For over a decade I was mesmerized by Cormac McCarthy’s inability to write a boring sentence. Thinking back, at some point a pre-conscious curiosity began to wonder if, in craftmanship and appreciation for the human condition, McCarthy has peers. Obviously outrageous and prejudiced as I am, I addressed my quandary by reading better-known authors.
So, over the past half-dozen years, I doggedly plunged through Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms; William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury and As I Lay Dying; and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. I gave up on John Updike’s Rabbit Run and Miguel de Cervantes’s Man of Lamancha. Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Lookingglass, were welcome respites. Finally, my inspiration for this, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize Winning To Kill A Mockingbird,
In How to Write a Damn Good Novel James Fry exposes three “secrets to dramatic writing”: Conflict, Conflict, Conflict! But, as I see it, conflict is defined by the writer and the reader! Nephew Larry wept over Hemingway’s first Best Seller, A Farewell to Arms. I yawned. For me, the faded World War I backdrop, magnums of wine, casual sex, and tepid emotion afforded the conflict of chewing gum.
I’m suspicious of novels with a lengthy Forward or Preface. Writing and story speak for themself. The Sound and The Fury’stwenty-eight page forward put me on guard. Unlike Hemingway’s, Faulkner’s masterpiece didn’t bore but bewildered me. Despite being somewhat dyslexic and slow-witted, it is impossible for me to believe that, without the Forward and sixty-five pages of “Cliff Notes,” pedestrian readers would endure to the end, much less have a clue regarding Faulkner’s genius. As I Lay Dying was less cryptic. I left Faulkner sensing that his esoteric prose is not for common folk. But, writing only for elite readers seems contrary to the literate excellence and exposition of human experience we expect in a great novel.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonegut’sfirst-person tale as World War II POW and witnessing the destruction of Dresden, Germany, by Allied bombers, is compelling. His diversions into fantasy left me wondering. His narrative and dark humor are seductive. His Cat’s Cradle left me puzzled.
After a bellyful of “serious” reading, the fantasy in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Down the Rabbit Hole and Through the Looking-Glass were delightful. I’ll reread them. I stuck with Miguel de Cervantes’s Man of Lamancha until Don Quixote’s assaults on objects and bewildered strangers took on the repetitive sameness of windmill blades.
A 2006 New York Times authors’ survey “on the Best Works of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” ranked McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in the top five. Classed alongside McCarthy, Updike’s novel seemed a “must read.”
My Dad’s death ten days after my eight-birthday put Updike’s protagonist, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, at a disadvantage. A spoiled, twenty-year-old, ex-high school jock who abandoned a pregnant wife and son to, I guess, find himself, rubbed a sensitive nerve. Page fifty or so, I began leafing forward, looking for Fry’s Conflict. When “Rabbit” jumping among assorted women’s and his wife’s beds took on Don Quixote’s repetitious conflict I gave up.
Nephew Larry loves To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s channeling Lawyer Atticus Finch’s wisdom through his daughter is ingenious. “Scout” brilliantly captures the eight-year-old’s inquisitive, Tomboy nature. Her, brother Jem’s, and orphan neighbor Dell’s adventures and curiosity around mystery neighbor “Boo” kept me reading.
Around halfway through Harper’s narrative, Atticus’s defense of Tom Johnson, a negro, against red-neck Bob Ewell’s bogus claim that Tom raped his daughter becomes a central conflict. When Scout and, more-so, teenage Jem, vice their indignity over Tom’s conviction, Harper has Atticus explained, “Tom Robinson’s a colored man Jem. No Jury in this part of the world’s going to say, ‘We think you’re guilty, but not very,’ on charges like that.” (p. 250)
After debating our flawed legal system, need to change laws, and prejudiced juries, Atticus goes on,
“As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash. . . . There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.” (p. 252)
Harper Lee’s prescience is stunning! “Black Lives Matter!” A century later, we “pay the bill!”