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What I’m Reading: ‘The Sourtoe Cocktail Club’

If I’ve triggered this damn thing to autopost at the proper time (8 a.m. Mountain, Wednesday, September 14th), I should, at this very moment, be sitting (or perhaps lying down) in a wonderful old hotel in Fort Benton, Montana, reading this extraordinary book by Ron Franscell:

I started The Sourtoe Cocktail Club about 10 days ago, but because of several factors — a vacation, my own projects, vast swaths of time lost to Facebook — I’ve been making incremental progress on it. But you know what? That’s good. Because this book, at least over the first 100 pages or so, is so damned good, so damned thought-provoking, so damned deeply felt that I really don’t want the experience to end.

The title is clever and on-point enough; Franscell and his son, Matt, set out for the Arctic a few years back in search of a bar where the drink specialty has a mummified human toe at the bottom of the glass. It’s the sort of title that is sure to attract attention, and that’s part of the game in bookselling. A big, hairy part of the game.

But you know what? The title doesn’t come close. This book should be called Life, The Whole Of It.

Franscell has written an unusually intimate, penetrating book about fathers and sons and how to get out in front of generations of screwed-up relationships. It’s a road book, a heart book, a deconstruction of many lives. It’s some of the most absorbing reading I’ve done in a long, long time.

Just read it.

You can whet your appetite here, with the book trailer:

Another Page: ‘Populuxe’

This tome by Thomas Hine, originally released in 1986, is one of my favorite books of the past twenty-five years.

It is part social dissertation, part spin through popular culture, part deconstruction of an era — particularly the baby boomer years — and total fun.

With a meticulous and fanciful eye, Hine shows how spartan consumer products like washers and dryers became fashion statements in the post-WWII years, when America was awash in cash, well-employed and moving to the suburbs to enjoy the good life. Utilitarian products became, instead, a way of measuring one’s station in life, a tradition that carries on today in our mine’s-better-than-yours gadgets and toys.

And about that name, Populuxe … well, here’s what Hine himself has to say in the book:

Populuxe is a synthetic word, created in the spirit of the many coined words of the time. Madison Avenue kept inventing words like “autodynamic,” which described a shape of car which made no sense aerodynamically. Gardol was an invisible shield that stopped bullets and hard-hit baseballs to dramatize the effectiveness of a toothpaste. It was more a metaphor than an ingredient. Slenderella was a way to lose weight, and maybe meet a prince besides. Like these synthetic words, Populuxe has readfly identifiable roots, and it reaches toward an ineffable emotion. It derives, of course, from populism and popularity, with just a fleeting allusion to pop art, which took Populuxe imagery and attitudes as subject matter. And it has luxury, popular luxury, luxury for all. This may be a contradiction in terms, but it is an expression of the spirit of the time and the rationale for many of the products that were produced. And, finally, Populuxe contains a thoroughly unnecessary “e,” to give it class. That final embellishment of a practical and straightforward invention is what makes the word Populuxe, well, Populuxe.

I have to admit that I lost track of Hine’s work after this book. One of the happy discoveries in researching this post was his most recent book, “The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (on a Shag Rug) in the Seventies.”

Yeah, I think I’ll be reading that one.

P.S. Notice something new on the website header? Come back tomorrow for details …

Another Page: ‘Lapsing Into a Comma’

Today, I conclude my two-part series on books that can help you improve your writing and self-editing. For Part One, go here.

My opinion: If you aim to write in a cogent, conversational style while still employing careful usage and grammar, your best bet is to get this book by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (a friend of the blog, by the way, but one who doesn’t know this post is coming).

I’m going to deviate just a bit into a personal story before I get back to the book at hand. When I broke into the newspaper business in–holy crap!–1988, all I wanted to be was a sportswriter. (Wait, that’s not entirely true: I really wanted to be an editorial columnist, a truly laughable proposition then and even more so now.) But after a few years of that, I stumbled into the notion that my skill set and sensibility were better suited for an inside-the-office job, as an editor who helped pull the newspaper together. In 1992, I made the full-on switch, decamping for the copy desk at the Texarkana Gazette. There, I was mostly a design guy, building pretty pages and making a cursory attempt to be a decent copy editor. I was aided by the fact that I had an instinct for language and sentence structure, but my grounding in the conventions of copy editing and in Associated Press style was not impressive.

As my career continued, I began to realize that I was nowhere near a top-flight designer nor a particularly strong copy editor, and I made a concerted effort to shore up my game across the board. My talent, such as it is, lay not in any one skill but in many of them: I became a serviceable, eventually good copy editor. I honed my design skills and became decent, even good, at that. I even went back to sportswriting, for a single, really bad Oakland Raiders season. Cathy Henkel, a friend and the former sports editor at the Seattle Times, once called me a “glue guy,” and I took it as the compliment she intended. I tried to make myself as close to indispensable as possible by being a capable hand at almost anything. (I should point out here that this happened largely in the days when one could actually be indispensable at a newspaper; the economy in general and the newspaper economy in particular have cast that era in sepia tone.)

