Saturday, May 11, 2013

Thoughts on "Hell is Empty," a Longmire novel by Craig Johnson

It took some months before amiable Wyomingite Craig Johnson, who friended me out of the Twitter/Facebook blue (as have David Morrell and Peter Straub), emerged to me from the Internet’s blizzard as the novelist Craig Johnson, the one behind Longmire, the very popular, well-regarded, A&E cable crime series with a modern West setting.

I had earlier caught a couple of episodes of Longmire on the fly and liked it fine, especially for its outdoor Western setting and themes. But due to the tsunami of good TV these days—plus the need to get outside, like its title character--I pass on plenty of shows I might like (e.g., two new IFC series, Top of the Lake and Rectify.) And so, I let Longmire slide off my viewing plate.

To make up for my tardiness, I decided to read a Longmire novel. At the time, I was just finishing The Inferno of Dante when I noticed that canon classic was a central motif in the seventh novel, Hell Is Empty. I thought I’d give that horse a ride. I’m glad I did. (Another thread in this uncanny pattern: I gather the novel has also been adapted for Longmire’s second season, starting May 27.)

Walt Longmire is sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, in remote, rural north-central Wyoming, a great setting for adventure and imagination: wide-open spaces, rolling prairies, beckoning high blue mountains in the distance; peaceful on the surface, but occasionally turbulent, even more so when evil steals its way through the hills like a winter wind.

As Hell is Empty opens, Sheriff Walt is transporting three very bad criminals to a rendezvous with the FBI and a private security firm with security issues. The baddest of Walt’s passengers is Raynaud Shade (a nicely eerie name, maybe drawn from the European trickster myth of Reynard the Fox). Shade is a child-murdering sociopath with mystical pretensions and the teasing enigmatic manner of Anton Chigurh.

Walt and his two deputies play their part professionally, but the other teams do not. Quickly the bad guys break free, take hostages, and make for the snow-covered Bighorn Mountains. Walt Longmire, armed with pistol, rifle, and his deputy’s copy of the Inferno, singlehandedly sets off to track them down one by one through a series of hair-raising, ripping confrontations, through roaring blizzards and a really exciting and vivid forest firestorm, until he and Shade meet for the big showdown on an icy windswept summit in the Bighorn Mountains, a place empty like the Hell described in the epic poem.

While the manhunt plot seems routine, Hell Is Empty is refreshingly strange and eccentric. We urban folks tend to stereotype rural folks as redneck reactionary blanketheads, but, as anyone who spends enough time “out there” knows, they are often much more interesting—and smart and kindly--than anyone you meet on Internet comment boards, or the seedy alleys of big city America.

Certainly, that’s the case here: Walt and his posse are a mixed-raced band of eccentric autodidact bookworms, exurban outcasts, and even a Basque-American. They are “liberal” in some ways, not so in others. Native Americans, of course, figure largely here, but they are neither stone-faced suffering noble plaster saints nor drunken miserable savages. Johnson portrays them with common humanity, from very good to very bad, the whole range of human types.

The supernatural occasionally gleams pleasingly in the air, especially later on, when Walt is joined in his quest by his own Virgil, a mountain hermit with a ghostly manner, who seems to slip in and out on every gust of wind, between the curtain between life and death, like the mythic Wendigo.

The comparisons with Inferno are, fortunately, not overly neat. The writing is at its best in picturing the landscape, but it’s a bit confusing in the second chapter and also often baggy and overwritten in places.

The prose once in a while strains for effect ala Zane Grey, where the barbwire, frontier stoicism of Luke Short (my favorite western writer, with Clifton Adams and Larry McMurtry) might serve better emotionally. I also wish Walt would rein in his wisecracks a little. What, I’m wondering, would a modern literary genre hero who wasn’t such a compulsive wiseguy be like?

Walt (a direct descendant of Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon), is an especially pigheaded, go-it-alone hero: no matter how often the dispatcher pleads with him to wait for backup, as any modern police officer would, Walt plows on alone through ice, snow and fire, no matter what.

At first, this make Walt appear to be a rigid, overused Western stereotype, the man who’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and a bit of ego-driven bonehead on top. But the fact that Walt is also a recent widower adds a tinge of despair and suicidal wish fulfillment that could be the real spur driving his questionable tactics. It makes him an involving character.

As much as Walt is the hero, Death also keeps turning him away, sending him back down the mountain, away from this frozen Hell, not to his lost Beatrice in unknowable Heaven, but to the people he belongs with, whom he still needs and who still need him, the life still worth living in the beautiful land he calls home.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Alchemy of Fiction, The Inhabitants of the Story

When I read fiction, I’m seeking experience apart from mine; an island, a ship, afloat from everyday life (wondrous as the everyday can be in its own terms.) I want a trip to the other side of what I know.

