Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce – Briarpatch, Ross Thomas
Before I move on to a few books that will show up only because they present issues with writing, the publishing industry or perception and I get to a short story that’s talking to me, let’s do these two.
First, it’s rare, and wonderful, to read two books almost back-to-back where I learn things, have other things reinforced and am entertained all at once.
Dear Mrs. Bird – A.J. Pearce
As you can see from the graphic, Dear Mrs. Bird made the rounds of an elderly ladies’ book club before it came to me. The ladies rated it a 7. If I were grading it solely on the “story” I would have gone 8 or 9. Not that it’s a story unlike any ever told, but it’s written so damn well it could be about changing various model year Volkswagen brake pads and I’d still go that high.
Why – The protagonist’s voice never falters, her presence never out of character, her emotions tangible, her situations believable. The writing is the same. No dips, no sidetracks, no distractions, no over writing, no author anywhere in sight. No slop. I mean no slop. Not that a Grammar Nazi or ProWritingAid couldn’t find fault, but on The Story Is The Most Important Thing level, it’s as good as it gets. I think I had to read one sentence twice, and that one was on me. Emmeline, the lead, reuses a few adjectives three or four times throughout the book, (I checked) but never to where you recall it from the previous page or chapter. They are always in keeping with Emmy’s voice and it’s to the author’s credit that she didn’t hit up the Thesaurus for something that would make her look erudite and her character out of character. What I need to say here is this is how stories should be told. Engaging and never about the author, even when using the most conversational tone. You read this book as a journey with the protagonist, Miss Emmeline Lake, right behind her eyes.
Major Observation Point – The author employs a stylistic nuance that I had to stop and figure out where I’d seen it and Why It Worked So Well. When any phrase or referenced dialogue hit cliché or sloganeering or spoke to a Broader Issue, it’s capitalized. Where, oh where oh where I asked – Aha! A. A. Milne’s The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As readers, we associate caps with proper nouns, but not in Pooh, and not here. Which made perfect small containers for Larger Concepts and eliminated the need for quotation marks or awkward reference or defining tags. Here’s an example of both, perfectly executed in quick succession —
Miss Knighton, a freckly girl of about my age with pretty green eyes and unfortunate hair, looked at me blankly.
“Yes, which floor is her office on, please?”
“Well”—she paused, as if it were a trick question—“this one.”
Miss Knighton struck me as quite young to be An Eccentric, but I said Righto as I was new and you don’t make friends if you’re standoffish.– Dear Mrs. Bird
Lifting the quotation marks and the use of a strong verb to avoid the authorial injection of Emmy felt or thought keeps us right in the scene. I can’t think of a better example of This Is My Book, Thank You head time that doesn’t read like head time. Add this style feature to the little things like Dialogue First, Please and Straight-Line Story Telling with one-and-two-line backstory drops where appropriate and you get a book that’s fun, heartbreaking, courageous, and all the other adjectives best left to liner notes and press releases. It was all of that and more for me, and I found Being Emmeline for the journey was Never A Bad Thing.
The takeaway, besides no slop – Find out what you’re good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better. Mr. Collins to Emmeline. A true He Who Has Ears To Hear, Let Him Hear quote if ever there was one.
Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
More About Me – I set parts 1 and 2 of a Grand Unfinished Project I wrote to relearn writing, for lack of anywhere else, in my old hometown. I named it but used (mostly) disguised or fictional locations. My first editor suggested I change it to a place like that town and not naming it outright. I listened, and in later episodes the protagonist and others refer to it euphemistically, with made up nicknames. I didn’t go back and fix it because I didn’t know how to artfully describe the general geography. Learning is part of why we read, right? Well, turns out Ross Thomas grew up where I did. And this book takes place there, just like early parts of mine, only he never calls it by name. Too bad proximity doesn’t make me Ross Thomas, but now that I’ve seen it done, I get it. It would be easier for me, as I spend much less time in specific, recognizable locations that would need renaming. Further, I knew exactly where this took place when early on Thomas’s character mentions the city as being home to Two Notorious Inventions – the parking meter and the shopping cart. Only natives would know that. Here’s a blurb from Amazon that got it all wrong.
“A long-distance call from his small Texas hometown on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sister Felicity—born on the same day exactly ten years apart—has died in a car bomb explosion.”
To whomever—Not Texas, and the town’s not that small. But as my friend Jackson’s California Publicist says, “You can’t be an Okie, even if you are. You’ve got the accent, and Texas is so nouveau.” Need I mention “car bomb explosion” is redundant in the extreme? Enough of Me And What I Learned.
Briarpatch won an Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1984 for Best Novel. The author won The Edgar in 1967 for Best First Book. I know why. This thing screams Modern Noir. The pacing is a work of art. Fast, slow, nerve-wracking, witty, snide, observant, sensitive, deadly–all when called for. Dialogue tags? A page can go by without attribution. It’s not needed. We know who’s talking, and how they say what they say keeps us in it with tone. In fact, I read this as I was feeling guilty about scenes in My Last Work where I let the characters talk without me and decided if it’s good enough for my homey Ross, then it’s Good Enough For Me.
The story(ies) in Briarpatch are convoluted, full of enough Shadowy Red Herring Corners to keep the Spooks And Spies And Conspiracies crowd happy without beating it to death. As one review suggests, watching Thomas juggle and never drop two plot lines is almost as much fun as reading the book. Thomas’s first book weaves four different times and locations. In the interviews I’ve read, Thomas always states that he didn’t know how his books would turn out when he started them. Which explains why reading them you never know where it’s going or what’s going to happen. The other thing that happens, like any good book, is when you put down a Ross Thomas, you’re never where you were before you read it. When big time award winners call Ross Thomas the Elmore Leonard of politics, believe them.
Takeaway – “… (A) whole shelf of books with his name on them, in none of which one will ever encounter an ill-chosen word, an infelicitous phrase or a clunky sentence.” From Lawrence Block’s foreword to a reprinting of Briarpatch.
When I say I wish I’d written these two books, it’s not because their subject matter represents the Greatest Stories Ever Told, although Briarpatch is right up my alley. To me, both books exhibit the difference between marginal to good, workmanlike Close Enough For Horseshoes And Hand Grenades writerly output and elite craftsmanship. It’s not simply down to an understanding of the little things, of skilled mechanics and the finesse that keeps you turning pages without getting kicked out of the story. It’s being a big enough storyteller to put your best into it and get the hell out of the way. These two books do that, in their own way, and both represent, to me, the highest form of craft. If it’s not story, it’s not there. The story lines and styles might not be for everyone, but whatever you write, these are Stories About People, and textbooks for How It’s Done.