April 20, 2017
I'm unqualified to call Moby Dick
the greatest American novel, as many critics and scholars have, but I can call it the greatest American novel I've read. I'll expand that judgement to include novels written in English, that I've read
." Comparisons to the works of Dickens, George Eliot, Forster, et al seem meaningless, even ridiculous, so I'll just assert that Melville is unmatched in his ability to conjure moods of bliss and foreboding and images both beautiful and terrifying. Only Joseph Conrad, a Polish mariner who wrote in English, comes close. Is there something about novelists obsessed with the sea?
Let me open my marked-up copy at random and flip a few pages to find an underlined passage. Here's the crew of the Pequod working through the night, cooking down a sperm whale:
"Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart to her monomaniac commander's soul."
Melville knew his whalers: unrepentant butchers and among the bravest, toughest S.O.B.s who ever lived.
August 15, 2016
You stick with a Cormac McCarthy novel for passages like this one from All the Pretty Horses
"In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and the children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across the mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives. "
June 15, 2016
Back in the nineties, I plowed through every book John Gierach had written and snatched up his new ones as soon as they came out. Since his break-through Trout Bum
(1986) he has been incredibly prolific and, even more impressive, consistent. Although I’ve liked some Gierach essays better than others, I don’t recall a single one I’ve finished and thought, “Well, he’s finally showing some strain.” Not to say he doesn’t sweat over every piece. They’re all tight and elegant, never pretentious.
If I had to pick a favorite Gierach Book, I’d grit my teeth and go with The View from Rat Lake
, (1988) published by Pruett, the small, respected regional publisher that also published Trout Bum
. (Simon & Schuster has been his publisher for the past couple decades.) But if I had to choose a favorite essay – a just-short-of-impossible task – I’d have to go with “Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Gloom of Night,” the ninth essay in his Sex Death and Fly-Fishing
(1990). If you’ve spent a significant portion of your life hunting, fishing, or birding, you know that good things often happen in weather sane people call “miserable.” Which brings to mind another great Gierach line, one I can’t find at the moment. But I love it and quote it from memory:
“Then the weather turned really nasty. It was perfect.”
I’ll quote precisely from “Neither Rain …”:
“The Blue-Winged Olives happened at least once, either on the Frying Pan or the South Platte: a dank, hideous day of wild fishing at the end of which we wring out our clothing, drive to a bar, and sit in a corner steaming, sipping coffee, looking mean and crazy.”
Been there? I’m thinking of quail hunting in the hills south of the Middle Pease on days so cold your teeth hurt when you got winded enough to breathe from your mouth, and you’d drive back to a certain little diner to sit among other quail hunters and drink a gallon of coffee, knowing the day was growing even colder and you couldn’t miss the late afternoon hunting.
In the last and best part of “Neither Rain …” Gierach describes several days of autumn fishing on the Frying Pan, with his buddy A.K. Best:
“The clouds were low enough that I couldn’t see the lip of the canyon, only where the red cliffs, now more of an antique rust color, dissolved. The rocks were wet and shiny, with rainwater running over them, sometimes in flat sheets, sometimes in little eroding streams that you could hear over the noise of rain and the river.”
The fishing was fabulous, and Gierach landed a big rainbow .
“There had been no other fisherman, and all day only two or three cars had passed on the road, but as we climbed out of the river a guy in some kind of sports car pulled up. He rolled his window down two inches and said through the crack, “Getting any big fish?”
“’I just landed a five-pound rainbow on a number eighteen dry fly,’ I said.
“‘No no,’ he said. ‘I mean really big fish.’
“The guy was young, well-dressed, dry, warm, sitting in a sports car with the heater going.
“’You’re an asshole,’ I said.”
As I quote John Gierach, summer solstice is less than a week away. It’s getting hot in North Texas. I’m looking forward to that first cold, drizzly, perfect
day of fall. In the meantime, I plan to reread a bunch of Gierach essays.