To whatever extent I became a good copy editor, I owe it in large part to Bill Walsh. (See, I told you I’d get back to him and his book.) Long before he wrote his “curmudgeon’s guide to the many things that can go wrong in print,” he was constructing the bulk of the book at his website, The Slot, and I was reading it voraciously, along with almost every other newspaper copy editor I know. If you’ve never seen someone swoon over a copy editor, you haven’t been with Bill at a gathering of them. It’s pretty damned funny.

His success, with his site and with the book, lies first in the fact that he knows his stuff cold. But, look, grammar and usage points are medicine to most people, and Bill has a wonderful way of making the dosage enjoyable. He riffs on pop culture. He chooses memorable ways to get a point across. As an example of this, check out this entry from the Sharp Points section of his website:

“Welcome to The Gazette staff,” began a very welcome letter I received late in my senior year of college. It wasn’t the time or place to get nitpicky, but that sentence contained one of my many pet peeves.

“The” goes with “staff,” not “Gazette.” So, regardless of whether The Phoenix Gazette’s style is to cap its The, that particular capitalized “the” was just plain wrong.

To use yet another of my reductio ad absurdum analogies (I didn’t minor in philosophy for nothing), I submit the following:

If the president owed you money and you intended to collect, would you capitalize the “bill” in “I’m going to bill Clinton”?

If you love words and love contemplating how they fit together, you have to love an entry like that.

Get the book.

Another Page: ‘Woe Is I’

I’m going to spend the next two weeks on conversational, common-sense usage and grammar guides. For one thing, I pay the bulk of the bills as a professional copy editor, so these issues are important to me. For another, perhaps the most troubling things I see in new writers — and in far too many veterans — are sloppy uses of words and a fleeting grasp of grammar.

As my friend David Otey once pointed out (probably more eloquently than I will here): Writing that adheres to the conventions of grammar is not unoriginal and boring; it is, instead, a service to those who read it. If you’re a professional writer, or want to be one, lucidity is a noble aim.

First up is a fine book by Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

The brilliance of this book rests with O’Conner’s style, which is conversational and, at times, wickedly funny. Moreover, she does every reader a service by not only outlining the proper approach to style and grammar but also by taking dead aim at those hoary prohibitions that seem to persist, generation after generation.

I’m speaking here of split infinitives, split verb phrases, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, none as a plural, etc. In my line of work, far too many of the bosses who brought me up were slavish to these and other such bugaboos. (I once had a supervisor who said, with a straight face, that every word in the English language should mean only one thing, to cut down on the confusion.) They ran pieces through weird sets of filters that were partly rooted in established style and partly in pet peeves. What O’Conner tries to do is cut through the nonsense and arm writers and editors with solid information that will truly make a difference in how their work is presented. And she succeeds.

The beginning writer or editor will find this book a good primer on the basics. Someone with a few more years behind the plow will find clear-eyed backup and, perhaps, some new discoveries.

It’s highly recommended.

Next week: My second style and usage recommendation. Hint: It’s not Strunk & White. Indeed, I subscribe to the notion that The Elements of Style does far more harm than good, especially for beginning writers. But that’s a post for another time.

Another Page: ‘Bloom County Babylon’


This feature is supposed to be about books that have had a profound impact on me (or, in the case of guest posters, on others).

So I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this compendium, published in 1986. I was sixteen years old, and my sense of politics and humor — and the absurdity of everyday life — was just rounding into the form that, for better or worse, sticks with me today. Berke Breathed’s denizens — Milo Bloom, Mike Binkley, Steve Dallas, Bill the Cat, Opus, Hodgepodge, Portnoy, Oliver Wendell Jones and a coterie of others — were my constant companions back then.

As for proof of their lasting impact, I’ll give you this scene:

It’s March 2010, and I’ve just finished taping an interview with Chérie Newman of Montana Public Radio. A friend and I are standing outside the MPR studios on the University of Missoula campus, waiting for my wife and her sister to arrive so we can head off to lunch, and we start talking about “Bloom County.” What follows is a rapid-fire exchange of lines from the comic, word-perfect from memory:

“A TOOO-TOOO?” “No, No … It’s pronounced ‘tutu.’ “

“Leaving a trail of slime wherev-”

“I’ll just run it by our hot n’ juicy lawyers.”

“Careful, boy. I wouldn’t go a-puttin’ no prickly burrs up my tailpipe, if ya gets mah drift, ya little prairie poop.”

“I strangled Oakland.”

And so on. And luckily for me and every other “Bloom County” fan, there were other books. For the vast part of a decade, Berke Breathed was certainly the funniest and perhaps the most incisive social commentator of our time.

Even today, a reference to Deathtongue or Billy and the Boingers is apt to send me into peals of laughter. Opus the olive-loaf vigilante? Pure genius.

And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest that you get yourself a copy today.

Another Page: ‘Bound Like Grass’

One of the more remarkable books I’ve read in the past few years is this memoir, by Great Falls writer Ruth McLaughlin. In it, she details the story of her family’s struggle — ultimately unsuccessful — to survive on homesteaded land in the northeastern corner of Montana.

The impressive cover endorsements, from the likes of Mary Clearman Blew and Judy Blunt and William Kittredge, are both on-point and yet somehow lacking (and I say this not to denigrate those who praise McLaughlin’s book but rather as an attempt to feebly underscore just how original and striking the book really is).

