Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Detail Oriented

1. There is a haunting moment early on in Denisa Mina's new novel, Slip of the Knife, where the protgonist has been wrenched from some inconsequential, mindless entertainment by the appearance at her door of a uniformed policeman and a woman in civilian dress. Said protagonist, Patricia "Paddy" Meehan, knows all too well what and who they are, herself having been a police and crime reporter for some time.

2. They are the inform team, informing the unwary of a sudden, unexpected death.

3. On her way to the morgue to make an identification, Paddy cannot help think of her sister, a novice nun, and the what-if that the body she was being sent to identify is her. This is an altogether plausible scenario because of where the young sister works, in a soup kitchen among the homeless and desperate.

4. In a brief exchange with a youngish woman who identifies herself as the new pathologist on the job, Paddy learns that the corpse she is to identify is her first lover and in many ways her role model as a journalist. There is some suspicion that the deceased was murdered by the IRA and in the brief exchange, Paddy realizes that she has identified herself as a Catholic and the pathologist, whom she was prepared to like, has identified herself as a Protestant.

5. It was that detail that made the impact and entire landscape of the novel sink in for me. The difference between the phrase "North Ireland" and "north of Ireland" is a detail that conveys the difference between Catholic and Protestant.

6. Coming from a John Dewey- and Horace Mann-type education in Los Angeles to the grim realities of a small town in New Jersey, I was made immediately aware of such differences as those Paddy experienced. Week One, accosted by a group of boys about my age, all carrying baseball bats, asking if I wanted to join them, using a term I took to be slang and misunderstood to mean hitting some fly balls. I soon discovered that their intended target was not baseball but a racial group to which I share some blood.

7. Perhaps eighteen months later: Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, where, in class, I am called upon and begin to discuss what I believed to be The Civil War, only to discover that it was The War of Northern Aggression, which is a double whammy because, in Providence, Rhode Island, whence I had recently come, it was The War between the States.

8, This is not to get drawn into politics; it is another for of nod to the detail, the detail that reveals about us, perhaps even betrays something about us, an ignorance, an attitude.

9. Mexico City, D.F. I am in a pulqueria, a neighborhood drinking place for the lower echelons of the working classes. To show how low, pulque is the liquid that energes from the cactus before being given its first distillation into mescal, which is later distilled into tequila. Pulque is not bad to drink, but in such places, Speaking Spanish with a Spanish accent is. In a memorable moment, a massive force in my chest compels me to fall backward, off my stool, and onto the floor. The force is a working-class hand, made into a fist. You live and you learn from details. I take no special pride in my accent, I am undeniably a Gringo, but my Spanish has more Mexican to it than Spanish,

10. Details. You look for them and you see boundaries kept and boundaries broken. Eric H. Boehm, owner publisher of the scholarly publishing house for whom I was editor in chief, asked me, "How do you rationalize wearing a striped tie with a houndstooth jacket?" The question itself is a revealing detail about Eric H. Boehm, who in many ways, never forgot his days with military intelligence. Before you have time to think about it, your answer is out: "Chutzpah!" Hence all your staff, who have heard the exchange, refer to EHB as Rationale and you as Chutzpah. Neither appellation is entirely off target.

11. Details. Just as you were literally knocked off your feet for your choice of Spanish pronunciation, you were also exposed to some hysical ridicule for knowing which fork went with which course at a formal dinner.

12. What do details reveal? About whom?

13. In a splendid book called Coming into the Country, John McPhee described an individual as "the kind of man who puts catsup on his fried eggs." What more do you have to know about the man than that?


R.L. Bourges said...

Splendid observations, all. Am specially sensitive to:
a) the terrorist/freedom fighter divides,
b)the no man's land in the linguistic/religious/class borders
c) the exchange of views between a Rationalist and a hm...how to make an adjective out of Chutzpah?
d) as for catsup on fried eggs:certainly not on an tarragon omelet. But on a toasted fried egg sandwich? A must.

Lori Witzel said...

Shelly, pardon for the cross-comment chat, but...

Lee: Chutzpahfarian? Chutzpahtista? Chutzpist? (I like the Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam possibilities of the last one best..)

R.L. Bourges said...

Shelly (excuse my boardinghouse reach)

Lori: I see your point but Chutzpahfarian is also interesting. The combination of dreadlocks with hound's tooth jacket has a certain je ne sais quoi. Non?

Anonymous said...

Every phrase is carefully chosen and placed, every nuance has meaning. Your observations about these details are wonderful, Shelly. Three struck home for me. Are any of us immune to the fear of finding out someone we hold dear has passed out of our lives violently and unexpectedly?