Sunday, December 27, 2009

Places you'd not think to go except in reading

Two of your favored living writers consistently produce stories set in places you have not set high priority on visiting. Yet in each case, as you read, you are not only transported to these landscapes to the point where you can feel and understand them, you also find yourself shifting priorities, visualize yourself traveling to the reality of these places in order to experience that very real landscape from which the writers drew.

One of these writers is Jim Harrison who, like the mythic creatures is only half man. His other half could very well be peppermint schnaps or music or fishing or scenery or some form of animal or even literature both ancient and modern because Harrison surely is all these things, knows about them and their effects and the driving forces that motivate them.

The other writer is Louise Erdrich who, in many ways, reminds me of a Navaho weaver, compulsively yet comfortably seated before her loom, turning out pattern after pattern, replicating in yarn the fixed form of sand paintings, all of which have the mystical power to heal, cure, provide understanding of the things we see about us in this world.

Unlike other writers from whom you have drawn influence, these two do not cause you envy by their technique, although the technique of each is simply stunning; they cause you to envy their vision of the universe and the individuals who haunt it. In a real and remarkable way, the characters of Harrison and Erdrich are haunted by their dreams, their awareness of other individuals, and by the landscape about them. They are affected by animals and mountains and trees, by times of day and the heat of desert, the persistent cold and slush of snow. Their words appear as though spun from looms, immersing you in patterns that seem familiar until they draw you into their uniqueness. If it were possible to experience religion as you experience their stories, then you would be a religious person because then being religious would seem to you a tangible, reciprocal system instead of a mosquito swarm in which you were valued only for your blood.

At this moment, you are a third of the way through Harrison's latest effort, a collection of three novellas. The first is set largely in Montana, with a side trip to Arizona. You have spent considerable time in Arizona but most of what you have of Montana comes from Conrad's descriptions of it, and from his son, BC3, and his book, Ghost Hunting in Montana. Now you have Harrison's Montana. You met in this first novella an ensemble of characters you more or less expected and, with a little extrapolation from Annie Proulx's stories of neighboring Wyoming, you would be willing to spend time there in reality, already knowing the heartbreak of not finding the Harrison and Proulx characters but rather the persons and landscape you would encounter by chance. And there it is in a nutshell: Such writers as Harrison and Erdrich and Proulx break your heart page after page because of the way they have drawn characters forth from their real-life counterparts and presented them to you as relatives you did not know and will now enter into love-hate relationships with.

If there is such a thing as a true antagonist in the first of the three Harrison novellas, it is probably Karl, a youngish, smart-ass cowboy. Although you find no redeeming social values in him, nevertheless even he represents a social presence you recognize and, when he and they get what Booth Tarkington referred to as comeuppance, a portion of your psyche wants to cheer. This cheering is not for revenge so much as it is for a celebration of the basic Social Contract..

Your novel in the works owes its present format to Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves. There is a character coming up in the second Harrison novella that could very well bear some influence on the protagonist of your novel in progress. Other elements and influences are gifts happily received. The only certainty of which you are now aware is that both these writers provide ample gifts for the close reader.

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