I’m on a quest for adventures that I wouldn’t otherwise have (or even want to have). Reading fiction is a way of wearing and walking in the shoes of others; of thinking with another mind, seeing with other eyes, in another time and place. In the work of Vladimir Nabokov, you can almost caress the world with your fingertips. (If you gather I lean away from contemporary realism, such as the kind Jonathan Franzen writes, you’d be right.)

I don’t read fiction like a mirror, looking for my face (though when it happens, it is an amusing surprise; nevertheless, the room behind the face is never mine; no shower curtain, for example).

Nor do I read fiction for moral uplift, education, or noble ideas; even the most vivid and skillful historical novel should be read with salt sprinkled across its pages. (Nonfiction is still best door into the realities of human history, no matter how bitterly deconstructionists mutter otherwise as they crouch over their laptops at the coffee shop.)

Good fiction comes about through alchemy; a stirring of elements, all chopped, stirred, boiled, blended, basted, baked, and braised: setting, story, plot, thought, outlook, style, and imagination. There is calculation and discipline involved, but there is no science to it and hence no “formula.” There are no absolutes. The godly author can strangle a man in his bed on page one or let him doze for twenty-plus languorous pages as he dreamily muses over a favorite sugary confection. Either approach may work or it may not. (I’d go with strangling, but that’s just me.)

One more alchemical element is character—the inhabitants of the world within the book. While some writing teachers and workshops emphasize character as though it were all that matters—often leading to the kind of twee, static, lugubrious explorations of the heart that can freeze-dry mine—character in fiction does count for gold. Characters are the ground-fire of emotion.

Yes, my hero Nabokov loudly and publicly disdained such claims, but you only have to read Pnin—short, elegant, lovingly thin—to realize you should shake yet more salt across such comments, especially when made by a mischief-maker and gamester like him.

Somehow, the souls on the page, and the soul who put them there, have to clasp hands, even if only briefly and indirectly, with the soul with the book in his lap.

And so, at last, I come to David Corbett’s new book The Art of Character. David (logrolling alert: I know him personally) is the author of several acclaimed, acutely imagined, superb thrillers, including most recently Do They Know I’m Running? He now wields his adroit pen in nonfiction with The Art of Character, his generous and eloquent writer’s “toolkit” for creating the characters, the inhabitants of the fables, tales, and stories we tell.

This is a guide for serious writers, for those whose goals reach beyond the bestseller lists, that fleeting monument to notoriety and mediocrity (though I’d sure like the money); for writers ranging from the genius whose fingertips spark with fire to the genre chef who makes the best damn burger and fries you could wish for.

David provides a chapter-by-chapter array of approaches to nurturing and growing captivating fictional characters, mostly from novels with occasional examples from theatre (The Prize), film (Chinatown), and cable TV (The Sopranos).

You don’t have to read The Art of Character from cover to cover (as I did for this review); yet no single method discussed here stands completely alone. All of them are threaded in varying ways to varying degrees. “You don’t know yourself by yourself” David quotes a relative as advising him.

The same can apply to the techniques he offers here. Like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, it’s a good book to turn to when you’re up to your ankles in mud; or your weave seems too thin. It can shake  questions out your head that needs asking.

His first chapter, with the eerily apt title “Fingering Smoke,” discusses how characters are created through a blend of conscious creation and discovery. He warns against starting from archetypes, because of how they represent mere ideas rather than uniquely mysterious human experience and often become mere mouthpieces for the author’s opinions on things.

While an archetype can be a starting place, eventually the serious writer has to dig deeper to find the fuzzy border where archetype and humanity meet. (An example might be Richard Stark’s indelible thief, Parker, a representative of untrammeled individual freedom who is, if not appealing in the sentimental sense, is at least unnervingly understandable.)

The richest wells to draw from are the people in your own life, both those you know well and those you don’t. Genre writers have done this: Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Conan Doyle’s favorite med school teachers; John le CarrĂ© created Alec Leamas, the angst-torn Spy Who Came in from the Cold after a brief, wordless encounter with a stranger at an airport bar. Carla, from my novel Dragon’s Ark, is a blend of several women who have bounced and flown in and out my life, for moments and for hours, romantically and not, impossible to live with, impossible not to love.

Subsequent chapters propose exercises and techniques for mining your characters from your own life; probing your own psyche and emotions in the way some Method actors are trained, too (though, as a more comic writer, I resist this tendency); the five cornerstones of characterization; and more matters than I can fit comfortably here without you all clicking back to Kim Kardashian.

The Art of Character is big-hearted, fluid, rich, busy, well-worth keeping at hand. And a delight to read throughout for its patient and intelligent voice.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.