Archive for November, 2010

Man, it is snowing like a mofo here, a perfectly horizontal march of particulate white blowing past outside the window on gusts that sound like they’re taking the roof off. A fine day to blog. And since my review of Thomas McGuane’s new novel Driving on the Rim just came out in the Missoula Independent (bless them for keeping me in occasional bylines during this terminal book-writing endeavor), figured I’d plaster that up here.

Here’s a sample:

It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose “pyrotechnics” (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.

Since those early salad days, it’s become reviewer’s sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on “quirky” scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane’s acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.

Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He’s a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It’s not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.

You can read the whole thing here.

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One of my fondest river-tripping memories is from the Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas, late 2001 I think. I was paddling a canoe and two dogs down a three-night jaunt, and one morning I found myself rounding a bend where a road dead-ended into an overlook. There was a car there, and a couple standing on the bank of a bluff a bit above me. They seemed excited to see someone on the river and the woman asked me where I was going. When I named the spot where I planned to take out a few days later, she pointed downstream and told me my destination was thataway.

Well no shit.

Which raises the question of why a river tripper would need a river map. You’re going thataway—thataway being downstream—until you get there. Otherwise, you’re working way too hard. And going the wrong way.

True enough, as far as it goes, and most of my river-running has been map-free, with the occasional exceptions of guidebooks identifying access points.

Salmon River, Idaho, October 2010.

But 80-mile wilderness whitewater trips on permitted and camping-limited rivers are different. It can be good to know when it’s starting to get dark that the tent-friendly sandbar next to the creek on river right is the last such opportunity for eight miles. It can be good to know which beachable slackwater is just a short hike from the Indian pictographs. Or the hot springs. And it can be good to know whether the next rapid is a read-and-run Class II or something hairier that you’d really rather pull out and scout.

So when I got a chance to glom on to a late-October run down the Salmon River in Idaho a few weeks ago, I bit the bullet and dropped $23.95 for this map covering the Middle Fork and main-stem Salmon. It’s produced by an outfit called RiverMaps out of Buda, Texas (which produces a whole series of western-state whitewater river maps) and it’s brilliant. For one thing, the maps are oriented such that when you strap it onto the cooler in front of you, both the right-side map and the left-side points-of-interest progress toward the top of the page, downstream, where you’re headed. I don’t know why all river maps aren’t made this way, but they’re not.

The coup de grace is that it’s waterproof. Mine got soaked, sloshed and sandblasted (and frozen into a hard roll when I left it on the porch the cold-ass night I got back), but with a defrost and a few swipes from a rag, it’s good as new.

Which is sweet, because I sure as hell hope to get a chance to use it again. This was my second trip on the so-called River of No Return, and I don’t expect to get tired of it anytime soon.

I’ve got some TRIP PICTURES ON FLICKR if you care to take a look.

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reading and/or writing

One of the (incredibly many) challenges I’m finding in trying to write a partially research-based book is trying to decide where the reading ends and the writing begins. It’s a false delineation for sure, because I can’t see how the reading is ever going to end, but a reasonably important question anyway, since the writing has to progress, simultaneously or otherwise. And the fact of the matter is that reading is easier than writing, and it’s awfully tempting to respond to writing difficulty with a fuck-it shrug, pad upstairs, and curl up on the couch with a highlighter and a book.

But then there’s always the hopeful chance that someone will pay me to write (I tend to subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”), and there ain’t nobody gonna pay me, alas, for sitting around and reading. (Though my friend Lorie may beg to differ: Hi Lorie!)

I’ve compiled a bibliography for my Opportunity, Montana book that’s now topped 60 titles and counting, of which I’ve so far read about two-thirds. The most recently read of this bunch is The Story of Copper, a 1924 title by one Watson Davis. There are contemporary trade titles on coal and uranium, among other elemental ingredients of human history and progress, and you might think there’d be one dealing with copper as well, but you’d be wrong. I’ve had a hell of time finding lay treatises on copper (shy of something like the not-exactly-page-turning Copper: A Materials Survey, by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines), so I was — I admit it — excited when I found this battered $5 copy of The Story of Copper in Butte’s Second Edition used-book store (a fine place to while away an afternoon, by the way, with a reasonably extensive and locally topical geology section).

This thing is swollen and moldy with water damage (otherwise I’m sure I would have been charged closer to $40 for the privilege), and it’s actually been a pretty damn good read, full of useful tidbits (who knew (and, arguably, who cares?) that New York City’s Grand Central Station, from tap screws to desk fans, contains 2,718,000 pounds of copper?).

The Story of Copper also contains perhaps my favorite sentence so far unearthed in all this digging. Davis opens a chapter titled “The Brass and Bronze of War” with this juicy bombshell:

A man can not be killed in an up-to-date manner without copper.

Umm: Go copper!

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