Ivan Doig is dead. Long live Ivan Doig.
A writer who liked to say he sprang from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view,” Doig died on April 9 at age 75 at his home in Seattle. Now we have his posthumous novel Last Bus to Wisdom, his 16th and final book, a reminder that Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a guiding light in a loose but hard core of writers who have chronicled and lamented one of our great national sorrows: How the West Was Lost.
Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” His father was a ranch hand and his mother a ranch cook — the lariat proletariat personified — and as a boy Ivan accompanied his father on ranch jobs, becoming familiar with the open spaces and the taverns, the bunkhouses and one-room schoolhouses of a western Montana way of life that was already vanishing. It is the ache brought on by this vanishing that was to become Doig’s great subject.
Last Bus to Wisdom is one of Doig’s more autobiographical fictions. Readers of his 1979 memoir, This House of Sky, a finalist for the National Book Award, will recognize some of the new novel’s situations and events. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Donal (“without the d”) Cameron, who, in the summer of 1951, is being farmed off to relatives in Wisconsin by his guardian grandmother, a ranch cook, as she prepares to undergo surgery for “female trouble.” The boy travels alone by Greyhound, “the dog bus,” and in his innocent yet wised-up voice he introduces us to the gallery of colorful characters he encounters on the road. These include a hot waitress, a trio of soldiers shipping off to the Korean War, Jack Kerouac (!), an Indian, oilfield roughnecks, hoboes, a parolee with sticky fingers, and a pint-sized sheriff escorting his own step-brother back to jail in handcuffs. On the return westward journey Donal is accompanied by his great uncle, Herman the German, a World War I veteran with a fondness for Karl May’s Western novels, an iffy command of English, and a fear that the FBI will deport him because he’s an illegal alien. Together, Donal and Herman make their picaresque way west, dodging the law, getting into scrapes, and finally joining a team of hobo hay harvesters near the tiny Montana hamlet of Wisdom.
Donal and Doig, the character and his creator, are both born storytellers. After a string of plausible embellishments roll of his tongue, Donal, in an infectious vernacular reminiscent of characters out of Twain or Thomas Berger, gives us this succinct sketch of what he calls “storying,” the source of all fiction:
I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprising extent, it seemed like.
So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself.
It is the nasty little sheriff with the handcuffed prisoner who reveals Doig’s version of How the West Was Lost. Rather than dwelling on the horrors that have begun to show themselves by the mid-20th century — the big dams, big ranches, big highways, big mines, big oil fields, big sprawling cities in places where cities have no business existing — Doig instead paints sepia portraits of the little people who are doomed to be either erased or exploited by these outsize abominations: the ranch hands and cooks, librarians, newspaper photographers, copper miners, and the catskinners who operate the heavy machinery that makes all the “progress” possible. (Donal’s father was a catskinner before he and his wife were forever killed by a drunk driver.) While the Greyhound skims alongside the Missouri River, Donal gazes in awe as the sheriff, Carl, and his prisoner/step-brother, Harv, have a conversation:
The bus suddenly humming in a different gear, it dropped down in a dip and showed no signs of coming out, the road following the Missouri River now. The broad river flowing in long lazy curves with thickets of diamond willows and cottonwood trees lining the banks impressed me, but the sight seemed to turn the sheriff’s stomach. Beside him, though, his hand-cuffed seat partner smiled like a crack in stone.
“There ’tis, Carl. What’s left of the river, hmm?”
“Shut up, Harv, I don’t need to hear about it.” Sounding fit to be tied, the sheriff shot a look over to where I still was taking in everything wide-eyed, and growled, “We’re just past Fort Peck Dam, the outlaw is talking about.” His mouth twisted. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t think the Missouri River worked good enough by itself, so he stuck in a king hell bastard of a dam,” a new piece of cussing for me to tuck away.
In one ingenious stroke, the sheriff is made to simultaneously embody and disparage the source of the West’s ruin: he, along with Indian reservation police, sheriffs, the FBI, and anyone else wearing a badge, is authority, the sworn enemy of individual freedom; yet he also despises the monstrous things authority has visited on the land, in this case the Fort Peck Dam. In the West, this authority has worn many name tags. In the 19th century it was the Central Pacific railroad, cobbled together by Leland Stanford and his robber baron cronies with the assistance of federal subsidies and land grants. In the Cold War it was the “military-industrial complex.” Lately it’s been Big Agra, hydroelectric dams, mining interests, the real estate boys, the federal government, the aerospace industry.
Doig was a conventional novelist, and he was less interested in these big villains than in the troubles they brought upon their little victims, the lariat proletariat. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wondered if there’s any way out of the suffocating loop of knowingness for contemporary American writers. He concluded, “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…(w)ho treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”
The operative words in that sentence are untrendy and reverence and conviction, and they beautifully capture Doig’s approach to the writing of fiction. What I liked best about Last Bus to Wisdom is that it’s wise to the ways of the world yet free of the cheap cynicism found in so much writing today, and it’s content with being a conventional novel. Doig’s writing is so post-postmodern that it manages to be both old-school and fresh. That took some daring, and sizable skill.
Sven Birkerts called Doig “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West,” and while that’s certainly true I don’t want to get into the tired question of whether or not Doig was a “regional” writer. He wisely shunned the label and the handcuffs that come with it. As he put it, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — that substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”
Few American writers possess a gaze as cool as Joan Didion’s (which is different from calling her gaze “chilly” or “cold”). She has said famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Just as famously she has said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Something she hasn’t said, to my knowledge, could stand as the guiding tenet of her long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction and journalism: The lies we tell ourselves in order to live are what keep us from being truly alive.
Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, a mix of autobiography, history, reportage, and literary criticism, is an unflinching examination of the myths spawned by her native California, what she calls “the local dreamtime.” The past tense of the verb in the book’s title signals that this is to be a work of revisionism.