Clearman Blew: “… Ruth McLaughlin refutes the romantic myths that have distorted our view of the agrarian past.”

Blunt: “Her voice is quiet, authentic, and respectful, even as she asks the hard questions and explores the hard truths.”

Kittredge: “These lives are absolutely American, and profoundly significant.”

All true, undeniably so.

Still, I struggled for a long time to put my finger on what, exactly, so captured me in the pages of McLaughlin’s book, and I may still fall short of a full answer. Here’s my best attempt: She writes so unblinkingly, without sentiment or equivocation, and yet so evocatively that I was propelled through the pages, knowing in my bones that McLaughlin was offering authenticity and whole-hearted examination of her life and the lives of those who lived alongside her, and yet never once did I see the storyteller’s strings. To read this book is to move into every corner of the human heart — not because you’re manipulated into doing so, but because that’s where McLaughlin’s clear-eyed and confidently voiced writing takes you.

Twice, I’ve heard McLaughlin read from this book — already a Montana Book Award winner — and each time, she chose an early chapter titled “Hunger.” There is much to consider there. Here’s a taste, where she contrasts her eating habits as a young woman, on her own for the first time, with her memories of the farm:

I ate what I wanted after work and gained weight. I found a store that carried fat red franks, and downed three or four at once. I bought half gallons of ice cream that I spooned from the box, huddled in bed to keep warm; I’d never had more than two scoops at once on top of Jell-O. Trembling from cold, my lips and tongue numb, I stopped just short of finishing the carton.

I could finally have all the ice cream that I wanted, I could turn bright red from franks (my brother maintains that the nitrates from our years of processed meat will keep us pink in our coffins long past death). But neither restored my depleted self as had my grandmother’s bath lunch.

Montanans who write memoirs often see their books compared, for good or ill, against Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. A longtime devotee of Doig’s, I haven’t found much merit in those comparisons. Until now. Ruth McLaughlin’s book stands well with that masterpiece, and on its own.

Another Page: ‘A Reader’s Manifesto’

This book is what I’ve been reading for the past few days. It’s not a new book; just new to me. And it entered my view at a time when I’ve really been struggling with some of the things I read, things that have received near-universal acclaim but leave me cold, never allowing me to slip out of my own world and into the realm of the characters on the page because the prose is so stultifyingly self-conscious. As I tend to come from a Potter Stewart-like sensibility about the merits of literature — I know what I like when I see it — I thought that B.R. Myers’ book might coagulate some of the thoughts I’ve been entertaining.

Did it succeed? Well, it sounds like a copout, and maybe it is, but yes and no.

Oh, where to begin:

First, the book is not at all falsely billed. If you use a word like manifesto in your title, you better come packing stridency and a take-no-prisoners approach to your topic. B.R. Myers certainly does. With a subtitle of “An Attack on the Growing  Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose,” Myers’ words live up to his stated objective. It’s definitely an attack, and there’s definitely pretentiousness in some quarters of literary prose in this country.

Second, the very things that validate the title — the relentless takedown of some of America’s best known and most highly regarded literary writers, the gleeful pounding of preeningly precious prose — are the things that give a more moderate reader pause. At several junctures, Myers attempts to crawl a bit too deeply into these writers’ heads, ascribing to them an intentionally deceptive approach to writing that sends things a bit too deep into conspiracy-theory land for my taste.

A good example of this is Myers’ examination of this selection from the E. Annie Proulx novel Accordion Crimes:

She stood there, amazed, rooted, seeing the grain of the wood of the barn clapboards, paint jawed away by sleet and driven sand, the unconcerned swallows darting and reappearing with insects clasped in their beaks looking like mustaches, the wind-ripped sky, the blank windows of the house, the old glass casting blue swirled reflections at her, the fountains of blood leaping from her stumped arms, even, in the first moment, hearing the wet thuds of her forearms against the barn and the bright sound of the metal striking.

Myers writes: “The last thing Proulx wants is for you to start wondering whether someone with blood spurting from severed arms is going to stand ‘rooted’ long enough to see more than one bird disappear, catch an insect, and reappear, or whether the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety.”

That’s a step too far for me. I’m happy to talk about the merits of the sentence, and Myers’ criticisms strike me as sound and reasonable, but I’m simply not willing to say what Proulx does or does not want from me or that she was quite deliberately trying to draw my attention away from the questions Myers poses. And that’s the thing: Myers does this continually in the book, with each of the writers he goes after.

The book focuses its takedowns on five authors: Proulx (oh, how Myers delights in tearing into her, even holding up a book’s dedication to withering criticism), Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster and David Guterson, dropping them, respectively, into categories of “evocative,” “edgy,” “muscular,” “spare” and “generic literary.” The first four, you might well note, are some of the most common adjectives in reviews of literary work.

Where Myers succeeds most thoroughly is in the sheer number of pretentious passages he unearths, demonstrating convincingly that the perception of deep literary value is often nothing more than a trick of the light, a way of arranging the words to achieve a tonal effect that, when deconstructed, reveals little.

Here’s one from McCarthy, a snippet that employs the “andelope,” a word made up by Myers that denotes “a breathless string of simple declarative statements linked by the conjunction and“:

He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her.

