Storybook war


On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

The fine art of minor characters

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of  No Country for Old Men

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men

I just finished reading a fine novel called This Dark Road to Mercy, by North Carolina novelist Wiley Cash. It’s a worthwhile read, but as I was entering the homestretch last night I read a scene that got me thinking about the great but often untapped potential in minor, incidental characters in fiction—the kind of characters who appear for only one or two scenes and may not even have names.

The context:

This Dark Road to Mercy tells the story of Easter and Ruby Quillby, young girls living in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina after their mother overdoses. Their estranged father, failed minor league baseball player Wade Chesterfield, discovering some principle and responsibility late in life, decides that he should take them in even though he signed away his parental rights years ago. He convinces them to run away with him. They are pursued by two implacable men: Brady Weller, a disgraced former detective with Gastonia PD who now works as an ad litem advocate for the girls, and Pruitt, a bouncer on a mission to recover cash that Wade stole from his boss. Pruitt also has a personal score to settle with Wade.

The scene:

Having made a grisly discovery that indicates Pruitt is very close to catching them, Wade takes the girls to a convenience store and has Easter, the older of the two, go inside to get the bathroom key so he can change clothes. Here’s the first appearance of the character(s) I want to look at:

The store was empty except for a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail who were both standing behind the counter. When I walked in the woman was trying to light a cigarette, but she kept laughing at something the guy had said to her. I stood in front of the register until she’d lit her cigarette and tossed the lighter onto the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked. The guy laughed again like he remembered what was so funny about what he’d said before I came in. He turned and walked back into a little office, and the woman watched him go. She looked at me again. “What do you need, baby?”
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “It’s locked.”
The woman reached under the counter and pulled out a long piece of wood with a key attached to the end of it. “Don’t leave this in there,” she said. “The door locks behind you.” I took the key and walked back to the bathroom.

Later, after Wade has changed, he sends Easter back inside to return the key.

The woman was alone behind the register when I went back into the store. I set the key on the counter.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.”
“You were in there a long time,” she said. “I almost came looking for you.”
“I’m sick,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I hope you feel better,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope so too.”

So far so good. A realistically rendered but mundane series of exchanges. Anyone who has grown up in the South has had this interaction, right down to the “baby” (or perhaps “honey” in other circumstances, as “baby” is reserved for children).

But then the scene I’m about to describe came along and I appreciated the craft Cash had put into these characters. Pruitt, following not long after, snookers a cop into revealing the likely place he can find Wade and reaches the same convenience store. He goes inside to pursue his own investigation and we meet these employees again:

The closest gas station had a pay phone in the corner of the parking lot. The girl’s picture was somewhere in the glove compartment, and my hands riffled through the papers looking for the same face that had been stapled to the cafeteria wall back in Gastonia.
Inside the station, a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman stood behind the counter and stared while the picture was unfolded on the counter in front of them. My finger pointed down at the photo. “Have you seen this girl?”
The kid with the ponytail took his eyes off the photo and looked at me, but the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up. “And who are you?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Have you seen this kid or not?”
“It certainly does matter,” the woman said, leaning her hip into the counter and folding her arms across her chest. “Are you the police, or are you just some kind of weirdo?”
“Well,” she said. “I’d like to see a badge.”
Both the kid’s and the woman’s eyes followed my hand as it reached for my back pocket. They waited, expecting to see a badge, but instead they saw five twenties laid out on the counter. “Have you seen her or not.”
The kid looked at me, and then he looked down at the money. He reached out and scooped it up and folded it into his pocket. “She was in here,” he said. “It wasn’t even twenty minutes ago.”
“Damn it, Cody,” the woman said. She smacked his arm.
Cody raised his finger and pointed out the door behind me. “They went across the street.”

And away we go.

