What the Deadmen Say
2Blowhards is a website that deals with everything from the fine arts to architecture to evolutionary biology. The tone is
accessible and enjoyable even when discussing subjects as arcane (to me) as quantam physics. Occasionally Michael there writes about popular culture. Last night's entry dealt partly with me. I'm including it here because I have some extra copies of the book he reviews available for $11. 3601 Skylark Lane SE, Cedar Rapids, Iow 52403. This'll be a trade pb. I'm also including it because I think it's representative of the fine work you'll find on this website.
It seems to me that an assumption many sophisticated American fiction readers make is that narrative fiction -- ie., fiction whose energies are mostly invested in the creation and "selling" of characters, situations, and storylines -- is, when you come right down to it, for kids.
Stories are felt to be like Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes -- supereasy, overbright, fizzy-poppy. Adults are supposed to have graduated to something more complex and substantial -- with complexity and substance understood to imply "literary fiction," ie., fiction whose energies are mainly invested in fashionable themes; fancy language; and writerly, linguistic, conceptual, and structural games.
Oh, realistically speaking, we all know that many educated adults enjoy spending occasional time with a thriller or a mystery novel -- but we agree to call that mere recreational reading. "Real reading," as we all know, is a more challenging, if not an actual slogging, kind of pursuit.
I think I know where this assumption comes from: from our English-lit educations. And I think I know how it's reinforced: through colleges, foundations, and virtually all the respectable bookchat outlets. Needless to say, I think this assumption is wrong, wrong, 100% wrong. I also think that it does a disservice to readers, to writers, to literature, and to pleasure more generally. I lay out most of my reasons and my evidence for this position in a series of postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and the way it shuns popular fiction: here, here, here, here, and here.
Lit-fict people who are curious about popular fiction will sometimes give it a try -- and good for them, of course. Typically, though, they don't make it very far. Flying without a map, they tend to sample titles from the bestseller lists. And, unsurprisingly, they often find that these books are every bit as bad as the enforcers of Lit-Fict Correctness say they are. Disappointed, our adventurers return to the lit-fict fold, resigned to the apparent fact that contemporary narrative fiction is written only for in-transit businesspeople.
It's really remarkable how many lit-fict people, even the open-minded among them, are convinced that contempo book-fiction divides up into only two camps: lit-fict, and top-ten bestsellers (and wannabes). If that were the case, I'd probably be a lit-fict addict myself. Happily, it's anything but the case. As with movies and music, there are plenty of gifted people out there creating first-class work in popular and accessible forms. You just have to know where and how to find it.
Hey, in the last couple of weeks I've turned up a couple of narrative book-fiction gems myself.
Ed Gorman's "What The Dead Men Say." I've long relished Ed Gorman's work as a short story writer and an anthologist; the man has done more for the cause of short fiction and miscellanies (two forms I adore) than anyone else I know of. More recently I've been a fan of his blog. But -- to my shame -- this 1990 western was the first novel of his that I've read. I'm pleased to report that I found it a knockout. From one point of view, it's merely a lean and trim genre piece. From another, it's remarkable: tough and direct, yet complex and shocking too.
Gorman doesn't violate the Western genre; he doesn't attempt to "do something with it" in the lit-fict sense either. Instead, he applies his brains and gifts to bringing the classic form and the classic elements of the form to bristling life. In other words, the novel is a morality-tale / chessgame involving archetypal characters and situations: the tenderfoot, the sherrif, the showdown, the hooker. His themes are classic too: the relationships between revenge and justice, the unpredictable yet inevitable unspooling of fate, manliness and authority.
As sonnet form seems like anything but a hindrance when it's in the hands of a fluent sonnet-writer, the Western in Gorman's hands seems like an amazingly expressive vehicle. As a piece of construction and writing, the book is terse yet canny, punctuated by rare but effective -- ie., shrewdly-judged -- verbal bursts. Gorman moves the point of view around in unshowy ways that always deepen and heighten, and he keeps injecting little psychological surprises that bump the story's tension level up a notch. The characters may be archetypes, but that doesn't keep them from bursting with persuasive and engaging life.
Gorman also provides enough earthy atmosphere, tang, and wonder for three books. Though its boots may be firmly planted in the muck, this novel makes a few quick visits to the stars. If you were ever curious about what a frontier town smelled like, you'll know by the end of "What The Dead Men Say." Though his characters are anything but thinkers, Gorman's empathy and imagination jogged my brain into contemplation of a surprising number of Larger Questions.
This blunt and methodical book about innocence, justice, and what it means to become a man delivers a real kick, as well as a generous helping of moral complexity and warm-blooded humanity. In its directness, and in its bleak yet charged impact, it reminded me of the renowned literary short stories of Raymond Carver. Me, I like Gorman's work better than Carver's. How great it is to be able to enjoy all that truth and observational juice plus a real story too.