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Posts Tagged ‘Brad Tyer’

On the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau (which was yesterday; I was fishing), Beacon Press asked me to write a little sumthin about about what Thoreau “meant to me as a writer.” Here’s what I came up with, or you can read it in context on Beacon’s blog, the Beacon Broadside, here.

I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.

I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.

At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake. It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.

What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization. To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass…

Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.

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 I’ve driven me some plains. Nebraska stands out, in an outstanding in its field sort of way. North Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas.

Pretty friggin boring, driving, but not near as boring as I-10 between Fort Stockton and San Antonio Texas. Or hell, El Paso, though I did get woke up in the middle of the night by a freight train on that stretch, sleeping in the back of a pickup with a pretty girl, on the way home from a fine weekend in Albuquerque, so there was that. 

I got to review this book this week. I liked it, which is thankfully sort of beside the point. You can read that here in the Missoula Independent if you like.

Yup, I’m reviewing books with pictures now. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan. 

There’s a lot of good writing in here, or out there, and b&w photography worth looking at—I especially enjoy the idea of city boy Lee Friedlander traipsing around eastern Montana, always half-cocked for some sort of road out.

I’ve driven through, but the plains was never my place. I tend to think the plains aren’t most peoples’ place, not permanently, and I suspect the demographics will bear me out.

“Great Plains” is, however, the title of one of my all-time favorite books, by Ian Frazier. Annick Smith, Missoula’s literary den mother and co-editor of The Wide Open, called Ian “Sandy” when I asked about his absence from the new anthology over the phone. Sandy must have been busy.

Who isn’t? Can I call him Sandy now too?

The plains have inspired a reasonable amount of unexpectedly interesting American literature, of which I’ve read shallowly, but not disinterestedly. And here’s a related curiosity: a book I have read, but don’t possess (seems bassackwards, don’t it?): Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance. (And I dare anyone to write me a better sentence including three colons.) (And yes, I ripped off Raban for the review’s headline.)

It’s been so long since I’ve read the Frazier, though, that I can hardly remember with any specificity what I liked so very much about it. I think it has something to do with Sandy’s genuine interest in meeting people, an attribute I share only imperfectly. That, and I think I just love the company of his voice in the middle of all that nowhere.

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