For comparison’s sake:

The scene reminded me, upon reflection, of a favorite from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, another cat-and-mouse story of pursuit across the margins of the South. In this passage, the ruthless cartel hitman Anton Chigurh has just finished searching protagonist Llewelyn Moss’s trailer. He suspects Moss has fled but, just to be sure, decides to get more information. He stops at the trailer park office. McCarthy:

He drove down and parked in front of the office and went in. Yessir, the woman said.
I’m looking for Llewelyn Moss.
She studied him. Did you go up to his trailer?
Yes I did.
Well I’d say he’s at work. Did you want to leave a message?
Where does he work?
Sir I aint at liberty to give out no information about our residents.
Chigurh looked around at the little plywood office. He looked at the woman.
Where does he work.
I said where does he work.
Did you not hear me? We cant give out no information.
A toilet flushed somewhere. A doorlatch clicked. Chigurh looked at the woman again. Then he went out and got in the Ramcharger and left.

All stories have minor characters, so what makes these stand out? Why do they feel like real people—one can certainly imagine these being distant cousins, or maybe attending the same women’s Bible study—when so many authors’ minor characters are flat, interchangeable, and immediately forgotten?

Two standout traits:

Look back at these two passages and see how Cash and McCarthy craft these characters. A few things stand out to me:

First and foremost—the language they use. McCarthy’s trailer park manager is informal but, when Chigurh presses her, adopts a terse, official tone (“aint at liberty” is a wonderfully suggestive blend of everyday dialect and the language of pronouncement). She gives as good as she gets and—remarkably—is the only person in the novel to resist Chigurh and live.

The gas station cashier in Cash’s book is more fully developed and we also benefit from a binocular view of her—we see her in two different situations, which gives her depth. With Easter she is informal and sweet in the way of Southern ladies to children. She freely expresses concern and wishes Easter well. She uses simple interrogative or declarative sentences (“And who are you?” and “It certainly does matter” and “I’d like to see a badge”) and pushes back against every move Pruitt makes. She has him sized up the moment he enters the store and tries to ice him out.

Which brings me to the second thing that stands out—body language. As much or as little as each author gives us, you can see these characters. McCarthy’s woman gets no direct physical description but we do read this: “She studied him.” This comes before she has even spoken a word. If you’re paying attention, you know Chigurh is in trouble the moment you read that line. (A side note: Where would the South be without the obstructive middle aged ladies who act as our gatekeepers?) This one line of action gives us all we need to know to understand what she’s about to do.

Cash includes more detail. The cashier is fat, blonde, smokes, and is old enough not just to use reading glasses but to wear them around her neck. The telling bit of body language comes when Pruitt shows her his stolen photo of Easter: “the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up.” Cash does something subtle here, suggesting her slow, drawn out movements (notice the repetition of “neck”) which heighten the message she’s transmitting: sarcastic dismissal. She’s not going to cooperate.

So Cash and McCarthy present us with a pair of nicely drawn minor characters. So what?

The use of minor characters:

There’s a few important things I think writers can take away from these examples. In no particular order, here are some of the uses I see of the well-realized minor character:

  • Characterizing the major characters—Cash’s gas station cashiers offer a particularly fine example, and it all comes down to perspective. We see these characters two ways—first, Easter, a young girl, sees them as “a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail,” the kinds of attributes a kid would notice. Pruitt, when he arrives, thinks of them dismissively as “a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman.” At this point in the novel we’re already two-thirds of the way in, but Cash is still characterizing his narrators by showing us how they perceive the same minor characters differently.

  • Obstructing the major characters—I’ve already used the word obstructive in this post, and intentionally so. No real-life plan or story proceeds on a perfectly straight line, just jokes and Reader’s Digest anecdotes. Things get in the way. Most of the great action movies excel at throwing physical obstacles in front of their heroes: in The Guns of Navarone the commando team’s explosives are sabotaged, Ethan Hunt’s team in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol deal with repeated equipment failure, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy has to travel, avoid assassination, disguise himself and sneak into a Nazi camp, knock down walls, steal a horse, chase and take over a truck, and fight or kill snakes, a giant airplane mechanic, and a host of other enemies before he can get the Ark. What Cash and McCarthy offer us here are character-driven versions of those obstacles, which complicate and intensify the plot—even if only for a few pages or lines—and, again, reveal things about the major characters who encounter them.

