Monday, January 11, 2010

Escaping December: What I've Been Reading

Jim Harrison writes in so simple and straightforward a style that I’m always lulled into plot and place, only to be stunned from this transport by a line or two of unending beauty:

“…it occurred to her that she had to keep expanding her life so that her trauma would grow smaller and smaller.”

In “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the title novella in his just-published collection, Harrison describes Montana so accurately that my own memories of the place swirl with his details and the effect of years of removal. You don’t seem to truly know a place until you’ve left, a truth Harrison explores in subsequent stories. I remember fields of winter grass rising from snow and stretching out towards distant mountains – but now I remember them in connection with what it was like to grow up an outsider in your own skin, much as the farmer’s daughter, Sarah, does. Living outside the mainstream is one of Harrison’s main themes, and his characters are eccentric and charming in their awkward attempts to live self-determined lives (the third novella features a werewolf desperate for a lost love and unable to find the peace he wants in urban society – trust me, it works). The three novellas in “The Farmer’s Daughter” share as common denominators adolescent groping for sexuality, Patsy Cline’s “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,” tremendous appetites for the natural world and an earnest and sincere effort to transcend the limits of place through intellectual pursuits. In other words, they are about quiet self-sufficiency, and Harrison writes as though nothing else matters. After reading the book, I found myself wishing the world were a simpler place, but calmed by the idea that that place is something we can attain.

That place might even be our backyard. Robert Michael Pyle’s investigation into the phenomena of Bigfoot takes him across the west coast, from British Columbia down to the redwoods, although it focuses on a wilderness not far from Portland, Oregon. “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” is a treat for naturalists and native north-westerners, and the book is as much about what makes us human as it is about the mythical hominid in our forests. And it’s a really fun book, full of humor and grace and bursting with unusual facts and colorful people.

Pyle is a scientist and his writing leans towards narrative beauty and butterflies. They flit through pages as the shadows of Pyle’s prey flit through hemlock and fir. In one particularly gorgeous passage, Pyle describes the spectral flight of ghost moths in the darkness outside his tent, deep in the Dark Divide Wilderness. As an investigation of beauty and belief, this is powerful medicine. As a sociological investigation, this is magic. Pyle interviews Native American elders and storytellers, serious Bigfoot hunters and loony cranks, scientists and residents of dying logging towns. He favors hard science, but encounters doubt, and the unabashed joy he feels in hiking and camping in places like the Indian Heaven wilderness (one of my favorite places to hike in the northwest) was more than enough to forgive him for his faults. Pyle goes to real places – I’ve hiked where he hiked, camped where he camped, driven the same roads and visited the same towns – and even if his quarry is never proven to exist, Pyle successfully exposes what it is to be left to one’s own devices, deep in the winding ridges and forests of Washington state, alone with only eyes and ears and intuition to guide whatever perceptions and senses wilderness evidences. The world is a vast place, he suggests, and even the unknown deserves our respect, for it reflects upon us.

Pyle’s book is a winter read that makes me yearn for summer, quite unlike the Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler novels that I read over Christmas. I needed something escapist, and there’s nothing better than the adventure novels I grew up with. I know these books so well I can skip through most of the story and still feel the tension grow as the plot races towards climax.

As an adult, I disagree with Tom Clancy’s politics. His Jack Ryan novels started well with “The Hunt for Red October,” which focuses on a few people in the midst of something far larger than themselves. The sequence of novels ends with Ryan, a self-made man – as an outsider president, and the action in these later novels takes place on a world stage, with less focus on character than on plot. Clancy is great at the military techno-thriller, but as his main character evolved, right-leaning politics replaced some of the action, and I began to distance myself from the novels. As a child who moved frequently whenever my Air Force father was reassigned, I developed an appreciation and respect for the military and what they do, while simultaneously I cultivated a moral stance against violence and misapplication of force. Clancy is popular because his novels are intricate, well researched, and well plotted – and also because he worships the military and feigns a civilian’s outsider naïveté of government machinations. These are powerful attractions, but Clancy should stick with tanks and espionage. Not only is he better at it, but his prejudices don’t show as much.

Clive Cussler, however, has this and another, bigger problem entirely. I picked up my copy of “Raise the Titanic” and within a few pages, the quality of writing fell short of the Dan Brown standard. I loved this stuff as a kid, but I find it barely readable now. Early on, a husband and wife are arguing with each other at a White House reception:

“May I join the battle?” The request came from a little man with flaming red hair, nattily dressed in a blue dinner jacket. He had a precisely trimmed beard that matched the hair and complemented his piercing hazel eyes. To Seagram the voice seemed vaguely familiar, but he drew a blank on the face.

“Depends whose side you’re on,” Seagram said.

“Knowing your wife’s fetish for Women’s Lib,” the stranger said, “I’d be only too happy to join forces with her husband.

“You know Dana?”

“I should. I’m her boss.”

Seagram stared at him in amazement. “Then you must be – "

“Admiral James Sandecker,” Dana cut in, laughing, “Director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency…”

It doesn't get any better. “Raise the Titanic” was published in 1976, and while Cussler's later novels are stronger, they remain over-dramatic, overwrought, and factually inaccurate. They take enough leaps and bounds enough to make me reach for Clancy’s politics instead, and that’s sad, considering how much I once enjoyed reading about Dirk Pitt, his trusty Colt .45, and the beautiful women who fell at his feet when he rescued them from swarthy terrorists or international cabals.

I met Clive Cussler in 2008, when I introduced him to 200 people at a signing at my book store. He was a fun, elderly man basking in the warm glow of a life well spent – writing bestselling novels, organizing real-life treasure hunts, leading marine expeditions. The man behind the books had the fortune of living out fantasies in writing that his readers devoured, which helped fund his real-life searches for shipwrecks and underwater treasure. At the signing, the issue of the quality of his novels diminished, and I sensed that Cussler’s life and his novels mirror each other perfectly – they each celebrate the self-determined path, a plunging headlong into experience, with self-assured men transcending their place by successfully living both the armchair and the explorer life.

Borges wrote in a poem, “Seek for the pleasure of seeking, not of finding.” I understand that to mean always have something to look for, and go after it joyously – something all four of these writers understand well. We’re all looking for something in life, and how we get there is a way of our own choosing and of our own making. In that, there is art, and vice versa.

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