Myers writes: “… the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the methodical meal that is being described. Not for nothing do thriller writers save this kind of breathless syntax for climactic scenes of violence. … And why does McCarthy repeat tortilla? When Hemingway writes, ‘small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers’ (‘In Another Country,’ 1927) he is, as David Lodge points out, using wind in two different senses, and creating two sharp images in the simplest way possible.”

That’s good stuff.

The book teems with examples like that, with level-headed, sensible explanations of why such affectations often are pointless. And Myers certainly is correct when he says that such pretentiousness is multiplying as newer writers, who genuflect at these altars, commit similarly errant prose in their own work. The evidence is out there, on bookstore shelves, for anyone who cares to look for it.

Here again, though, I end up feeling a bit hinky about endorsing Myers’ findings to the point of zealotry. I’m reminded of conversations with friends — some of which I’ve detailed previously — who like this kind of writing. I don’t think they like it because they’ve been brainwashed or they’re unable to see the merits in more workmanlike prose. They simply like what they like, and in the end, isn’t this true of all of us? (That brings to mind another conversation I had a couple of years ago with a high school friend, who was arguing vociferously for the objective standard of good art, while I was taking, as I’m wont to do, the more populist approach. He got a bit angry with me, and I responded with this: “You’re just pissed off because I refuse to tell Britney Spears fans that they’re wrong.” That seemed to lighten the mood, if not settle the dispute.)

In the latter part of the book, Myers deals directly with critics of the original Atlantic article that became the basis of the book. He defends himself well — and rather seems to enjoy it, so much so that I’m a little worried he’ll find this piece and tell me that I’m a two-bit hack clown. Luckily, I’ve been called worse.

Finally, he wraps up with “Ten Rules for ‘Serious’ Writers.” For me, this was the most disappointing part of the book, juvenile and predictable. Here’s a taste:

I. Be Writerly: Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out. This is the whole of the law; the rest is gloss.

Coming at the end of a long, fascinating piece as they do, these rules smack of taunting and repetition. I really wish Myers had left them out; if any reader comes across them ripe to be swayed, he will more likely be turned off.

In total, though, it’s a worthwhile, illuminating read. Myers brings out the long knives and carves up a lot of writing, and regardless of where you stand, his points are so learned and well-argued that it’s worth considering what he has to say. I came away from the book with a clearer mind about what I’ve been reading lately but also with the motivation to better acquaint myself with the work of those authors Myers attempts to slaughter. A good example: I’ve not read Paul Auster, and I found myself enjoying many of the selections of his that Myers was holding up to ridicule. I also remembered, even as I guffawed at some of the McCarthy criticism, that I found No Country For Old Men and The Road — the only two McCarthy titles I’ve read — artful and moving. Same with Proulx, who for whatever flaws Myers might have exposed has written some breathtaking stories.

In other words, I emerged from the pages of Myers’ book with respect for its message and with my own sensibility, however flawed, still intact.

Another Page: ‘Catcher in the Rye’

J. Gregory Smith

By J. Gregory Smith

This past Father’s Day had me thinking about and missing my Dad, who passed away five years ago.  I remember one of his early jobs in journalism.  He was one of very few reporters granted an interview with the reclusive J.D. Salinger.

Given that honor, you might think I would have had an added interest in reading Salinger’s work.  You’d be mistaken, at least back when I was in high school in the early eighties.  Back then, my priorities were avoiding work along with consequences of the mischief I caused to fill what should have been productive time.

Case in point: a fine Sunday that followed an entertaining Saturday unmarred by a trace of academia, including reading  The Catcher in the Rye, due in its entirety the next day.

Not a problem.  I had a plan.

Back in those days, we couldn’t Google the book and get the finer literary points at the click of a mouse.  No, we had to get off our butts and earn our shortcuts.

Off to the local bookstore, I perused the racks of the slacker’s best friend.  I didn’t see the condensed tribute to J.D.’s masterpiece.  Undaunted, I went the extra mile and marched to the front desk.

“Do you have the Cliff’s Notes for The Catcher in the Rye?”  I had cash in hand.

“Why?  It’s a great book.  You should read it.”

“So, you don’t have it?” Did he not see the bills ready to leap from my fingers?

“No. You should read it.”

I suspected he had a stack of them behind the counter, but could see I was wasting my time.  Those notes weren’t going to read themselves.

I decamped for one of his competitors.  Again, I found I wide selection of curtailed classics, but Catcher wasn’t among them.  I sought assistance, only to hit the same wall.

A lady this time.  “Why?  It’s a great book.  You should read it.”

“Um.  Well it’s due tomorrow and …” I knew this was weak and began to wither under the repeated disapproval.

“You shouldn’t have waited so long.  You should read it.”

By now, I was determined to get my hands on those notes even if I had to disappoint every bookshop in the city.

I knew they couldn’t be colluding against me, but each time, without fail, all responded: “It’s a great book. You should read it.”

That afternoon, I waved the white flag.  I stormed home in a frustrated huff, picked up my copy of the actual novel and read the entire book in one sitting.

They were right.

