Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Birthday Card to Some of My Favorite Writers

According to my Facebook alerts and this morning's Writer's Almanac e-mail, today marks the birthday of Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Ayelet Waldman and the late great Grace Paley, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Naguib Mahfouz.  Lots of people are celebrating birthdays on December 11, but I was struck by this confluence of authors all on this one day.  Their parents must have been busy and--presumably--happy in the late-winter darkness of March in their respective birth-years.

Thomas McGuane
b. 1939
Wyandotte, Michigan

I've had the pleasure of meeting Mr. McGuane and, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the guy loves to laugh:
He'll be in the middle of a sentence when it starts somewhere just below his lungs, rolls upward, and breaks out over his teeth, often chopping off the trailing words of that sentence. I'd have expected nothing less from the man who once wrote: "That food was so bad I can't wait for it to become a turd and leave me" (the short story "Dogs"). As much as his fiction is peppered with wry, sly humor, so is the man.
The opening lines of his short story "Gallatin Canyon" from the collection of that same name aren't necessarily funny, but they are a good example of McGuane's unique style which moves along at a clip yet is also couched in language which feels like it belongs to another century:
      The day we planned the trip, I told Louise that I didn't like going to Idaho via the Gallatin Canyon. It's too narrow, and while trucks don't belong on this road, there they are, lots of them. Tourist pull-offs and wild animals on the highway complete the picture. We could have gone by way of Ennis, but Louise had learned that there were road repairs on Montana Highway 84—twelve miles of torn-up asphalt—in addition to its being rodeo weekend.
      "Do we have to go to Idaho?" she asked.
      I said I thought it was obvious. A lot rode on the success of our little jaunt, which was ostensibly to close the sale of a small car dealership I owned in the sleepy town of Rigby. But, since accepting the offer of a local buyer, I had received a far better one from elsewhere, which, my attorney said, I couldn't take unless my original buyer backed out—and he would only back out if he got sufficiently angry at me. Said my attorney, Make him mad. So I was headed to Rigby, Idaho, expressly to piss off a small-town businessman, who was trying to give me American money for a going concern on the strip east of town, and thereby make room for a rich Atlanta investor, new to our landscapes who needed this dealership as a kind of flagship for his other intentions. The question was how to provoke Rigby without arousing his suspicions, and I might have collected my thoughts a little better had I not had to battle trucks and tourists in the Gallatin Canyon.

Jim Harrison
b. 1937
Grayling, Michigan

Two years and about 220 miles separate McGuane and Harrison, but the distance between their literary styles is far shorter.  Like McGuane, Harrison's sensibility is founded on his Michigan upbringing and his fiction features male characters who are often cut adrift, looking to find their way through a bumpy, hairpin-curve world.  Both men now spend at least part of their time in Montana and the two are friends.  Harrison started his career as a poet and, according to Wikipedia, began writing fiction after he fell off a cliff while bird hunting.  During Harrison's recovery, McGuane suggested he try his hand at a novel.  The result was Wolf: a False Memoir.

To my discredit, I haven't read as much of Harrison's fiction as I should have--in fact, I've only read one novel: Sundog--but his books fill an entire shelf of my bookcase, waiting for me to finally get around them.  I'd probably start with one of his most famous works: the trio of novellas collected in Legends of the Fall.  Here are the opening lines to the title story from that book:
Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of them silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Ayelet Waldman
b. 1964

Like John Grisham, Waldman is a lawyer-turned-writer.  Unlike Grisham, her novels are funny.  At least her "Mommy-Track Mysteries" series is a hoot; her other work is decidedly more sober (novels like Red Hook Road and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits).  It appears that Waldman has no plans to write any more of her mystery series featuring Juliet Applebaum, "part-time sleuth and full-time mother."  And that's a real shame for those who like their detective novels as messy and interesting as a new mother's diaper bag.  Here are the opening lines to the second book in the series, The Big Nap:
I probably wasn't the first woman who had ever opened the door to the Fed Ex man wearing nothing from the waist up except for a bra. Odds are I was not even the first to do it in a nursing bra. But I'm willing to bet that no woman in a nursing bra had ever before greeted our apple-cheeked FedEx man with her flaps unsnapped and gaping wide open. You could see that in his face.