Didion begins by establishing her California bona fides. Her great-great-great grandmother came west in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, and Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, eventually earning a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She will soon turn 81, and she has spent the majority of her life in the state. From an early age she was fed various versions of the crossing stories of her forebears and other early California arrivals, stories built on hardship and danger, loss and fortitude, which would form the basis for something known inside her family as “the code of the West.” Didion, with typically acid humor, distills the code to its three essential mandates: “You were meant, if you were a Californian, to…show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”
When she fixed her cool gaze on the facts, though, she began to see that the bedrock on which the code of the West was built — the nearly sacred notion of unfettered individualism — was actually nothing but sand. “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Didion writes, noting that it is “a state where distrust of centralized government authority has historically passed for an ethic.” But as Didion’s digging reveals, Californians have always leaned on the largess of the federal government. The leaning began with Leland Stanford and his fellow Sacramento shopkeepers when they put together the railroad, with a generous assist from Washington. The leaning continued with the federal subsidies that brought the water that fed such thirsty, unsustainable crops as alfalfa, cotton, and rice — and, in the bargain, enabled Los Angeles to sprawl across miles of once-inhospitable desert. After the elaborate system of dams and levees came the defense contracts and the aerospace industry (“Star Wars,” anyone?), all of it built not on unfettered individualism, but on the broad back of the American taxpayer.
At a young age, Didion began to sense a disconnect between her family’s myths and its actual circumstances, and, by extension, between California’s “dreamtime” and its actual history. In Where I Was From, Didion recalls asking her mother which class the family belonged to. “It’s not a word we use,” her mother replied. “It’s not the way we think.” This leads Didion to muse:
On one level I believed this to be a deliberate misreading of what even a twelve-year-old could see to be the situation and on another level I understood it to be true: it was not the way we thought in California. We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and brought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden.
Already at that young age, Didion understood that her family was old California, part of that class known loosely as the gentry. She also sensed that something was lacking from this class, as Tracy Daugherty writes in his new book, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion: “For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.”
Eventually, of course, most of the defense contracts dried up and the jobs vanished and the state of California fell on such hard times that it welcomed a boom in prison construction. By now, having dismantled the myths that propped up the bankrupt code of the West, Didion is appalled but hardly surprised by this latest turn of events. “We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error,” she writes, “that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”
And now, as a final indignity, California — that Eden where alfalfa and cotton and rice once grew, where green lawns and blue swimming pools once carpeted the desert vastness known as Los Angeles — is suffering through a brutal, four-year drought. The New York Times reports that the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Beverly Hills is among the first to be fined for failing to meet the state’s stringent water-conservation targets. On the day the fines were levied, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over an infestation of bark beetles that has killed tens of millions of trees during the drought. He is seeking help removing the dead trees from — you guessed it — the federal government. I’m sure Joan Didion was not surprised when she heard the news.
For all their many differences of temperament and style, Edward Abbey and Jim Harrison could agree with Ivan Doig’s sour little sheriff on one thing: the West was lost through environmental degradation, a direct by-product of human greed, and there is no more potent metaphor for this greed than the very American urge to tame the wilderness by building dams. Dams — or, more precisely, the urge to blow them up — drive the plots these two authors’ most indelible novels: Abbey’s cult classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which inspired a whole generation of eco-saboteurs; and Harrison’s booze- and drug-addled caper, A Good Day to Die.
The novels have telling similarities. Abbey’s titular gang has an equal-opportunity loathing for billboards, construction machinery, barbed wire, coal trains, strip mines, lumber companies, copper smelters, nuclear power plants, and, above all, the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Harrison’s trio of eco-saboteurs form a lopsided love triangle — two unhinged guys falling in love with the same sexy girl — as they drive west to blow up a non-existent dam in the Grand Canyon, then set their sights on a small earthen dam in Utah that prevents steelhead trout from moving upstream to spawn.
Here’s George Hayduke, the unruliest of the four monkey wrenchers, likening the degradation of the West to the eco-horrors he witnessed as a Green Beret in Vietnam: “When I finally…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad all over again.” And here’s Harrison’s unnamed narrator, hungover, trying to impress a roomful of strangers: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against the realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”
These seemingly single-minded people are, in fact, dogged by doubts — doubts that blowing up one dam, or even 100 dams, will change the world; doubts that their motives are lofty; doubts that they even possess tangible motives. As Harrison’s narrator puts it, “It occurred to me that I should question my motives but found that I had none.”
In other words, the trip west is little more than a lark. A similar sense of pointless futility begins to overtake the Monkey Wrench Gang. While there’s no denying that the West has been scarred by these characters’ various nemeses, it becomes apparent as the two novels play out that their crusades are both feckless and doomed. They remind me of the high-minded Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy distaste for “the 1 percent” and its equally fuzzy refusal to formulate a strategy to bring about actual change. If you’re going to go to all this trouble and risk — sleeping on the streets, getting maced and clubbed by cops, burning billboards, blowing up bridges and dams — shouldn’t you have specific goals and a reasonable chance of realizing them? Otherwise, isn’t it all just posturing?
In the end, Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison come to very different conclusions about How the West Was Lost, but they share a sense that the loss is as irreversible as it was wrong-headed. The Glen Canyon Dam, a king hell bastard of a dam if there ever was one, stemmed the flow of the Colorado River in order to bring water and cheap electricity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other “cities of the plain,” as Abbey called them with a Biblical sneer, putting them on a level with Sodom and Gomorrah. In a crowning irony, the most ardent sponsor of the dam, the arch-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, eventually came around to admitting that building the $750 million monstrosity had been a mistake. As consolations go, this doesn’t even begin to qualify as small. Lake Powell, with its 1,800 miles of shoreline, still sits there where Glen Canyon used to be. Meanwhile, drought-stricken California is losing tens of millions of trees. No wonder Abbey called Lake Powell “the blue death.”