Maybe a book about a sullen, lost teenager was just the right speed for a sixteen-year-old, but in many ways this book represented a turning point for me. I’d learned grownups weren’t always wrong, and also sometimes it was easier to just buckle down and do the work than find ways around it.

That memory gets me through days when writing feels like work.  Even when I’m plowing through a dreary section of prose (that I know I’ll cut later) I understand I might never find the gem just past it if I don’t put in the grunt work.

J. Gregory Smith is the author of the thriller Final Price, published by AmazonEncore.  He has written two other thrillers and a YA novel.  He is currently working on the third book in the Final Price series.  You can follow news of upcoming books on Facebook or Twitter (JGregorySmith3).

Another Page: ‘The Wayward Bus’

Of John Steinbeck’s titles, I regularly re-read three.

The first two aren’t likely to be surprises: Of Mice and Men (to remind me that a novel need not be long to be brilliant) and Travels With Charley (even though much of the rustic appeal apparently was embellished, if not outright made up, my heart was cast long ago).

The third, however, isn’t one you hear much about. And yet, in upward of 10 readings, I’ve consistently made new discoveries in The Wayward Bus. As years and experience and gains and losses shape me, the arc of the story and the characters on the page seem to shift, giving me new insights into this motley band of travelers Steinbeck assembled.

The book, published in 1947, is considered one of Steinbeck’s weaker efforts, and perhaps that, in some perverse way, is one of the things I like about it. (Although I still believe it’s leagues better than, say, The Winter of Our Discontent.) It’s certainly atypical of his work, most of which was imbued with an optimistic outlook about humans and human nature. In this book, though, there is much to dislike in almost everyone, notably Juan Chicoy, who owns a restaurant and runs a connection bus line; Alice, his suffering and insufferable wife; Norma, the live-in waitress at the Chicoys’ restaurant who has pointed her star to Hollywood (and almost certain disappointment); and a collection of passengers highlighted by a strutting businessman, his mousy wife and their college-age daughter, Mildred. Perhaps the most sympathetic character, Juan’s teenage apprentice Pimples Carson, is pitiable more than anything else.

And yet, there’s something about the tossed-together dynamic of driver and human cargo that illuminates some disquieting truths about we humans and how we interact. Anyone who has ever ridden a bus cross-country knows that Steinbeck has pegged what that experience is like — even without the breakdowns (mechanical and personal), the tryst and the recriminations that mark this work.

Beyond all that, I find myself responding to this book in much the same way that I respond to nearly everything Steinbeck wrote: I marvel at his control of story, the way he softly treads through lovely prose (unlike so many literary writers these days who fertilize their stories with stacks of precious sentences, choking the more workmanlike writing that would allow their lyrical language to stand out), his masterful evocation of time and place.

I recommend it highly.

Another Page: ‘Cujo’*

* — aka, “The Horror Novel That Isn’t Really a Horror Novel Nor Is It Really About a Rabid and Murderous Saint Bernard”


Jim Thomsen

By Jim Thomsen

I never had a “Hemingway moment” as a kid, as most modern-day male writers have. Nor a Steinbeck one, though my inner road-tripper was mesmerized by Travels With Charley. My tastes tended toward Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and trended in my young teens toward Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and true crime. In retrospect, I see now that I liked (a) painless diversionary fare that (b) allowed me to project my own fantasies for dark adventure in a safe and silent way.

None of that explains why I felt a strange ping in my solar plexus the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. It was the fall of 1981, and I was a junior in a Christian boarding high school. And as a social maladroit, I spent large swaths of time staring out of my dormitory window being bored out of my Christian gourd.

One of the fellow doinks in my dorm had lent me a stack of horror paperbacks, and the one on top was Cujo. I don’t know why I even opened it, based on the back jacket copy: A big friendly dog chases a rabbit into a hidden underground cave—and stirs a sleeping evil crueler than death itself. A terrified four-year-old boy sees his bedroom closet door swing open untouched by human hands, and screams at the unholy red eyes gleaming in the darkness ….

I am not a bit into tales of the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial, so I am surprised that I bothered to crack the cover. I have always preferred tales of hardcore reality in everyday circumstances (which made my unfortunate side trip into Cussler-dom a blessedly brief one). Somehow I got past that and into the story, and discovered three things with the aforementioned zing:

  • Cujo is not really a story about a rabid, murderous dog. It’s a nuanced, bittersweet, deeply real tale of anger, love, marriage and corrosive compromise.
  • The language. The voice. Oh, my God. I never knew that a writer’s voice could be so original, so brimming with feeling, and yet so wise and crisp and literate. And so unaffected. And so awesome. Holy crap!
  • The characters come to fully realized life in a way I’d never seen in a novel before, and haven’t all that often in the thousands of literary novels I’ve read in the thirty years since.

Oh, yeah, and No. 4. There’s story, and there’s more story, and then there’s even more story.

Here’s an example that encompasses all four of the above virtues … and it concerns a secondary character in Cujo, for crying out loud.

