes and changes us and sometimes, and if we are very lucky, even a hardship can make us into a better human being. Some moments in our life are transcendent and sometimes these moments happen even while doing ordinary jobs.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Guru and the Initiate

Guru and the Geek

Over winter break, I rediscovered an old favorite in John Gardner. Three decades after its publication, The Art of Fiction remains a staple in creative writing courses across the country. Let me say this from this outset, Gardner is a snob, and his elitism colors his works. What can you say about somebody who dismisses Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, one of the truly great American novels, as mere melodrama? Worse, Gardner often attacks female writers, dismissing Edith Wharton and Jean Rhys as “second class.” It’s no accident that he exclusively uses the pronoun “he” when referring to the “writer” in his work.

Prejudice aside, Gardner is also a genius and a wise guide for any initiate seeking to understand the art of storytelling. His tragic death in a motorcycle accident deprived the world of great teacher and writer. In preparation for the fiction workshop I’m teaching this semester at Silver Lake College, I reread Art of Fiction and also discovered one of Gardner’s lesser known works, On Becoming a Novelist. In this post, we’ll take a good look at the first section of this book. Later posts will cover parts II and III.

On Lyricism

“Though there are exceptions, as a rule the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do” (5).

Gardner is a big believer in what he calls the “vivid, continuous dream.” It is the creation of this dream, the shaping of a believable world, that he concerns himself with above all, and anything that interferes with the dream must be discarded.

But I wonder what Gardner would say about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road winning the Pulitzer Prize? McCarthy is a stylist and a poet. Language crackles within every sentence and the rules of semantics and syntax are suspended in the telling of his stories. For McCarthy “linguistic brilliance” walks hand-in-hand with suspense and story. When I consider The Road, I think what makes it McCarthy’s greatest work is that he tames his prose and instead hones in on an emotionally harrowing tale, the journey of one father and son trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world. Linguistic fireworks take a backseat, and the result is every bit as “moving” as Gardner commands a story to be. “Shakespeare fits language to its speaker and occasion, as the best writers always do,” Gardner points out later, seeming to contradict himself, until he adds that “[in] the work of Shakespeare language always serves character and action” (10).

Exercises for the workshop

Throughout Becoming Gardner does provide exercises to dramatize his points. As an instructor of workshops, I was particularly struck with the idea to have students perform a “psychodrama” before the class. The actors play the parts of a psychologist, a harried mother, a druggie son. The rest of the class takes notes and describes what they witness. Afterwards, the workshop discusses what students noticed or failed to notice about non-verbal signals in the actors. It’s worth a shot. Some other ideas:

--Write an authentic sentence four pages long (do not cheat by using colons and semicolons that are really periods).
--Write a two-or three-page passage of successful prose (that is prose that
is not annoying or distracting) entirely in short sentences.
--Write a brief incident in five completely different styles—such an incident as: A man gets off a bus, stumbles, and looks over and sees a women, smiling. (16)

In this same section Gardner also advises a writer to work on improving word power by “systematically copying from your dictionary all the relatively short, relatively common words that you would not ordinarily think to use…and then making an effort to use them naturally.” I see echoes of the simplicity and minimalism of Raymond Carver (a disciple of Gardner) in this advice. Aside from the dictionary, Gardner also advises beginning writers to copy, by hand or word processor, great works like James Joyce’s "The Dead." I haven’t done this yet, but I know Francine Prose has similar advice in another book I’m reading right now, How to Read Like a Writer.

Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist is largely about “what makes a writer a writer.” The entire first section is dedicated to describing what Gardner terms the defining characteristics of a writer: “verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, intelligence,” and most of all “daemonic compulsiveness.”

There are no shortage of books on writing being published every year, but as a friend points out, many of those books quote from Gardner, or borrow indirectly from his work. Here’s his definition of a story, for example: “A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts) and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw” (54). I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen similar definitions in other works. If you are looking for a guide on writing, I suggest starting with Gardner. Shrug away his priggishness, as you would a ranting professor, who is a little touched. There is genius in his writing.