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mindreading McGuane

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.

river miles

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.

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!

looking back

Just did a short piece for the Texas Observer on one of my favorite Houston books, the long-out-of-print Sig Byrd’s Houston, which in my humble opinion stands tall in the company of the best of mid-century newspaper columnizing anywhere in the country.

A short excerpt of the short review:

The persons, places, and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents,” Byrd wrote in the book’s not-quite-boilerplate front matter. “Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader’s imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors.”

Byrd wrote a column called “The Stroller” for the daily Houston Press in the 1950s, and later for the Houston Chronicle. These stories were adapted from the columns. Byrd did not neglect to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors. He found them gassed up on Milam Street’s Catfish Reef and cutting vinyl sides in the Bloody Fifth Ward, shoeing horses on Vinegar Hill, and fishing for gar in the East End’s “bilge-green bayou.” Fun-gals and law-hawks; ex-boxers and lady bouncers; pachucos, pastors, poets, and ragpickers with handles like Twitchy Tess, Deacon Neal the Gospel Man, Sam Petro the Tomato King, and Don Antonio of the Segundo Barrio—each wearing what Byrd called “the story face,” wherein he discerned “truth with the bark off.”

You can read the entire review here.

Today the Missoula Independent published my review of Ivan Doig’s new Butte-based novel Work Song. You can READ THAT HERE, or not, but the most interesting things about Work Song was that it took me back to that other novel based in Butte: Dashiell Hammett’s first book, 1929’s Red Harvest. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Butte’s literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O’Malley’s memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock’s The War of the Copper Kings, Butte’s singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.

Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.

Red Harvest is set in “Personville” (nicknamed “Poisonville,” and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.

That’s where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett’s story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig’s poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest’s red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.

announcing a new blog

I took this picture the other day driving near my new home, near Georgetown Lake, Montana. I’m posting it here as a teaser to tempt you to my new blog, called “Opportunity, Montana,” which is intended as a kind of hybrid documentary/diary about the next half year (at least) I’m going to spend out here researching and writing a book by the same name about a town of the same name. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and if you’re interested you can see how by checking it out.

I just now — 2 minutes ago — finished reading War and Peace. All 1455 thin paperback pages of it. Sigh.

As I’ve mentioned, I started this little undertaking in September 2009, and have been progressing in dribs and drabs, mostly at bedtime, ever since. I’ve carried this doorstop with me to Argentina and Brazil and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Moscow, Russia, poking along. In October, just after I started, Philip Roth said, in an interview with The Daily Beast, “If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really,” so put an asterisk by the accomplishment — I’ll take it any way I can get it.

The last 50 pages or so was a king-hell slog. Tolstoy completely abandons the plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (the French had been beat back already, so…), leaving Pierre and the various Rostovs to their semi-restored estates, then embarks on a long and dense essayistic consideration of  free will, power, and the nature of history. Sample chapter-opening sentence:

History examines the manifestations of man’s free will in connection with the external world in time and in dependence on cause, that is, defines that free will by the laws of reason, and therefore history is a science only insofar as this free will is defined by these laws.”

I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that he disagrees with Neil Peart.

In keeping with this blog’s frequently obscured raison d’être, a certain personal peversity, and the aforementioned homestretch slog, I seriously considered not finishing it, just setting it aside at, say, page 1449, and in fact I saved the last chapters for days, savoring the unreached end of it, trying to decide which, ultimately, would be more interesting: to be able to say yes, I’ve read War and Peace, or to say, at some imaginary dinner party in my head, yeah, I read the first 1449 pages, but then I got bored and quit. I’m pretty sure the second would have been more interesting, but ultimately I just couldn’t help myself. And so now it’s over. And I can turn my attention back to the most dissimilar literary experience I can imagine: reading Game Change on my iPhone.

the view

Man, I don’t know why I’m so excited about this, but this is my first attempt at a digitally produced panorama, of Barton Pond on the Huron River across the street from my house, and I really like it.

really read

A few sentences I never thought I’d hear myself say, and yet have:

1) “I’m almost finished with War and Peace.” 2) “I just got back from Moscow.” And 3) [my favorite] “Excuse me, do you have this one in fox?”

Some explanation may be in order. I’ve been reading War and Peace since early September, a few chapters a night. It was part of a plan — part 1 — to read one especially long or difficult book I’ve always wanted to read per month during the eight months of my fellowship year here in Ann Arbor. Well my fellowship year turned out to be much busier than I expected — no complaints — and an 8-fat-books ambition stands now on the verge of a 1-fat-book achievement. I am at this moment on page 1328 of 1455 in the brick-like Signet Classic edition above, which is now nicely spine-cracked and starting to look like the horse I rode in on.

I’d hoped to finish it on a recent trip to Moscow (the fellowship again), but no such luck. Too busy. Too tired. Too otherwise occupied. And either I’ve gotten to where I don’t like reading on planes, or the 10-hour flight from New York to Moscow (and back) required more Zen than I could square with imbibing all that tiny type. I’ll be done in a few days. Or a week. Or so.

I’m loving it, by the way. Even the military stuff, which so far never seems to go on too long. Tolstoy (and presumably his translator here, Ann Dunnigan) possesses the useful trick of being being able to convey a tone of absolute moral authority, which I admire, and I’m hardly the first to notice, but the brevity and kick of his insights totally knocks my socks off.

Petya had been in a constant state of elation at being grown-up, and ecstatically eager not to miss any opportunity to do something really heroic. He was exceedingly delighted with what he saw and experienced in the army, but at the same time it always seemed to him that the most genuinely heroic exploits were being performed just where he did not happen to be. And he was in a hurry to get where he was not.”

I used to feel that way about parties.

So I was in Moscow, which has pretty incredible light (see Moscva River scene above) with a group of about 30 journalists and their spouses for eight days, during which we toured a flea market, met with wildly unpopular former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, chatted with retired chess champion and current leader of Russia’s political opposition Gary Kasparov, enjoyed an audience with billionaire oligarch, former KGB agent, and quasi-philanthropic press baron Alexander Lebedev (who announced his purchased of Britain’s Independent the day we were there), dined with Moscow-posted foreign correspondents, visited with archivists of Stalin-era terror, ate grilled meats whilst watching terribly distracting Azerbaijani dancers, ate something called Herring in a Fur Coat whilst trying not to gag, ate a Big Mac in the shadow of Red Square, and spent several hours every day riding Moscow’s gorgeous metro, two stations of which were blown up by female suicide bombers a day and a half after we boarded possibly the world’s shittiest plane home.

It was an adventure. I’m awfully glad to be back.

Oh, the fox thing. Russians are big on fur. Or at least they think tourists are. I was shopping for a fur hat. I ended up not buying one. My friend Raviv didn’t buy one either, but he did try on this fetching little bear number at right:

I took a lot of damn pictures. You can CHECK THEM OUT HERE.

my big 10 year

This is a little on the promotional side for my self-sabotaging taste, but the Big 10 Network recently produced this video on the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, and if anyone has been wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my year, this might provide a little insight. Plus, there are lots of pictures of the back of my head. Find them all and win something!