Naguib Mahfouz
b. 1911 (d. 2006)

Of the six authors celebrating birthdays today, Mahfouz is the only one I haven't read.  Normally, I'm not all that keen on political writing, but there seems to be an intensity to Mahfouz' work that draws me in.  As a consequence of his outspoken support for Anwar Sadat's Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1978, Mahfouz' books were banned in many Arab countries.  They were banned, that is, until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.  Funny how awards can suddenly make pariahs credible.  Like Salman Rushdie, Mahfouz lived under a series of death threats in the latter part of his life.  In 1994, Islamic extremists stabbed him in the neck outside his Cairo home.  He survived, but the nerves in his right hand were permanently damaged. After the attempted assassination, Mahfouz was unable to write for more than a few minutes a day and consequently produced fewer and fewer works before his death.  I have three of his novels on my shelf: Midaq Alley, Miramar, and The Thief and the Dogs.  Here are the opening lines from the latter which is about a Marxist thief who seeks revenge after his release from prison:
      Once more he breathed the air of freedom. But there was stifling dust in the air, almost unbearable heat, and no one was waiting for him; nothing but his blue suit and gym shoes.
      As the prison gate and its unconfessable miseries receded, the world—streets belabored by the sun, careening cars, crowds of people moving or still—returned.
      No one smiled or seemed happy. But who of these people could have suffered more than he had, with four years lost, taken from him by betrayal? And the hour was coming when he would confront them, when his rage would explode and burn, when those who had betrayed him would despair unto death, when treachery would pay for what it had done.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
b. 1918 (d. 2008)
Kislovodsk, Russia

Sometime around 1974, my aunt gave me a dog-eared, creased paperback copy of Cancer Ward.  She was a registered nurse and so I thought this was some sort of training manual she was passing along.  I took the book from her hands with a mixture of importance and apprehension.  The red cover was barely hanging on like a loose tooth and there were more than 500 pages--far more than my 11-year-old mind could comprehend reading at that time.  But read it I did.  And, as the saying goes, my life has never been the same since.  Apart from the Bible, it was the longest book I'd ever made it through in my young reading career to that point (with the Holy Word of God, I'd petered out in Leviticus, somewhere around the forty-seventh "begat").  Furthermore, it was interesting and, yes, a little depressing, but I stayed with it the whole way.  It wasn't until last year that I finally read Solzhenitsyn's much-slimmer classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and while I was profoundly moved by that book as well, it will always be Cancer Ward which has a special place in my heart.  Here are the opening lines:
On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13. Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov had never been and could never be a superstitious person, but his heart sank when they wrote "Wing 13" on his admission card. They should have had the ingenuity to assign number 13 to some kind of prosthetic or intestinal department.

Grace Paley
b. 1922 (d. 2007)
The Bronx

Here is another writer who shaped the course of my life as a reader and a budding author.  This time, it didn't take 550 pages; it only took 790 words.  More specifically, the short-short story "Wants" which I believe I first read in an anthology edited by Irving Howe and Ilana Wiener Howe (Short Shorts) sometime in the 1980s.  As with 99% of the people who have read "Wants," I sat there frozen after the last word, mouth dry, heart drumming.  I knew I'd just experienced a level of craft I could never achieve.  (The other 1% of "Wants"'s readers, by the way, are dead...and how they managed to read the story from their coffins is beyond me.)  A few years ago, I read Paley's Collected Stories and my first impressions were confirmed: she was not only a remarkable artisan of words, she was a fierce feminist and a staunch believer in the resiliency of the human spirit.  There will never be another Grace Paley, which is a good thing.  I'd hate to see strivers hurt themselves trying to climb up to where she stood above the rest of us.  The opening lines of "Wants":
      I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
      Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
      He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
      I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
      The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
      My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.

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