His grateful country had given him the Distinguished Service Cross. A grateful hospital staff in Paris had discharged him in February 1945 with an 80 percent disability pension and a gold-plated monkey on his back. A grateful hometown gave him a parade on the Fourth of July (by then he was twenty-one instead of twenty, able to vote, his hair graying around the temples, and he felt all of seven hundred, thank you very much). The grateful town selectmen had remanded the property taxes on the Pervier place in perpetuity. That was good, because he would have lost it twenty years ago otherwise. He had replaced the morphine he could no longer obtain with high-tension booze and had then proceeded to get about his life’s work, which was killing himself as slowly and pleasantly as he could.

Now, in 1980, Gary Pervier was fifty-six years old, totally gray, and meaner than a bull with a jackhandle up its ass.

I find that just about perfect. It sets a scene. It establishes a character (a very Hemingway character, at that). It makes backstory, often a dreary undertaking for most writers, as fun as the front story. And it does so with remarkable insight in an utterly effortless shoot-the-shit tone. Most writers, I suspect, couldn’t resist the self-conscious impulse to doll this up with prose with something purple like “puffy rolls of fishbelly flesh pitched and rolled on his ancient and agonized bones, fueled by nothing more thin blood and strong alcohol.” Because, you know, in the literary tradition, seediness is next to godliness.

But that passage, as wonderful as it is, isn’t really what the book’s about. (I’m giving away very little when I say that Gary Pervier, the poor bastard, never makes it to fifty-seven.) Cujo is about two couples fighting mortal battles for the souls of their unions and their children. Vic Trenton is a man at the end of his tether, fighting to save his advertising business even as he fights a battle within himself about whether to keep his family intact in the aftermath of his wife Donna’s confessed infidelities. Charity Camber is fighting to keep alive her dreams for her ten-year-old son’s future from the coarse, alcohol-crushed clutches of her contentedly white-trash husband, Joe.

But none of these characters are as sympathetic — or unsympathetic — as they sound. Joe Camber isn’t really a bad guy, and Donna Trenton is no shrewish whore. And that’s the story with real people, as opposed to people usually found in literature. Most writers don’t have the space or patience or skill to develop multi-dimensional characters. Genre writers are often too busy shaping the traits of their characters to the demands of their plots; literary writers are often more concerned with crafting perfect sentences to describe their characters than with the characters themselves.

King’s talent, by contrast, is so ridiculously off the charts that he manages to have it every which way. He spends pages and pages on the turmoils in the Trenton and Camber households, and the reader doesn’t notice that we haven’t seen the rabid, eponymous Saint Bernard in twenty or so pages at any given time because King has crafted unbearable suspense in the spaces between the words of the husbands and the wives, making everything they say — and don’t say — like a sprint through a minefield at darkest midnight.

An example:

They walked together to the stairs.

Donna asked, “So what comes next, Vic?”

He shook his head. “I just don’t know.”

“Do I write ‘I promise to never fuck the local tennis bum again’ five hundred times on the blackboard and miss recess? Do we get a divorce? Do we never mention it again? What?” She didn’t feel hysterical, only tired, but her voice was rising in a way she didn’t like and hadn’t intended. The shame was the worst, the shame of being found out and seeing how it had punched his face in. And she hated him as well as herself for making her feel so badly ashamed, because she didn’t believe she was responsible for the factors leading up to the final decision to fuck Steve Kemp — if there ever had been anything so thinking as a decision.

“We ought to be able to get it together,” he muttered, but she did not mistake him; he wasn’t talking to her. “This thing —” He looked at her pleadingly. “He was the only one, wasn’t he?”

It was the one unforgivable question, the one he had no right to ask. She left him then, almost ran up the stairs, before everything could spill out, the stupid recriminations and accusations that would not solve anything but only muddy up whatever weak honesty they had been able to manage.

I can’t help but think that most genre writers would never think to probe this part of their characters’ psyches — and now, back to our gun-riddled chase scene, folks — and that most literary writers would dance around it, forsaking direct dialogue for deep searching studies of the strained planes of the patrician bones of Donna Trenton’s face under her ashen skin and the allegedly immutable truths contained within each sweat-stung pore and puckered fold around the eyes. King cares, and cares and cares and cares, page after page after page.

This is where his critics over the decades have gone horribly wrong: King is not a horror writer. He is a teller of stories about people whose character traits — the full messy buffet plate of them — emerge in horrific situations. Which, yes, sometimes involve vampires, telekinetic teens, underground creatures, postapocalyptic satanic figures and Chryslers possessed by the souls of cranky old men. And, of course, rabid Saint Bernards. And I say, so fucking what?

I could belabor the point, but the point here isn’t to get into a critical dissection of Stephen King’s man-of-letters credentials, it’s to geek out about a book I loved at a time when I needed not only a quality diversion but also quality beyond diversion, as can only be needed by a boy at a time when he’s trying to fumble his way toward being a man.

Not that the diversions themselves weren’t lighting up my nerve endings. I can remember reading in the bed of my dorm room after lights-out, balancing a flashlight on my pillow, thoughts of sleep driven away by a surge of adrenaline as I took in passages like this:

She looked out the car window, saw the baseball bat lying in the high grass, and opened the car door.

In the dark mouth of the garage, Cujo stood up and began to advance slowly, blood-flecked head lowered, down the crushed gravel toward her.

“Come on then, motherfucker,” she whispered.

It was twelve-thirty when Donna Trenton stepped out of her Pinto for the last time.