April 25, 2016
Just back from the Southern Kentucky Book Festival, where I made new friends, enjoyed the company of old friends, signed plenty of books, and had an all-around fine time, I'm feeling like quoting a great writer from my beloved home state. James Still, Kentucky's first poet laureate, feels just right:
“The flat fruit of the locust fell, lying like curved blades in the grass. August ripened the sedge clumps. Father began to come home from the mines in middle afternoon, no longer trudging the creek road at the edge of dark, with the carbide lamp burning on his cap. He came now before the guineas settled to roost in the black birch. We watched the elder thicket at the hillturn and plunged down to meet him as he came in sight. The heifer ran after us. Euly was the swiftest, reaching him first and snatching the dinner bucket Father carried. She hid in the stickweeds to nibble at the crusts in the bucket, scattering crumbs for the field-larks seeding the grass stalks. Fletch waited halfway down the path and Father would swing him to his shoulder, packing him to the house like a poke of meal.“
James Still, River of Earth
April 11, 2016
“They are the iced mace of wind thrown by bad-dad winter, off to the north, blowing the redleg mallards off their last haunts. Blowing them south, flying like buckshot. And you’re gripping Pup and whispering “No head up,” and you fit the duck call to your lips. It is cold and you know it will freeze to the skin. But you call. And the lead hen throws her body high, looking down and back, seeing the iced-in blocks pointing bill-up to the slate sky.
To write about gundogs, especially your own, is to risk sentimentality - a risk worth taking. Tarrant pushed it everytime out, and sometimes went over the edge. But not here.
“And now they come, shingles rippled loose from some old barn and the wind is driving them crazily toward your decoys and you stand and the old gun barks and the dog launches. He’s breaking ice and standing high in the water, though his feet don’t touch bottom. And you wish you’d never shot. For nothing can live out there. Not even Pup in the prime of his life. Yet he clamps the big bright drake and spins about, throwing water with his whipping tail, and comes for you – the drake covering his face – so he must swim by instinct, for he cannot see.
You’re out of the blind now and running the bank, yelling out. And the retriever comes to shore, not stopping to shake, and heads straight for you. But the black dog turns instantly silver. The water has frozen that fast. And you take the duck and the dog shivers, his teeth chattering, and the pelvic-drive muscles convulse. Then he spins in the tall yellow grass; he runs and rubs the side of his jowls in the mud and stubble.”
Bill Tarrant, “Of Miracles and Memories,” Field & Steam, August 1983
March 23, 2016
“The dogs were there first, ten of them huddled back under the kitchen, himself and Sam squatting to peer back into the obscurity where they crouched, quiet, the eyes rolling and luminous, vanishing, and no sound, only that effluvium which the boy could not quite place yet, of something more than dog, stronger than dog and not just animal, just beast even. Because there had been nothing in front of the abject and painful yipping except the solitude, the wilderness, so that when the eleventh hound got back about mid-afternoon and he and Tennie’s Jim held the passive and still trembling bitch while Sam daubed her tattered ear and raked shoulder with turpentine and axle-grease, it was still no living creature but only the wilderness which, leaning for a moment, had patted lightly once her temerity. ‘Just like a man,’Sam said. ‘Just like folks. Put off as long as she could having to be brave, knowing all the time that sooner or later she would have to be brave once so she could keep on calling herself a dog, and knowing beforehand what was going to happen when she done it,’”
From "The Bear," collected in Go Down Moses.
William Faulkner, “The Bear”
March 14, 2016
"I was born to people who were born to people who were born to people who were born here. The Crackers crossed the wide Altamaha into what had been Creek territory and settled the vast fire-loving uplands of the coastal plains of southeast Georgia, surrounded by a singing forest of tall and widely spaced pines whose history they did not know, whose stories were untold. The memory of what they entered is scrawled on my bones, so that I carry the landscape inside like an ache. The story of who I am cannot be severed from the story of the flatwoods.
Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
March 7, 2016
“… Later still, entrusted with your own safety, you went out with homemade canoes that were almost coracles in their shapelessness, and wouldn’t hold straight, and ripped on the rocks of the rapids. Squirrel shooting on cold Sunday mornings, and ducks, and skunk-squirted dogs, and deer watering while you watched at dawn, and the slim river bass, and bird song of a hundred kinds, and always the fly-fishing for fat bream and the feel of the water on bare skin, and its salty taste, and the changing shore. The river’s people, as distinct from one another as any other people anywhere, but all with a West Texas set to their frames and their faces which on occasion you have been able to recognize in foreign countries … Even first bottles of beer, bitter drunk with two bawdy ranchers’ daughters you and Hale ran across, once, fishing …”
Apologies for the cheesey arrangement. Yeah, the flies are crudely tied, but mine, and bream don't care.
John Graves, Goodbye to a River