  • Making the world feel real—I’ve slowly developed a loathing for the term world-building and I’m not fond of the word realistic any more; what I prefer to emphasize is truth or at least truthfulness. Introducing well-realized minor characters makes your story feel true. Because of their speech, their gestures, the shifts in their attitudes that reveal their priorities, the ladies in This Dark Road to Mercy and No Country for Old Men seem to have their own lives that we, along with the characters, have blundered into. We get the sense that we’re just seeing a slice of them. And the upshot for the main characters—and the rest of the story—is that such minor characters make it feel like they have a more spacious world to move around in.

  • Surprising the reader—A lot of fiction features obliging minor characters who show up just to convey information to or do things for the main characters. When an antagonist like Pruitt or Chigurh is suddenly stopped and has to reckon with an unexpected obstacle—especially one so unassuming—it should be a jolt to the reader as well. Running across someone like the cashier or the trailer park manager is a nice surprise.

There are plenty of other reasons to give minor characters a bit of depth, to make them feel real or true, but these are a few good ones to start with.

A final thought on method—and a bit of a warning:

Cash and McCarthy brought these characters to life through the details they selected to present us. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, writes that “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.” Elsewhere in the same book he writes of “closely observed detail,” “concrete detail,” “authenticating detail,” and warns against “insufficient detail.”

This is not to advocate the Victor Hugo kitchen sink style, including everything. Note the adjectives: vivid, closely observed, concrete, authenticating detail. Carefully, precisely chosen from life. We do not need every gesture a character makes, just the ones that show us what we need, the ones that tell us who this person is in the two or three pages in which we get to know them. (See again that Ciardi line about poetry being “the art of knowing what to leave out.”)

Read both of these books if you haven’t. I’ve just dwelt at a little length on two minor characters. But these minor characters are excellent case studies of what a good, careful, purposeful writer can do with material that not everyone takes the time to develop.

Above the Waterfall

This week I read my second Ron Rash novel of the year, Above the Waterfall. I got through it in two days—it's excellent. 

Like most of Rash's fiction, Above the Waterfall takes place in the western North Carolina mountains, but unlike his historical novels Serena, One Foot in Eden, and The Cove, this story takes place in the present: a horribly real, recognizable present. This is the Appalachia of dependence—on distant relations to care for the children of failing families, on big-city resort developers and tourist dollars, on chemicals like painkillers, pot, and meth.


Les, a 51-year old Sheriff on the verge of retirement, and Becky, a middle-aged park ranger and Les's sometime romantic attachment, narrate the story in alternating chapters of present and past tense. Becky survived a school shooting as a girl and is still haunted by it in her mid-forties. She tries to dull the memories of the tragedy, her permanently disrupted family life, and her difficulty forming relationships by retreat into the wilderness and meditation on the beauty of the world. A devotee of Gerard Manley Hopkins, her chapters brim with his kind of allusive, fragmentary poetry as she pieces together her memories with her present struggles, particularly her difficult feelings for Les and the pain of a recently failed relationship with another nature lover, a man who turned out to be an eco-terrorist. 

While Les is an artist too—a painter of watercolors—his career in law enforcement has imparted to his narration a directness that sits uneasily with his artistic inclinations. After decades arresting drug addicts and wife beaters, identifying corpses, and bearing bad news to the parents of meth-addicted children, his matter-of-factness even seems like a coping mechanism, as if he can only deal with the horrors he sees by describing them without polish.

What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.
— Above the Waterfall

What unites Les and Becky, other than a brief fling, an interrupted love affair, is an elderly man named Gerald. Becky has struck up a friendship with Gerald who, bereft of his wife and only son, lives alone on ancestral land abutting a new but struggling mountain resort. Gerald's meth-addicted nephew takes advantage of his generosity every chance he gets. While Becky tries to help Gerald however she can, Les, pestered by the resort's owner, has to try to persuade Gerald not to poach the trout living in the resort's stretch of the creek that flows through both properties. 

