Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Little Closer, Please; to the Story, That Is

When a pal emails or phones with the expressed purpose of making sure you read a particular book, you tramp down to Chaucer’s to see if it’s in stock or see if you can find it used on Amazon.

So Wolfe calls from Albuquerque, still munching Braunschweiger and pickle sandwiches, to commend the Harvey Fergusson title, The Conquest of Don Pedro, which, unknown to Wolfe, embodies one of your favorite essential mythic themes, the fall-out when a stranger comes to town.  He is still chortling while he enhances your anticipation by a brief teaser of the book’s thrust, particularly its New Mexico locale and the stranger being a Jewish traveling salesman.  Wolfe knows a thing or two about teasers, having at one time introduced you to the concept of the choking Doberman, which you then co-opted as a long entry in your latest book.  Wolfe also knows a few things about humor, having written any number of comedic and outright humorous works, none so humorous as his descriptions of his earlier life, when he, as a stand-up comic, was the lead act for the early performances of The Beatles.

As you read The Conquest, you quickly discover Don Pedro is the name of the small town to which the stranger, Leo Mendes, comes. Except for one thing, your enchantment grows.  As your reading continues, you resistance begins to emerge, then make itself a full-blown pest that you have to more or less read around.

The pest is the narrative voice in which The Conquest of Don Pedro is cast.  Such stunning first-person narratives as Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn to the contrary notwithstanding, your preferred narrative form for the novel is multiple point of view.  This approach allows us to experience story from the inner workings of a select number of individuals, allowing us to experience the rich ambiguity and potential conflicting visions of witnesses who have some interest in the outcome.

The Conquest of Don Pedro is omniscient.  “The town of Don Pedro stood,” it begins, “on the eastern edge of the lower Rio Grande Valley, where it spreads out more than a mile wide and the silver river loops and wanders through the lush green of growing crops and the bosques of cottonwood, willow, and overgrown mesquite.”  You would yourself describe that as authorial intrusion.  You would also begin to suspect the author of having “and” as a habit word, a suspicion that is born out in subsequent paragraphs and pages, making you blame the omniscient point of view and a lack of closer line editing as culprits for the resistance such prose evokes in you.  Harvey Fergusson is by no means aclunky writer; his visions and sense of rhythm tingle with clarity, but this narrative is, in its way, like the wallpaper in a rented room, a bit faded from the sun and from general exposure to human occupation.

You do not wish to be told what Leo Mendes felt.  You want to be with him as he experiences such things as his lunch; you do not wish this omniscient intelligence to explain how well he cared for his burro, you’d like to infer that from the treatment Leo accords the animal.

You have stayed long enough to have concerns for the developing story; you will stay to the end, but it is a severe distraction visited upon you when you find yourself more or less translating the narrative into your own preference here, a straightforward third person.

What you’re experiencing here is the equivalent of wanting a front row seat in a small theater; you wish to be close to the individuals in the story.  You do not wish to have the story filtered through a disembodied intelligence.

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