Image: Pexels/Bruno Cervera.
Thirty years after Don DeLillo’s White Noise comes Wasp Box, the debut novel by Jason Ockert. The novels vary greatly in tone, but share the theme of unusual events intruding upon daily existence. The aftermath of the “airborne toxic event” in White Noise creates the need for constant simulation evacuations and comprehensive data collection of citizens. (DeLillo might be a lapsed Roman Catholic, but he is a practicing prophet). Afterward, even domestic disturbances are ominous: “The time of spiders arrived. Spiders in high corners of rooms. Cocoons wrapped in spiderwork. Silvery dancing strands that seemed the pure play of light, light as evanescent news, ideas borne on light.”
Wasp Box begins with William Gent, a veteran back in the states. Gent hops off a moving train and runs through the woods, tearing through spider webs. Ockert trades domestic arachnids for foreign insects: “Something is scuttling around inside his skull, and no matter how deeply he digs he just can’t root it out.” The soldier hopes for a fresh start — “It’s unwise to carry ghosts across the ocean” — but instead falls to his knees and hacks what look like prunes into his hands. Eyes tearing, he struggles to watch “tiny red-tinted wings unfurl and the creatures unsteadily take flight.” Instead of being afraid, “For a baffling moment, the soldier thinks this is all rather beautiful. He has made something here.”
What he has made, or rather incubated, are wasps. They fly from his mouth “like wicked words — the soldier’s confession — made manifest. They rise away and whisper to the moon.” Ockert’s opening chapter manages to be both lyric and menacing. Gent physically disappears from the novel, but he has brought a nightmare to New York state. Nolan Baxter, divorced from his wife, lives on the Muller family vineyard in the Finger Lakes. Nolan’s son Hudson comes to stay for the summer, and his younger step-brother, Speck, comes along. Hudson is there to work, while Speck “could use the fresh country air.” World War II veteran Gus Muller, now widowed, lives with his daughter and granddaughter, Madison. Gus straddles the line between quirky and strange, crossing into the latter when he pinches his wife’s ashes into a glass of Pinot.
Hudson is attracted to Madison, but she hides the secret of her suicide attempt. In fact, Hudson’s interest in Madison takes time and energy away from Nolan, who thought this summer would repair his relationship with this son. When not thinking of Madison, Hudson takes his brother into a forest that abuts the vineyard. Ockert’s description is atmospheric:
Hudson climbs into a faded yellow harvesting truck and sits behind the wheel. He lets the smell of oil, gasoline, baked-in sweat, and the faint waft of cigarette smoke seep in. The cushion has been slashed and stuffing spills around the pedals. Plastic on the dashboard is peeling off. The glove box handle is hot to the touch. Hudson uses the tips of his fingers to open it. Inside are a half-dozen charred Barbie dolls that have melted into one grotesque body. All of the hair has been singed, and the faces are smooth and expressionless.
Wasp Box reads like a sequence of graveyards; the portrait of a place and family that is headed toward trouble.
On one journey through the forest, Speck drifts off with the Mullen family dogs. He finds a nest of wasps, the entire tree “infested and thrumming.” The wasps descend and blanket the dogs, who flee. Speck has been stung, but seems to be spared the worst. The dogs are not so fortunate. This attack, coupled with the novel’s ominous opening, made me think Wasp Box would become apocalyptic, the latest novel in a successful litany of recent airbone toxic events. Ockert’s focus is a bit more narrow. The wasps thrash, but they are boxed in, bound to the slow science of spreading. This allows Ockert to tell a taut but evolving story with many threads. Hudson’s subplots are the most interesting, including his attraction to Madison, his uneasy relationship with his father, and his fear of Crowley, his co-worker for the summer who is increasingly unstable. Hudson’s narration is so charged and profluent that Nolan becomes a bit lost in the novel. It is almost as if Hudson has already become his own man.
Nolan gives Speck a journal that he claims was thrown from a train. The journal belonged to William Gent, the infected soldier who brought this plague to the region. Ockert often excerpts the journal in the novel, though this parallel narrative is less effective than the more subtle touches of the book. Scenes showing the frenetic, almost cunning wasps are the moments of the novel that hearken to DeLillo’s White Noise. The sections are written in an essayistic voice, and despite their coming dread, are somehow calmer than the tension of the novel’s main characters. In one section, the “vibration along the tracks disrupts the wasps long before the Amtrak train arrives.” While some wasps merely “bounce among the passenger cars,” some more “determined insects” sneak into cracked windows:
while the brief, terrorizing five minutes of distraction on the train causes baffled travelers to shake their heads in wonder, and several victims are treated by the on-board nurse for the minor stings on their arms, this incident will not be merely anecdotal — you’re not going to believe what happened on the train ride — because one of the workers made good. All the stinging and bussing is a distraction. To fell the giant simply takes a single, Q-tip-sized queen that, during the melee, dropped down onto a shirt collar.
Ockert calmly describes the coming moments of the queen wasp’s “soft, unassuming, anesthetic bites,” which will deposit an egg sac in a woman’s ear canal. This is controlled, not detached, prose. There have been several fine novels in recent years that sketch the coming apocalypse, whether arriving by land or by air. The wasps make their mark in Wasp Box, but Ockert has some surprises in store for the reader in the novel’s final acts.
At 179 tight pages, Wasp Box is an argument for the short novel in the vein of The Burning House by Paul Lisicky and A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. There’s not an ounce of bloat in this book. Ockert’s masterful usage of first person contributes to the story’s immediacy. Ockert suggests that the wasps’ agitation merely elevate the swarm that resides within all of us. By exercising control over his prose and his content — by making the focus of the book how Hudson’s search for independence pushes against his father’s desire to strengthen their relationship — Ockert manages to tall a narrow tale that pulses wide. Wasp Box is a measured documentation of destruction. In one scene representative of the novel’s tone, “Nolan has no way of knowing that three days ago a curious red fox was attacked by a small platoon of wasps that had advanced from the railroad,” nor did he know that the fox died beneath ripening grapes, or that one of the Mullen dogs had been rolling in the fox’s remains when itself was attacked. Ockert reveals how sometimes evil arrives not with a bang or a whimper, but with the calming buzz of the inevitable.