The morning after an altercation in the resort parking lot that almost sends Gerald to the morgue, scores of fish wash up on the banks of the creek—poisoned with kerosene dumped into the stream above a waterfall where, according to Gerald, now rare speckled trout have returned. Gerald insists he's innocent, and Becky takes his side. Les, juggling the resort's problems and a harrowing series of meth busts, is just trying to keep the peace during his last days on the job. It's not enough.

This is my new favorite from Rash. What gripped me in my old favorite, One Foot in Eden, were the strongly drawn relationships—between the young couple at the beginning of the book, between the couple and a roguish neighbor, between the couple and their son many years later—and the threats that tested them—betrayal, adultery, lies, murder. Above the Waterfall shares these strengths but outdoes One Foot in Eden. With its cast of middle-aged characters, each of whom harbors hurts and secrets, each of whom struggle to overcome past sins and earn forgiveness, and with its setting in a dying world, this novel adds a thick layer of poignancy and theologically inflected melancholy. It moved me, and it made me think.

Above the Waterfall is a powerful portrait of a world in which all are guilty and the law is inadequate to mend such brokenness. It depicts a world in need of redemption, and Rash suggests, that redemption is available if the sinners just look for it. In Becky's words:

The next morning as I'd hiked out, I started to step over a log but my foot jerked back. When I looked on the other side, a copperhead lay coiled. Part of me not sight knew it was there. The atavistic like flint rock sparked. Amazon tribes see Venus in daylight. My grandfather needed no watch to tell time. What more might we recover if open to it? Perhaps even God.

Unknown Soldiers

Last week I reviewed the Finnish film Talvisota (The Winter War) for Historical Movie Monday. At the time I had just started reading a novel taking place a year and a half after those events: Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas, or Unknown Soldiers in its most recent English translation. I finished it earlier this week. It's one of the best war novels I've ever read.


Unknown Soldiers follows a company of Finnish machine gunners through the Continuation War, from the beginning in the summer of 1941 to ceasefire in September 1944. The Finns coordinated their invasion of Soviet Russia with the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, making the Finns ostensible German allies though they were never fully incorporated into the Axis. The goal was to recapture land taken from Finland by the Russians during the Winter War and occupy other territory to be used for postwar bargaining following German victory. 

None of this matters to the characters in Linna's novel. Not really. They know about most of this political background and occasionally discuss it, but their war is earthy, small-scale, and intensely personal. They are less concerned with Hitler's eventual success against Stalin than with how to handle the weight of a machine gun while marching, how to get enough to eat, how to make some extra cash while the war keeps them from home, how to keep out of the way of officers, and how to stay alive.

The novel begins and ends with the war. After a brief introduction to most of the major characters—there is no single "main" character—the machine gun company assembles and boards trucks for the front. They don't know where they're going or why at first, and a brief passage on God's destruction of a patch of forest through a wildfire is the last bit of omniscience we'll get until the very end. We experience the fog of war with the characters, seldom knowing any more than they do and taken by surprise just as often as they are. 

The characters are wonderfully drawn, and have apparently become bywords for particular kinds of people in Finland. Linna ranges up and down the chain of command, giving us moments with everyone from the company commander to new privates who arrive at the front a few years in. Lieutenant Lammio, a potential martinet but otherwise harmless, becomes company commander after the respected previous commander is killed just a few days into the war; in his new position, his negative traits come to the fore. Ensign Kariluoto, another officer, is naive and detached and has the novel's only real love story, budding from his infatuation with Sirkka, a hometown girl. There's Hietanen, a bluff, good-humored jokester who is nevertheless painfully shy around women, and Vanhala, a giggler, both of whom sober up over the next three years, especially as they rise to positions of leadership and find themselves tested. Lehto is aloof, a gruff, tough fighter, and Määtä, a short, quiet man, never shirks from hauling his squad's machine gun, quietly earning the respect of every man in the company. Lahtinen is a communist sympathizer who, like most Marxists, annoys his friends by interjecting mindless revolutionary formulae into ordinary smalltalk. Honkajoki is an eccentric trying to build a perpetual motion machine and who carries a bow and arrows. Mäkilä, the company quartermaster, is obsessively stingy with the men's gear: "He kept the shelves in impeccable order," Linna tells us, "stocked with all the finest equipment, unmarred by any worn-out items—which he distributed to the company." 

