Good Writing

I had a short-lived blog on which I excerpted and discussed brief passages from some of my favorite writers. Remaining a blogger was not in the cards for me, but I'm preserving a few of the pieces here, and I hope I might occasionally add some new things.

John Updike (2009)

This collection begins with a short selection from John Updike, one of our most deft chroniclers of outer, and inner, landscapes, who died on Tuesday of last week. In this passage, from Self-Consciousness, he is lying on a sand dune near the shore of Ipswich Bay.

...the meagre details within my hollow were magnified by boredom almost into omens. The rusted cans and charred driftwood left by a bonfire last autumn; the circles and half-circles that the sharp bent wands of beach grass scribed about themselves; the tenacious gnarled beach-plum bush that gestured at me from a sandy ridge; the sand itself, so minutely sparkling and faceted, spilling warmly through my fingers as, lying there sun-stunned, I idly dug down through the dry top layer to the cooler, more stable, and secretive moist darkness beneath.

Powers of description aren't everything in a writer, but the ability to sift and tell about the details that matter, coupled with some sensitivity to the interplay between what's out there and what's in here, goes a long way. This kind of careful description, colored by fresh images, can lead readers to fresh recognition of the world around them and often to new views of their own inner landscapes.

Charles Portis

This is the first excerpt from a writer we'll be seeing more of on this site, Charles Portis. Best known as the author of True Grit, Portis has authored five novels. The following selection is from The Dog of the South, a book I've read many times. I have an audio edition on cassette that I sometimes listen to as I'm flossing, brushing, and shaving. The voice below is that of Dr. Leo Symmes, the accidental traveling partner of the book's first-person protagonist, the much put-upon Ray Midge. Symmes is filling in Ray (whom he calls "Speed") on some of his past business ventures and partnerships, all of them shady.

Rod had been reprimanded twice by the Ethics Committee of the Tijuana Bar Association, but he could always work himself out of a corner. ... He's gone now and I miss him more every day. Strawberries! Can you imagine that? We were trying to raise strawberries on government land. Rod got some boys out of prison to do the work... And hot? You think this is hot? Those pimps were dropping in their tracks. Rodrigo would park his black Pontiac out there in the desert and then roll the windows up to keep the dust out. When we got back to it, the seat covers would be melting. Open the door and the heat blast would make you faint. An inferno. You could have roasted a duck in the trunk. Precious memories, how they linger. Listen to me, Speed. If your time is worth more than twenty cents an hour, don't ever fool with strawberries. We were just like David and Jonathan. When he was trying to get his patent, I took him up to Long Beach and introduced him to a good lawyer name of Welch. Rod had an interest in a denture factory in Tijuana and he was trying to get a U.S. patent on their El Tigre model. They were wonderful teeth. They had two extra canines and two extra incisors of tungsten steel. Slap a set of those Tiger plates in your mouth and you can throw your oatmeal out the window. You could shred an elk steak with those boogers.

For me, the most enjoyable aspects of Portis's writing are his skill with voices, the naturalness and frequent obtuseness of his characters, his penchant for barreling ahead without feeling the need to give us all the details, and the high, dry gloss of humor over everything. He is a master of the economics of comic prose.

Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, has long been one of my favorite books. Later works of his that I've found nearly as mesmerizing include Room Temperature, U and I, A Box of Matches, and the essay collection The Size of Thoughts. Baker is a miniaturist and a first-rate noticer with a great sense of humor. His best books pair his microscopic viewpoint with a devastatingly precise allusive sensibility as he draws up live, wriggling metaphors from a well of cultural raw material that's as broad as it is deep. I don't follow him across his full range (he's smarter and far more well-read than I am), but being roughly his contemporary (two years his junior), I am usually at home with his references, which, at their best, provoke recognition, insight, and laughter. This selection is from "Reading Aloud," in The Size of Thoughts.

I've reacquainted myself with my larynx. When I was fourteen I used to feel it each morning at the kitchen table, before I had any cereal. It was large. How could my throat have been retrofitted with this massive service elevator? And what was I going to say with it? What sort of payloads was it fated to carry? First thing in the morning I could sing, in a fairly convincing baritone, the alto-sax solo from Pictures at an Exhibition—and as I went for a low note there was a unique physical pleasure, not to be had later in the day, when the two thick slack vocal cords dropped and closed on a shovel full of peat moss. Sometimes as I sang low, or swung low, it felt as if I were a character actor in a coffee commercial, carelessly scooping glossy beans from deep in a burlap bag and pouring them into a battered scale—the deeper the note I tried to scoop up, the bigger and glossier the beans, until finally I was way down in fava territory. I was Charles Kuralt, I was Tony the Tiger, I was Lloyd Bridges, I was James Earl Jones—I too had a larynx the size of a picnic basket, I felt, and when you heard my voice you wouldn't even know it was sound, it would be so vibrantly low: you'd think instead that your wheels had strayed over the wake-up rumble strips on the shoulder of a freeway.

Baker's aptitude with figurative language makes me laugh. It's not simply that his metaphors are fresh, or that they are sometimes comically extended, often fractaling off in surprising and illuminating directions—it's that they're usually so apt for getting the thought, the feeling, across. Oddly, their effect on me reminds me of my childhood. My father was an illustrator, and as a child I would often stand at his elbow as he worked at his drawing table. Watching dad quickly sketch in a face or a figure, seeing the features and expressions take shape from what seemed the most casual, offhand strokes of his pencil, my typical reaction would be a smile or a laugh—an involuntary snort of surprise at the sudden recognition of real human feeling or emotion there on the page. The soul of art is metaphor—the larynx as service elevator or coffee scoop, a specific line deftly sketched above an eye standing for pique (and not anger, arousal, confusion, or alarm)—and it lies at the heart of the artist's effort to bridge the life-experience gap that stretches between him and his audience.