The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton’s 1653 book (pdf) of practical advice, poems, songs, and dialogues about fishing, ends with the intonation “study to be quiet.” The phrase comes from the first book of Thessalonians. Walton would likely have been familiar with the King James Version of the phrase, which reads, “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”
The connection between fishing and religion remains. Holly Morris notes in her wonderful essay, “Fumbling After Grace,” “both fishing and writing are largely acts of faith: you believe that there is indeed a rich run of ideas lurking below. The convoluted first drafts, the false casts and hooked branches are all a part of some cosmic ritual designed to seduce a shiny gem to the surface. You get a nibble and your mind sings as you play the idea and reel it in. Only sometimes is it a keeper.” Faith is what brings anglers back to shallow streams, and what brings writers back to imperfect drafts.
Faith might also allow anglers and writers to release. The narrator of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” “caught a tremendous fish,” and admires her take. Her meticulous description makes the fish singular, and reveals the pride of a catch as “victory filled up / the little rented boat.” She ultimately lets the fish go, well aware that this exact dance might be repeated. After all, were the fish not free to begin with, fishing would not exist. In “Trout are Moving” by Harry Humes, freedom happens “past midnight,” when those who would seek fish are asleep. Humes imbues a mystical element to the trout’s movement, but also connects the fish to humans. The trout turns in the water, but it is not panicked or startled; rather, it is “just a sinking away / through the ordinary morning stillness / of the house.” Halieutic works might be often surreal, but the actual sport of fishing is tactile, like writing.
Both manual actions “can give you hand cramps.” Holly Morris finds deeper connections between the pursuits. Anglers and writers share a “masochistic urge to wake in the predawn hours and stumble with loaded thermos toward an icy cold stream to catch something you ultimately let go,” which “is not dissimilar to the quirky yearnings that guide a writing life.”
Some of my favorite writers at the sentence level–Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison–find similar connections between writing and fishing. For Stephen L. Tanner, Hemingway’s trout fishing in Paris was emblematic of his transition from journalism to fiction writing, from “having memories to creative remembering.” His literary representations of fishing abound, including The Old Man and the Sea, the calm and communal scenes between Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, and the adventures of Nick Adams in “The Big Two-Hearted River.” But I have always been most interested in lines from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s non-fiction account of bullfighting, that capture the paradox of fishing: “we speak of killing a trout with a rod. It is the effort made by the trout that kills it.” No matter how skilled or well-equipped an angler might be, the fish is in control.
Of course this leads anglers to seek even more methods to tip the scales in their favor. For Thomas McGuane, “tools of elegance and order, developed and proven in the sporting life, are everywhere useful.” Fishing is not simple recreation; it is a way to combat against the “fragmentation and regret” of daily complacency, a “way of looking at the world.” Owing perhaps to the “particular culture” of his Irish-Catholic upbringing, McGuane recalls the ritualistic approach of an old fishing buddy: “He had a bailing can that was an old Maxwell House can, cut off in this perfect way. Always went there. Oars went there. After you anchored the anchor went here, the line was coiled there. [His old wooden rowboat] wasn’t worth a hundred dollars. It was nearly all he had, but it was so deeply ritualized that it had a kind of glow.”
In the preface to The Longest Silence, his collection of essays on fishing, McGuane strikes a conservationist tone, concluding “we have reached the time in the life of the planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out.” He revels in the otherness of anglers. The sport “is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.” In our high-speed moment, “anglers, as a kind of preemptive strike, call themselves bums, addicts, and maniacs. We’re actually rather quiet people for the most part but our attitude toward time sets us at odds with our own society.”
There are two levels of time embedded in McGuane’s discussion. First, the desire to exit daily strictures of appointments and responsibilities, when our time is owned by others. The second level includes the micro bursts of focused time within the angling act, a sport that shifts from hours of waiting to swift moments of drama. That attitude toward time is shared by writers, and few are as adept at manual shifting between sentences as McGuane. His early novels, particularly Ninety-Two in the Shade and The Sporting Club, move between sarcasm, violence, and sublimity. McGuane’s friend and fellow novelist, Jim Harrison, shares a love for fishing, and the skill of literary transition. A Good Day to Die, his acerbic short novel, begins with the most ominous author’s note in history (“Certain technical aspects of the handling of explosives have been deliberately altered and blurred to protect innocent life and property.”), shifts to an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke (“Each torpid turn of this world bears such disinherited children to whom neither what’s been, nor what is coming, belongs.”), before settling into the prologue, where a hungover narrator awakens in a boat off Cudjoe Key, wanting to “catch the incoming tide and what fish would there looking off that huge sandspit toward the rank mangroves.” The novel’s wayward characters binge on drugs and sex, and fishing is the only salve, the only possibility for a soul.
In his own life, Harrison says “when you bear down that hard on one thing–on your fiction or your poetry–then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy.” More than even McGuane, Harrison has been reduced by some critics as the prototypical macho writer. Yet Harrison rejects “sorry bumpkin mythologies.” The best anglers are the “most modest,” and never “identified their sports with our culture’s banal notions of manhood, which is a matter of costumery rather than substance.” Harrison’s sclerotic characters are also costumes. He wonders why “is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness . . . critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer.” One can feel Harrison pushing back against comparisons with Hemingway, who he once said seemed like a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.”