The novel is also, I should point out, wryly funny.

My two favorite characters were Rokka and Koskela. Antero "Antti" Rokka is an older man—in his early- to mid-thirties—a husband and father, a veteran of the Winter War, and a refugee from Kannas, part of the Finnish territory taken by the Russians. He has the most personal stake in the success of the invasion, and only when it becomes clear, in the last quarter of the book, that he'll never see his old farm again is his chipper, folksy demeanor shaken. He has no time for formalities and routinely offends superiors with a knowing "Lissen here." He is also the best soldier in the company, never shrinking from combat, and, in one famous episode, ambushing and wiping out a platoon of more than fifty Russian soldiers with just his submachine gun. (This incident, far from being a proto-Rambo bit of action, is based on an actual incident in which a soldier named Viljam Pylkäs gunned down over eighty Russians.) By the end of the novel, when he's one of the only major characters left, I really dreaded for his safety.

Koskela, on the other hand, is an officer who achieved his rank through merit, during the Winter War. He's strong, silent ("quiet Koski" is a nickname used a few times throughout), courageous, leads by example, loved by his men—all the qualities of a Greek hero without the arrogance or ostentation. As a leader, he also sets himself apart through the crucial ability to know what matters and what doesn't, an ability Lammio, who tries to court martial Rokka at one point, lacks. When leadership of the company finally devolves onto Koskela at the end of the book, as the Finns retreat from Russia and face encirclement, Koskela acts quickly and decisively and his men follow. It's a really stirring portrait of manhood and leadership.

Linna also has a lot to say about courage, but shows what courage really means in modern war. For every death-defying one-man charge on an enemy bunker by Koskela there are two or three small moments borne of split-second decisions by men forced into a corner: Lahtinen staying behind with a machine gun while his buddies evacuate wounded men, or Hietanen finding almost accidental courage in the face of a Russian tank attack: 

It was as if his entire consciousness had been frozen. It refused to consider the significance of these angry blasts, as if shielding itself from the terror such considerations would induce. Hietanen darted quickly behind the upturned roots.
Just then he heard Rokka's voice yelling, "Now shoot like hell!"
Hietanen was panicked and trembling with anxiety. The urgency ringing in Rokka's cry struck his over-excited consciousness as a warning of some new, unknown danger. Then he realized that the call was intended for the others.
It occurred to him he did not know if the mine was functional or not. He didn't know anything about it except that it was supposed to explode under pressure. It was a little late for sapper training, however. The time was now or never.
A vision of the tank tracks rolling beneath their fenders flashed through his mind. Right there ... right there ... And then he threw. The weight of the mine made aiming next to impossible, and a kind of prayer-like wish flickered through Hietanen's consciousness as he hurled it. . . . Only then did the precariousness of his own position suddenly dawn on him. Would the tree base be enough to protect him from the force of the blast? He sank down behind it, opened his mouth and pressed his hands against his ears.
Two seconds later, it was as if the pressure of the whole world suddenly descended upon him. He didn't experience the explosion as a sound, but rather as a numbing, thudding blast
and then his consciousness went dim.
When it returned, he saw that the vehicle was still, titled slightly to one side. . . . He just lay there, looking back and forth at the tank, then at the men, who were yelling at him, "Yes, Hietanen! Woo-hoo! Bravo, Hietanen!" The praise was all wasted, however; Hietanen couldn't hear a thing.

All the danger, brutality, humor, courage, excitement, dread, horror, irony, and businesslike slogging mirror the war and Finland's role in it. It's excellent.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source:  SA-kuva , the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

A Finnish machine gun position overlooking no-man's-land, February 1944. Source: SA-kuva, the Finnish Defense Forces Wartime Photograph Archive.

I could say more about the plot, but the plot doesn't really matter. The war is, for the characters, a string of violent incidents that gradually winnows and thins the ranks, and that's what Linna, who lived through the Continuation War himself, shows us. He presents military life and war unromantically, as ceaselessly hard work with limited resources, work that can turn deadly with no warning. By the end of the war, even evacuation by ambulance isn't safe. The much-ballyhooed "random" deaths of George R.R. Martin's characters have nothing on Unknown Soldiers, and these soldiers' deaths are the more pitiful when they come because we care so much about them.

