Monday, March 28, 2016

Jim Harrison

This week’s Reaper Report features, sadly, Jim Harrison, who dropped over dead at his desk a few days ago while working on a poem. The world is a less interesting place without him writing about it. I have to say, while I devoured his non-fiction, especially the stuff about food, and I was a fan of his poetry, I admired rather than loved his fiction. I knew it was good, certainly literature of a high order, and his descriptions of the natural world were lyrical and often beautiful, but I found his stories slow and his characters, even though they were often different, or not so different, versions of himself, not very compelling. I understand this is a lack of something in me, rather than a lack of something in his work.

I recently read a long interview with him, I can’t remember where, at the end of which he learns his wife of many years was dying, and he said that he didn’t know if he wanted, or could bear, to go on living without her. And he didn’t, so I guess he had made that decision.

His first famous book, Legends of the Fall, came out when I was under the influence of writers like Harrison who were putting out big, powerful books, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, strong books that impressed young men. I read Legends and understood why it was important, but I fell by the wayside when others, many others, followed. But now I’m an old man, not quite Harrison’s age but getting up there, so maybe it’s time to go back and read him again. Maybe I’m smarter now, wiser. Or maybe not. We'll see.

Here are some random quotes from some of the books, and random thoughts from Harrison. R.I.P.

“If you added it up, without her there was nothing--but with her even the simplest of gestures of walking a bird dog in the desert, or selecting the ingredients for a meal for two rather than one took on an ineffable charm.” Revenge

“His own life suddenly seemed repellently formal. Whom did he know or what did he know and whom did he love? Sitting on the stump under the burden of his father's death and even the mortality inherent in the dying, wildly colored canopy of leaves, he somehow understood that life was only what one did every day.... Nothing was like anything else, including himself, and everything was changing all of the time. He knew he couldn't perceive the change because he was changing too, along with everything else." The Man Who Gave Up His Name

“After dinner the Texan invited Cochran to accompany him to a whorehouse but he declined saying he'd feed, walk and water the horse.
'Strikes me you had a big day and some poontang might ease your mind.'
'Nope. Killed a man I hated today and I don't want to mix my pleasures. I want to lay in bed and think how good it felt.'
The Texan nodded and lit a cigar. He was no man's fool.”
Legends of the Fall

“Perhaps swimming was dancing in the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills, to swim through reed beds past wriggling water snakes and miniature turtles, to swim in small lakes, big lakes, Lake Michigan, to swim in small farm ponds, creeks, rivers, giant rivers where one was swept along easefully by the current, to swim naked alone at night when you were nineteen and so alone you felt like you were choking every waking moment, having left home for reasons more hormonal than rational; reasons having to do with the abstraction of the future and one's questionable place in the world of the future, an absurdity not the less harsh for being so widespread.”  Legends of the Fall

“Death steals everything except our stories.”

Saturday, March 5, 2016

First Things First

This week’s Reaper Report notes, alas, the passing of the great Pat Conroy. Most of you will have
your favorite Conroy books, and though I loved Prince of Tides, my favorite book of his is The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life. I have bought and given away many copies of this book over the years. It’s wonderful both for the recipes and the stories. My most requested recipe from my daughter is his creamed corn, which is truly delicious.

This entry is going to be a continuation of my last, about developing a voice for whatever you are writing. I believe that voice is the most important element in writing, and without a good one, one proper to your story, no matter how high concept your book is, it will not excel.

Todays subject is first lines. Book openers. We writers fuss over them for hours and hours because they set the tone for the entire book. Note how the following first lines telegraph the style in which the rest of the novel will be written and how some of them, while not necessarily snappy, set up the plot to come. We’ll give the honor of the first first line in this collection of great first lines, to Pat Conroy. RIP, Pat.

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Prince of Tides.

And the others, which, mostly, were lifted from writer Tyler Miller’s blog, The Black Cat Moan  

The first four are from Elmore Leonard.

“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”  — Freaky Deaky

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.”  — Glitz

“One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.”  — Gold Coast

“Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.”  — Bandits

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  — 1984, George Orwell

“By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953.”  — The Dead Zone  Stephen King

“This is the story of a lover’s triangle, I suppose you’d say — Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine. But I want you to understand that Christine was there first. She was Arnie’s first love, and while I wouldn’t presume to say for sure (not from whatever heights of wisdom I’ve attained in my twenty-two years, anyway), I think she was his only true love. So I call what happened a tragedy.” — Christine   King

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”  — IT  King

“She was standing at the center of the subway platform, waiting for the uptown train to come in, when the man stepped up to her and punched her.”  — Kiss, Ed McBain

“Suicide bombers are easy to spot.”  — Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

“Two hours before the accident occurred, Devlin Jamison drove over the crest of a hill on the pitted two-lane asphalt and saw, far below him, the multiple lanes of the east-west highway, the yellow octagon of the stop sign.”  — Cry Hard, Cry Fast, John D. MacDonald

“Ok, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.” — Decider, Dick Francis

“Ignatius Martin Parish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.”  — Horns, Joe Hill

“The legless man was wise enough to understand that heroes can be found in the damnedest places.”  — The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Don Robertson

“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.”  — Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler

All of you out there who are working on something, go back and look at your first line and ask yourself, Is it good? Is it great?