We do not need to love our forebears to have been formed by them. What Hemingway, McGuane, and Harrison all share is a stylistic tendency to be both methodical when describing action, but also to layer narrative asides. These aberrant pockets of dialogue or description that might be pared by other writers give flesh and fire to their stories. Anglers spin yarns, and a good tale needs sufficient detail, along with enough oddity to warrant repetition. Fishing begins with base materials, as listed by the narrator of Harrison’s A Good Day to Die: “An open face Shakespeare Ambassador reel and a stout casting rod with a tackle box full of daredevils, pikie minnows, jitterbugs, mepps, spoons. And wire clip leaders.” But the sport becomes art when those materials and equipment are in able hands.
I have neither the skill nor the experience fishing of these writers, but I share their appreciation for the sport. I grew up fishing in suburban New Jersey, where lakes and rivers dot the flat landscape. We had to renew our licenses each year, and safety-pin them to our baseball hats. Back then fishing was a way to relax after basketball practice, or to avoid doing AP Calculus homework. We caught more sunnies than bass. It wasn’t fishing; it was fooling.
I only got serious about fishing when I got serious about writing, as an undergraduate in central Pennsylvania. I fished the Susquehanna River each morning with friends. I borrowed my brother’s chest waders, and stood in the current for hours, often without real results. A local fisherman told me to use a topwater lure called the Purple-D. “Two sets of hooks. Purple head, bright red eyes. Big bass like it, they jump up and grab it.” Not me. I never caught a bass, walleye, or anything else using it.
It is a small comfort that for even the best anglers, the vast majority of time on a river is spent waiting. The sequence of catch and keep, or catch and release, constitutes a fraction of time. And yet that is why anglers return. It was why I skipped class to stand in a river and cast above a rocked hole. It was why my wife and I studied old maps at the county library to find forgotten trails that led to small ponds. Fishing, like writing, is a stab at permanence in a world of waiting.
Water, sunlight, shadow, hunt, patience, search, silence: the elements of fishing are perfect fodder for writing, but they can also lead to sentimental lines and sentences. For every hour I spent in the soft current of Penn’s Creek, comfortable and warm in my waders, there were days when catfish snapped my lines. Fishing and writing hindsight are much the same. As Stephen L. Tanner says, “some of the best trout fishing is done in print rather than in streams.” Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.
When Jim Harrison arrives at a fishing destination, “a number of centuries drift away. There’s no conscious sense of the atavistic, only that everything you’ve learned in school, university, your business life is of no use to you now.” I feel that sentiment when I run at an old moss farm near my home. The land is state-owned. Unkempt paths curl into the woods. One trail leads into a lake. There is no end; it simply goes into the water. I usually turn around. There is always so much to do. But some days I want to run straight into that silent lake and stand waist-deep. Fishing is not merely recreation; it is a source of creation. It is an art. I will always be haunted by waters.
Night Moves, the latest movie from Kelly Reichardt, joins a chorus of films and books that have spent the past several decades posing an intriguing question. To paraphrase the great English pop artist Richard Hamilton, the question is this: Just what is it that makes today’s eco-terrorists so different, so appealing?
The operative word here is appealing because Reichardt and company are drawn to something in the character of people who are willing to break the law in order to perform a service they see as vital to mankind and the planet. This moral ambiguity – the willingness to do wrong in order to do right – is a large part of the eco-terrorist’s appeal. Yet this is also where things get complicated. In Night Moves, the lofty ideals of the eco-terrorists become as compromised and distorted as those of the villains they are trying to fight. Try as they might to see the world as a simple black-and-white Manichaean snapshot, Reichardt’s characters keep getting sucked into pools of gray, those murky zones of moral ambiguity that have a way of perverting even the noblest of intentions.
Night Moves, co-written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, is the story of three people who share vague misgivings about ecological degradation – and a fierce determination to do something about it. At the center of the group is Josh, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg. A young man so uncomfortable in his skin he’ll make you itch, Josh wears a constant scowl and says as few words as possible, preferring to let his slouchy, shuffling body language do the talking. Along for the ride is Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman who works at a spa and smolders with quiet rage. The closest the movie comes to exploring these characters’ motivation is when Dena vilifies the hundreds of dams on rivers throughout the West: “They’re killing all the salmon so you can run your fucking iPod every minute of your life.” That’s it for philosophy. And in Reichardt’s skilled hands, it’s exactly enough.
With the help of an ex-Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), Josh and Dena set out to make the bomb that will blow up a hydroelectric dam on an Oregon river. Reichardt has made a counter-intuitive decision that pays off: rather than dwelling on her characters’ motivations, the why of their mission, she focuses on the how, the mundane process of buying a boat, buying a large quantity of fertilizer, packing the explosives, loading them into the boat, getting the boat to the target, detonating the charge. You begin to realize you’re watching something ingeniously twisted: the banality of evil masquerading as virtue.
The climactic explosion is downplayed – it’s just a distant burst of orange light and a muted boom – because Reichardt’s true concern is the aftermath of the act, how it will change her characters. The founder of the organic farm where Josh works dismisses the bombing as a spit in the ocean, a feckless piece of “theater” by some misguided do-gooders – because there are dozens more dams on that river alone. Then the screws tighten. The three eco-terrorists are stung to learn that a man camping downriver drowned in the torrent released by their bomb.
It soon becomes apparent that the sting comes not from guilt, but from fear and paranoia – they’re now wanted for murder as well as sabotage, and no one in the troika is sure who can be trusted. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the high moral ground proves to be a slippery, treacherous and, finally, lethal place. Lofty motives turn out to mean very little when idealists are trying to save their own hides. Having the courage to lay bare this unpretty truth is what turns Night Moves into a fine dark work of art.
In his 2011 documentary film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Marshall Curry looked at eco-terrorists through a very different lens. A nuanced portrait of the loose band of saboteurs who wreaked havoc in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century, the movie is immaculately free of platitudes, stereotypes or hysteria.