Unknown Soldiers has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of great war literature. It has the grim, clear-eyed detail of All Quiet on the Western Front and the sense of sheer, exhausting labor of The Naked and the Dead. But the novel Unknown Soldiers reminded me of most was Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn. Like Linna, Marlantes was a veteran of the war he wrote about and based his novel on his own experiences. Like Unknown Soldiers, Matterhorn takes a worm's-eye view of the conflict, bringing the reader into close quarters with a large cast of characters for hundreds of pages. And it's worth the trip.

Closing notes

Linna published his novel in 1954. It was first translated into English as The Unknown Soldier in 1957, and again in 2015 by Liesl Yamaguchi, which is the version I read. I neither speak nor read Finnish, but I understand this new translation is more faithful to the original than the first English version. Yamaguchi undertakes the thankless task of communicating the many local dialects and accents of Finnish, and mostly succeeds; Rokka's woodsy twang, to give one example, is instantly recognizable, though some of the others' slangy talk is distracting.

There have been three film adaptations: in 1955, a Finnish classic that airs every December on Finnish Independence Day; in 1985; and again in 2017, a version shot using natural light that looks strikingly beautiful. The 1955 original is available in its entirety on YouTube. The newest version is not apparently available on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere yet, but here's the trailer and a clip of Rokka's one-man massacre of that Russian platoon.

Gringos, by Charles Portis

Charles Portis is one of my favorite authors. He's most famous for True Grit, which is a magnificent novel, but he's also written four other less well-known and appreciated novels. The most recent (published in 1991) is Gringos.


Gringos has a lot in common with Portis's other novels. Like True Grit and The Dog of the South, it's the story of an Arkansas native in exile. Like Norwood, the protagonist finds himself falling in with all kinds of colorful characters and a certain amount of danger he's not really prepared for. Like Masters of Atlantis, the esoteric and occult figure prominently.

The main character is an American living in the Yucatan, where he gives guided tours of the jungle and Mayan ruins and occasionally traffics in a little illicit Mayan antiquities. His life is upended by a couple of changes to his circumstances, including love (kind of ?) and the arrival of a band of dangerous hippies who may have something to do with a recent kidnapping in the United States. 

To describe more of the plot would be both giving away too much and pointless. Because in any Portis novel the real joy is the narrative voice, the dialogue, the ramshackle collection of eccentric characters, and the preposterous set pieces that the plot meanders between. Also enlivening every one of his novels are marvelous little observations and asides like the two below, both from Gringos:

Simcoe read a book. It was all right to do that here. In the States it was acceptable to read newspapers and magazines in public, but not books, unless you wanted to be taken for a student or a bum or a lunatic or all three. Here you could read books in cafes without giving much offense, and even write them.

A passage that should make anyone who has ever read or written along in a restaurant grin.

Also, for a taste of the "Unsolved Mysteries"-like esoterica that drifts into Gringos:

Still, the flying saucer books were fun to read and there weren't nearly enough of them to suit me. I liked the belligerent ones best, that took no crap off the science establishment.

Do check out Portis's books; not just True Grit, which is a masterpiece and well worth your time, but his others as well. They're all great, and precious few.

No Man's Land

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

Soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment attack across no-man's-land at the Somme, August 1916.

It's the last day of January. How many New Year's resolutions lie in smoldering ruins? I've managed to give new life to two of mine—losing weight and reading seventy books—through a simple change of routine. I'm spending half an hour on the stationary bike every day, half an hour to exercise, clear my mind, and read. I've already managed to blister through three novels this way: Evelyn Waugh's hilarious Scoop, Ready Player One (about which more at another time, perhaps), and the subject of today's post, No Man's Land, by Simon Tolkien.