Thirty years later, I still get the chills when I read those few paragraphs. That is the power of Stephen King. The enduring power. Where’s my flashlight?

Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at

Another Page: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’

By Ron Franscell

For Whom the Bell Tolls was the first Hemingway I ever read. I was a high school kid in the early 1970s, working on my campus newspaper, newly graduated from Jack London but not yet ready for Jack Kerouac.

To my young eyes, it was a good action story: Robert Jordan, the passionate American teacher, joins a band of armed gypsies in the Spanish Civil War. He believes one man can make a difference. The whole novel covers just 68 hours, during which Jordan must find a way to blow up a key bridge behind enemy lines. In that short time, Jordan also falls in love with Maria, a beautiful Spanish woman who has been raped by enemy soldiers. The whole spectrum of literature was refracted through the prism of my youth: Good guys and bad guys, sex and blood, life and death. For me, just a boy, the journey from abstraction to clarity was only just beginning.

On the occasion of Hemingway’s centennial in 1999, the Chicago Sun-Times asked me to reflect on For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Re-reading it at 42 (roughly the age Hemingway was when he published it), I had lost my ability to see things clearly in black and white. My vision was blurred by irony, as I noted that two enemies, the moral killer Anselmo and the sympathetic fascist Lieutenant Berrendo, utter the very same prayer. For the first time, I saw that the book opens with Robert Jordan lying on the “pine-needled floor of the forest” and closes as he feels his heart pounding against the “pine needle floor of the forest”; Jordan ends as he begins, perhaps having never really moved. I certainly could never have seen at 16 how dying well might be more consequential than living well. And somehow the light had changed over those intervening 26 years, so that I truly understood how the earth can move.

As a teen, I missed another crucial element, even though Vietnam was still a seeping wound. Three pivotal days in Jordan’s life force him to question his own role in a futile war. He wonders if dying for a political cause might be too wasteful, but he ultimately believes that dying to save another individual is a man’s most heroic act.

The book’s title is taken from John Donne’s celebrated poem: “No man is an Iland … and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” It was not about loneliness and aloneness, as I once had thought, but about the seamless fabric of all life: What happens to one happens to all.

I am not blind to Hemingway’s flaws. He was a good short writer, and what was short was almost always better. Pilar’s tale on the mountainside has been widely acclaimed as the most powerful of Hemingway’s prose. Her story within a story is nothing less than a contemporary myth.

For Whom the Bell Tolls has also been regarded as Hemingway’s capitulation to critics who barked that his innovative style was too lean, and as a consciously commercial exercise for which Hollywood might (and did) pay handsomely. Robert Jordan, in so many respects, was a tragic mythical hero in the vein of Achilles, Gawain and Samson. For Whom the Bell Tolls ranks as one of the great American war novels in a country that has always struggled with the concept of good and bad wars — as we are at this very moment.

It also ranks among the stories — alongside John Fowles’ The Magus and W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe — that made me want to be a writer. It was simple: I wanted to make people feel the way Hemingway made me feel. Only time will tell if I chose correctly.

Ron Franscell is the bestselling author of THE DARKEST NIGHT and DELIVERED FROM EVIL. His next book, THE SOURTOE COCKTAIL CLUB, will be published in October by Globe Pequot Press.

Another Page: The books of Emily Carr

O. Alan Weltzien

By O. Alan Weltzien

I have just been reading the four (short) nonfiction books written back in the early 1940s by the great British Columbian painter Emily Carr.  I have long wanted to read the first and shortest of those, Klee-Wyck.  For anyone interested in getting the feel of temperate zone rainforest; of Haida Indians, totem poles, and the British Columbian coast and Queen Charlotte Islands, this little book is indispensable.  Many years ago I toured Carr’s home in Victoria, B.C., and I’ve never forgotten the impression her canvasses left on me.  Carr is a staggering painter, almost like a rainforest Georgia O’Keefe, and her evocations of forests and tribal peoples are enduring and remarkable.  Carr often writes as she paints:  impressionistically.  She sketches quickly and surely, and her metaphors often spring off the page as she forever charges with life the scene she’s evoking.  The brooding presence of totem poles aged by chronic rain clings to the reader as it did to the writer.

The other three volumes – The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains – all trace her autobiography.  “Small” was her self-chosen nickname in her large family, and this volume chronicles her childhood.  Carr ran a boarding house for twenty-two years, and the ever-changing motley crew in her rooms form the primary attention of the third volume — along with her kennel of dogs.  The final, longest volume traces her difficult adolescence and adulthood, trying to find her own place in the provincial art scene of British Columbia.  It wasn’t until middle age that Carr finally achieved a large reputation.  She was famously independent and eccentric, often seen on the streets of her native city with dogs and pet monkey, if not other pets, in two.  In Carr’s time, it was a difficult as any time for a painter who happened to be a woman, finding some reputation and acclaim.  Carr famously beat the odds.


O. Alan Weltzien is an English professor at the University of Montana Western and an authority on Montana literature. He is the author of the memoir A Father and an Island: Reflections on Loss (2008, Lewis-Clark Press) and a forthcoming book of poems, To Kilimanjaro and Back (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011).