The film focuses on Daniel McGowan, the son of a Brooklyn cop who experiences a “sense of mourning” once he becomes aware of mankind’s many environmental sins. He participates in multiple acts of arson as ELF cells launch a freelance sabotage campaign against lumber mills, logging equipment, horse corrals, meat-packing plants, genetics labs, tree farms, even ski resorts. Hovering over the film is a question: Are these activists terrorists, as the government would have us believe, or are they avenging angels performing a vital service, as they themselves believe? Curry, to his credit, refuses to offer a tidy answer.
Instead he gives us one cop who grudgingly admits, “They were really good at what they did.” And a prosecutor who says, “Once you start looking at their motivations and childhoods, instead of seeing a mug shot you start to understand them and how it came to pass that they started doing this.” A lumber company owner points out that his workers plant six trees for every one they cut down, as required by Oregon law – hardly the work of black-hatted villains. In retrospect, McGowan realizes he should have questioned the effectiveness of setting a fire at a lumber mill. “Did this action push them in a better direction?” he asks. “That’s a good question. But at the time I wasn’t asking it.”
McGowan’s major crisis comes when it’s revealed that an ELF arson attack on a tree farm was based on bad intelligence: the farm was not involved in genetic engineering, as the saboteurs had believed. Though no one was hurt, this botched operation eventually leads McGowan to drift away from the movement and melt back into normal society.
Years later, while he’s working in an office in New York City, federal agents swarm in to arrest him on charges of arson and conspiracy. It turns out that an old ELF foot soldier named Jake Ferguson had decided to cooperate with the authorities to avoid prosecution. Ferguson spent a year visiting and telephoning friends, including McGowan, while wearing a wire. Again we see just how little lofty ideals mean when idealists are trying to save their own hides.
As McGowan’s case moves through the courts, his lawyer notes that not a single human being was harmed in any of the more than 1,000 acts of sabotage ELF conducted. (Compare this with the track record of the trio in Night Moves.) She adds that a fair definition of terrorism would be a politically motivated act that results in the end of innocent human life – such as flying commercial airplanes into skyscrapers, or shooting them down with missiles.
As he prepares to start serving a 7-year prison sentence at the end of the movie, McGowan makes the claim that eco-terrorism, like so many things, boils down to semantics. “People need to question this new buzzword, terrorism,” he says. “It’s the new communism, the new bogeyman.” Indeed, The Intercept, an online magazine, has just revealed that the U.S. government has 20,800 citizens and permanent residents on a database of people suspected of having links to “terrorism.”
To underscore his point, McGowan wears a t-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush above the words International Terrorist. The movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award, ends with a bitter coda: Ferguson, the snitch, did not do any time in prison.
Like many good movies, Night Moves and If a Tree Falls led me back to books. In 1973, when the environmental movement was in its infancy, Jim Harrison published a novella called A Good Day to Die. It’s narrated by a booziferous fisherman who meets an unhinged Vietnam vet named Tim in a Key West bar. On a lark they decide to drive out West and blow up a dam. En route they stop in Valdosta, Georgia, to pick up the vet’s girlfriend, a leggy knockout named Sylvia who instantly infects the narrator with a rabid case of puppy love. And so, fueled by uppers, booze, weed, and lust, this lopsided love triangle hits the road.
Like the characters in Night Moves, this trio is motivated by fuzzy misgivings. Here’s how the narrator expresses those misgivings to a group of stoned people at a party: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”
What makes this mission fascinating is its mix of loopiness and dead seriousness. It was spawned by a stray remark – the narrator making the bogus claim that the government was building a dam on the Colorado River that would turn the Grand Canyon into a giant lake. As the narrator admits, “I had a rather yellow sense in my belly that the whole project was ten degrees off in the direction of wacky.” He even admits that he’s a less than passionate idealist: “If we blew up some dam it would have a sort of final interest to it like a fishing record that couldn’t be taken away from you.”
But as the mission proceeds to a new target in Idaho, there’s nothing bogus about the fertilizer, kerosene and dynamite the group acquires. In the end, these half-assed eco-terrorists are undone not by their loopiness, but by their erratic compassion for the natural world. Tim doesn’t hesitate to kill a troublesome watchdog, but when cows shuffle onto the targeted dam after he has lit the fuse, he frantically tries to shoo them away. A fatal mistake – but hardly surprising, given the air of doom that pervaded this ill-conceived and colossally bungled mission.
After the fatal explosion, the narrator echoes Josh from Night Moves: “I was frankly interested in saving my own skin.” Part of what makes today’s eco-terrorists so appealing, it turns out, is that their feet are sometimes made of clay.
Two years after A Good Day to Die was published, Edward Abbey came out with The Monkey Wrench Gang, a novel that owed a clear debt to Harrison’s book and went on to become a cult classic and the unofficial Bible of the radical environmental group Earth First!, a precursor to the Earth Liberation Front.
Round up the usual suspects. Abbey’s cast consists of an unhinged Vietnam vet with training in explosives (again!), a cantankerous river guide, a Tucson surgeon and his hottie girlfriend (again!). They set out on a campaign of equal-opportunity sabotage, toppling billboards and power lines, pulling up survey stakes, cutting barbed-wire fences, destroying road-building machinery, trashing helicopters, blowing up bridges. Their ultimate goal is to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, a bête noir of radical environmentalists. All the while they’re guided by an iron credo that Earth First! and ELF would eventually adopt: “No harm to human beings.” (A lopsided love triangle also develops, not unlike the one in A Good Day to Die. All that proximity to explosives and death seems make eco-terrorists spectacularly horny.)
It’s worth noting that Abbey’s master’s thesis at the University of New Mexico in 1956 was titled “Anarchy and the Morality of Violence,” and he spent years pulling up survey stakes and knocking down billboards before he started writing his masterpiece. He also drove a vintage red Cadillac convertible, and his characters blithely toss their empty beer cans out of car windows – hardly the acts of card-carrying eco-purists.
But let’s not quibble. Abbey’s book is a satire, a broad one at that. Unlike Reichardt and Harrison, he gets positively expansive when it comes to delineating his characters’ motivation for their eco-terror campaign. At one point the surgeon, Doc Sarvis, is thinking:
All this fantastic effort – giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belts, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning plant; ten thousand miles of high-tension towers and high-voltage lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian homes…all that ball-breaking labor and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air-conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles…Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of southern California, to keep alive that phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.
Nobody every accused Abbey of being subtle, and that’s a large part of his appeal – his willingness to go over the top at all times. After all, the stakes are huge, nothing less than his beloved adopted southwest desert (he was born in Pennsylvania), nothing less than planet Earth herself.
Part of the appeal of Abbey’s characters is that they, too, have trouble living up to their credo. Hayduke, the former Green Beret, is no stranger to violence, and he regularly has to be talked out of shooting cops and rangers. And at a critical juncture in the story, the posse of eco-saboteurs nearly makes a tragic mistake much like the one in Night Moves. They’re getting ready to blow up a bridge as a train loaded with coal crosses it. They believe the train is automated, but at the last moment they look down, in horror, to see an engineer in the cab of the locomotive, waving at them. Abbey lets his characters off the hook when the charges explode and the engineer jumps to safety as the train slides into the river.
Writing in the New York Times, Harrison let Abbey off the hook too: “Abbey trips a bit over the question of violence to people but an ideological gaffe is easily forgivable contrasted to the heroics, the sense the reader has of wanting them to ‘get away with it.’”
An ideological gaffe? Every character in each of these books and movies is torn by warring ideologies – the urge to do good versus the need to set limits on how much harm they’re willing to do in order to do good. This struggle to live within those limits is what makes eco-terrorists so appealing. And when they fail, as they do in Night Moves and A Good Day to Die, they shade from appealing all the way to appalling. And it’s a fascinating thing to see.
This week, two of our staff writers here at The Millions are publishing novels. California, Edan Lepucki’s debut, is set in the near-future in northern California, where a young couple scratches out an existence after a series of environmental and economic calamities. Thanks to Sherman Alexie and Stephen Colbert, the book has generated a typhoon of buzz, leading to brisk pre-sales. The San Francisco Chronicle calls the novel “ambitious, powerful, frightening.”
Motor City Burning, Bill Morris’s third novel, is set during the 1968 baseball season in Detroit, where a white homicide cop is pursuing a black suspect, a disillusioned former civil rights activist, in the last unsolved killing from the previous summer’s apocalyptic riot. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that the novel displays “acute insight into the era’s fraught climate.” And Kirkus Reviews has called the story “an intense cat-and-mouse game.”
Edan, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, and fellow Millions staff writer Bill, who lives in New York City, recently had a conversation via email about the joys and perils of writing novels and shepherding them to publication. Here is that conversation:
Edan Lepucki: I really enjoyed Motor City Burning! It’s such a deftly drawn character study that also doesn’t scrimp on plot and big themes, like justice, purity of aims, and loyalty. The novel both invokes Detroit in the 1960s and also traffics in some classic crime novel tropes – but without succumbing to those tropes altogether. Do you see this is as a historical novel, a crime novel, or neither, or both? Or, really: how does its historical element affect its plot elements?
Bill Morris: I’m glad you think I didn’t succumb to the old tropes. That was something I was definitely trying to avoid. I guess I see this as a “historical crime novel,” if such a genre exists, because my starting point was the events of the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the pop music, and, especially, the summers of 1967 and 1968 in Detroit – and using that history to tell the story of a crime that actually happened, the last of the 43 killings during the ’67 riot.
I want to get the smoke-blowing out of the way up front. So I’ll just say it flat-out: California is a novel about a dystopian future, somewhere in the middle of the 21st century, when violent weather and economic collapse have divided America into the haves, who live in gated communities, and the have-nots, like the young couple Cal and Frida who live in the wilderness, scratching out an existence. I never would have guessed this is a first novel – because the withholding and revealing of information is done so deftly. Also, at the level of the sentence, there is great assurance. I’m guessing a lot of rewriting went into making such a polished final draft. Am I guessing right?
EL: Thanks, Bill! Reading yours, I could definitely tell you were not new to the novel dance: you write with such control and grace. It inspired me.
Most of the rewriting – and, make no mistake, there was a lot of rewriting! – had to do with plot and world building. I tend to write very clean first drafts, and what I have to work on later is the story. Thankfully, my characters were well in place, so editing was all about clarifying what had happened to L.A.; what the origins of Frida’s brother’s terrorist group were; and what happened to this enclosed outpost before Frida and Cal sought it out. My editor Allie Sommer had me write a timeline to make it easier to see the story more wholly. That helped; I usually write so intuitively, crafting pretty sentences and focusing on characters, that the story, the plot, gets neglected.
What about you? Did you know this novel’s architecture from the outset, or did it come to you as you wrote? How did you decide whose point of view to favor? Were black civil rights activist Willie Bledsoe and white detective Frank Doyle always the major players? What did it take to flesh them out into the complicated characters they are now?
BM: Your question about point of view brings back some painful history. This novel has been in the works, off and on, for 17 years. It has been through four titles, four agents, at least a dozen drafts, and more rejections than I care to count. In one draft, I tried to tell the story through alternating first-person voices, à la As I Lay Dying. This failure confirmed something I had long suspected: I’m no William Faulkner. Once I settled into a third-person omniscient voice – and worked to make myself invisible – things started to fall into place.