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Another Page: ‘A Farewell to Arms’

This is the book that did it. The one that made me want to write fiction.

I’ve written before — a couple of times, actually — about how Hemingway’s prose resonated with me on a structural level. No need to plow back over that ground.

No, this is a love letter not to Papa but to the woman who compelled me to read him for the first time: Janelle Eklund, my junior-year English teacher at Richland High School, whose assignment of A Farewell to Arms absolutely changed the way I read.

She and her husband, Rolf, my U.S. history teacher that year, were absolutely born to do the work of high school teachers. It wasn’t just about imparting a curriculum or teaching us in a way that maximized our performance on standardized tests. The Eklunds stretched their students’ imagination and challenged them to develop critical-thinking skills. Twenty-three years clear of high school, I find that I’m much better served by the ability to think and engage than I am by the simple regurgitation of facts. More than anything else, that’s what I remember about the Eklunds. They prepared their students for life beyond the classroom even while giving them an education in it.

I’ve published two novels now, and both of them have been read in first-draft form by Janelle. (Rolf, rest his soul, left us several years ago.) She doesn’t wield the red pen the same way she did all those years ago, but that’s okay. I offer her the words as a way of thanking her for inspiring in me a love of writing and for caring what happened to me long after I left her stewardship.

I’ll never, ever be able to repay her.

Another Page: ‘The Big Book of Amazing Facts’

What, you were expecting Shakespeare?

As much as any book I can think of, this one explains why I am the peculiar way I am. I received it when I was 10 or 11 years old — a Christmas gift, perhaps? — and spent the next few years wearing out its pages and filling my cranial capacity with interesting, if not terribly useful, scraps of knowledge.

I learned about palindromes (“A man, a plan, a canal — Panama”).

I learned the word pneumonoultramicroscropicsilicovolcanoconiosis, which I didn’t have to look up to post here.

I learned about an African tribe whose members spat at each other in greeting.

When my friend Lisa Simon posted on Facebook a few weeks ago that the first basketball game used peach baskets and the ball had to be retrieved from the bottom of the basket after each score, I knew that, too. It was in The Big Book of Amazing Facts.

Concurrent with all of this, I was also reading and memorizing almanacs, which has led to a fun but steadily eroding party trick. I’ve memorized the birth years and death years of many celebrities, but the information is good only up to about 1985 (when I abandoned almanacs and began a largely futile pursuit of girls). Thus, I can tell you with great confidence that John Wayne (Marion Morrison) was born in 1907 and died in 1979. In the case of someone with a more recent death date — say, Bob Hope (Leslie Townes) — I can cough up the year of birth (1903) but am clueless on the year of death, as it happened post-1985. (Actually, now that I look it up, I should be able to remember that Bob Hope was 100 years old when he died in 2003.)

In any case, should you find yourself wondering why I didn’t remember your birthday or anniversary or my own phone number, please don’t blame me. Blame The Big Book of Amazing Facts.


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Another Page: ‘Dancing at the Rascal Fair’

There’s this guy named Jim Fuquay, see, and I owe him big-time.

When I was a mere teenager, Jim did two big things for which I’ve never given him proper thanks: First, he gave me my first steady job in journalism. (On second thought, maybe I ought to kick his ass for that.) Second, he introduced me to the novels of Ivan Doig, my favorite author.

Back in the spring of 1989, I was covering sports and city government for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram bureau Jim ran while I tried — and mostly failed — to get a college education. In the haze of 21 years, I don’t remember the exact details of this, but here’s my best piecing-together of the situation: The bureau was running a huge advertising insert in the paper and had promised all of the advertisers a 50-or-so-word mini-story that would go with their ads. Deadline was nigh, and the paper needed a bunch of these little stories written and fast. So Jim pulled me off my editorial duties and struck me a deal: The paper would pay me $5 for every mini-story I could churn out over a long weekend. I was no math major, but I could see the possibilities. I churned through upward of 200 of them and found an extra $1,000 in my paycheck a couple of weeks later.

You know what that means, of course: road trip!

My best friend, Dan Gray, and I set out for Billings in my 1979 Mustang for a week of basketball, hanging out with extended family and scamming on girls who weren’t wise to our ways. It was beautiful. Before I left, Fuquay told me about this Montana author he really liked, Doig, and asked me to pick him up a book if I came across one. At Rimrock Mall, I snagged two copies of Dancing at the Rascal Fair, both signed by Doig, who had been through Billings a few days ahead of me. I gave one to Jim, and the other I took for myself to see what all the shouting was about.

So began a love affair with a writer who, every two or three years, comes out with a new story, all of them written in an inimitable, lyrical style. Different writers offer inspiration in different ways; with Doig, it’s sheer amazement at the way he makes words dance on the page, and the way he’s drawn generations of the West with tenderness and consistency of character.

When I first met the McCaskill clan, I was little more than a boy, one living in Texas and admiring Montana from afar. It took many years and many side trips, but eventually, I found my way here, and all these years later, Doig keeps giving me more books to love. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting the man — and perhaps I never will, which will save him the discomfort of having me jabber at him unintelligibly — but I know plenty of people who have, and they all say he’s golden.

I’d have expected no less.