As for architecture, I knew my central story was going to be the hunt for the person responsible for the last unsolved killing from the 1967 Detroit riot; but I wanted to frame that story around the Detroit Tigers’ championship season of 1968. The story got a jump-start when I learned that Opening Day of the ’68 season was postponed by two days in deference to Martin Luther King’s funeral. So right away, the civil rights movement and baseball were winding together. I also knew I wanted a young black man from the South as the protagonist, someone who had been in the trenches with the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but got disillusioned with the movement’s leaders. Again, King’s funeral was the ideal way to introduce this character and his dilemma. Sometimes, when doing historical research, you get little gifts for your fiction. And as for fleshing out Willie Bledsoe, the burnt-out activist, and Frank Doyle, the white cop who’s after him, my main goal was to make both men imperfect, confused, and complicated. Detroit’s racial divide is one of the most complicated things in America, and I didn’t want there to be anything simplistic about it in this book.
Speaking of complicated, one of my favorite things about California is how Micah, the leader of the outpost you mentioned, got involved with a terrorist group that conducted suicide bombings Terrorists – especially eco-terrorists and guys like this “econo-terrorist” – make for fascinating fictional characters. I’m thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s new movie, Night Moves, and books like Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. Are those characters interesting because of their moral ambivalence, their willingness to do wrong in order to do right? Or do you think it’s something else?
EL: Wow, the journey of your book is astounding and is a good advertisement for tenacity and revision. And speaking of baseball, I loved the evocative descriptions of Tiger Stadium. I read them aloud to my husband, who is obsessed with the sport.
I love your interpretation of Micah. He was the most difficult character to write because I wanted to give him a humanity that persisted despite his evils, or perhaps was in danger of fading away because of said evils. Some readers have described him as a psychopath, but I don’t totally agree: Micah did at least begin with commendable ideals…and he also started out with something dark and damaged at his core. He is dangerous precisely because he is human: capable of being hurt and of wanting attention; driven by a desire to change the world but also a servant to an unquenchable ego. I wanted him to be a villain, but also a little brother. Frida can and can’t see his flaws because he is family.
Let’s talk about how your book got published after its long road. Who bought it, and how has the path to your pub date been?
BM: The book was bought by Jessica Case, an editor at Pegasus Books, a small independent publisher in New York City. The manuscript had been sleeping in a drawer for several years when I got a magazine assignment from Popular Mechanics in early 2012 – they wanted me to go back home to Detroit, talk to people, look around, and try to imagine what the city will be like a dozen years from now. I was very anxious that the assignment was going to be a bust, but when I got back to Detroit I was astonished by the energy, the enthusiasm, the sprouts amid the rubble. With Detroit so much in the news – and this was before the bankruptcy – I thought the time was right to try to give that old manuscript a pulse.
I revised the manuscript one more time and found a new agent, a human volcano named Alice Martell, who I’d met at the National Book Awards ceremony, where I’d gone to interview a client of hers who was a finalist. She agreed to look at my manuscript, she got it, and she sold it. The people at Pegasus have been amazing – not only Jessica’s editing, but the copyediting, the proofreading, and now the publicity push. Which reminds me, you did a couple of nice interviews for The Millions with your editor and copyeditor. Amid all the grim news about the publishing industry, I think we’ve both had pretty salutary experiences. Wouldn’t you agree?
EL: Yes, I too have had extremely positive experiences with my agent and editor and publicists at Little, Brown. I feel like they’ve put so much time and energy into making my book better, and getting it into readers’ hands. This book in many ways feels like a collaborative effort. I could not have gotten it out there on my own.
What was the editing experience with Jessica like? Allie, my editor, took me through a couple major revisions and she had very high standards. I learned a ton about revision from her. Was your editing experience similar to your previous ones, with your two other books?
BM: Jessica went over every word of the manuscript and made many small suggestions and several major ones – always stressing that they were suggestions, there for me to take or leave. I took almost every one because she’s smart and unbelievably thorough, and they made the book much better. Then the copyeditor, Deb Anderson, found new ways to improve the manuscript. And the proofreader, Phil Gaskill, caught inaccuracies and inconsistencies that never would have occurred to me. My first novel got a similarly thorough editing at Knopf, while my second got virtually none at Avon. Overall, this experience has renewed my faith in the publishing industry. People say nobody edits books anymore. Don’t believe them.
I just got finished reading today’s New York Times, and I was stunned to see a major feature article about you and California and how Stephen Colbert has taken up your cause as part of his ongoing campaign against Amazon on behalf of Hachette writers, including you. You mention in the article that the attention has alternated between being “icky” and “a fantasy.” Which side is winning out?
EL: Stunned is the right word – that’s how I feel! Mostly, the “fantasy” side is winning out; I feel enormously grateful and thrilled to have so much attention on my book. It’s so hard to get press for a novel, and this is just…just…crazy! I still feel badly that my good fortune is a product of this messy dispute between Amazon and Hachette. I wish I wasn’t the only author enjoying this bump; even though my fellow authors have been supportive and excited for me, I know there are many books that are getting a raw deal because of this dispute, and that does feel icky. But, yes, it’s really a spectacular turn of events. It just brings home for me how random it all is: there are tons of good books that don’t get much press. Why certain books take off like wildfire while others don’t is an enduring mystery to me. Right now I am just, again, stunned that California was plucked from the mountain of books. Also: wow, TV is still really powerful!
Now that your faith in writing fiction and publishing has been renewed, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
BM: I’m back at work on one of the novels I couldn’t sell during that 17-year dry spell. Like California, it’s set in the near future, but in New York City. I don’t want to say much more, but the working title is Garbage: A Love Story. How about you? Are you working on something new, or is selling California taking up all of your time and energy?
EL: I recently returned to Ucross, an artists’ retreat in Wyoming where I started California. There, I continued working on a novel I began almost a year ago, but which I only work on in fits and starts (between revisions and publicity and motherhood, I guess). I have about 150 pages. All I’ll say is that it’s contemporary, and there are women in it. I haven’t written much at all for the past month, sadly, but I look forward to diving back in once this publication hullabaloo dies down.
BM: Well, this publication hullaballoo is a necessary evil. I just hope California continues to sell like Krispy Kremes, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.
EL: Same to you, Bill!
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.