I haven't actually finished No Man's Land yet, but I already want to recommend it. It was a breath of fresh air, after the empty ephemera of Ready Player One, to read a novel that, while imperfect, wants to grapple with real life, with things that matter. 

no mans land tolkien.jpg

No Man's Land is the story of Adam Raine, a London boy whose father, a socialist labor activist, moves himself and Adam to a coal mining town in the north of England. There, Adam's father, a changed man after the tragedy that drove them from London, struggles as a union negotiator to balance the demands of his fellow workers with the realities of mining life and the claims of the mine's owner, Sir John Scarsdale. Adam struggles to fit in; he's a bright, bookish boy and his father works hard to keep him in school and out of the mine. Demagogues and agitators threaten Adam's father's position and the safety of everyone in the mine, and local boys show a natural hostility to Adam. Another tragedy brings the two halves of this story together, and sets Adam's life on a new and unexpected course.

When Adam is taken in by Sir John with the promise of seeing that he completes his schooling and has a chance at an Oxford scholarship, Adam becomes close with Seaton, Sir John's elder son, a principled, good-humored army officer, but falls foul of Brice, Seaton's younger brother, a boy Adam's own age. Brice is conceited, self-absorbed, and entitled. He also aims to marry Miriam, the beautiful daughter of the local parson and the object of Adam's admiration since the day he met her. 

The novel begins in 1900, when Adam is a small boy, and, as the title suggests, the First World War is the ever-present, looming threat to all of this—to Adam's romance with Miriam, to the mine and its workers and their families, to Sir John and his heirs, to Britain, and to the lives of all the characters. When war comes, most of them end up in the trenches. Adam, Seaton, and their peers from Scarsdale end up at the Somme.

I have less than 200 pages to go, and the story has just brought us to July 1, 1916, the awful first day of the British assault on the Somme, a day that saw over 19,000 British soldiers killed, most within the first few hours, and another 38,000 wounded. The author depicts the battle in all its horror, without flinching or holding back. Not all of the characters made it out of that first day--and the Battle of the Somme lasted until mid-November. 

With its class struggle, romantic rivalries, and large cast of workers, housewives, butlers, country parsons, lords, and ladies, No Man's Land teeters on the brink of melodrama. Comparisons to Downton Abbey suggest themselves, but the novel reminds me more of Dickens than contemporary TV. The characters are sympathetically portrayed and well-drawn, and their conflicts with each other feel real. This is especially refreshing in a Games of Thrones era in which everything is resolved with murder, rape, or some combination of the two. 

Most interestingly, and something the publishers have taken full advantage of in promoting the book—the novel is dedicated to JRR Tolkien, the author's grandfather. Simon Tolkien drew on his grandfather's experiences at the Somme as an inspiration, and certain elements of the narrative, such as Adam's chaste, dutiful pursuit of Miriam, reflect real moments from Tolkien's life. The novel is mostly fiction, the plot and characters mostly fictitious, but its connection to a remarkable real life man lends the novel a richness that elevates the book.

I may have more thoughts when I've finished the book. As I've said, it's imperfect, but it's very, very good, a refreshingly old-fashioned novel that realistically and sympathetically depicts a crucial historical moment through the lives of ordinary people. 

The Loved One

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Evelyn Waugh this year, and have already gotten through two of his shorter novels. I'm a latecomer but love his work. Last night, I finished The Loved One

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The Loved One, published in 1948, is the story of Dennis Barlow, a young English war veteran living in Los Angeles. After publishing one volume of poetry to great acclaim in Britain, he was recruited by Hollywood to help write a biopic of Shelley. That project having fallen through, he became a script doctor. When the novel begins, he has been totally out of work for months and has settled for a job he is surprised to find he enjoys—working at a mortuary for pets.

When a friend in the English expatriate community loses his writing contract after twenty-five years with the studio, he kills himself, and Dennis is the only one available to make funeral arrangements. He goes to the largest and most famous cemetery around, Whispering Glades, where "loved ones"—not corpses—are prepared for eternity in "slumber rooms" and "the waiting" have a wide variety of non-sectarian ministers and sanctuaries to choose from for preparation, commemoration, and burial. 

At Whispering Glades, Dennis meets and falls for Aimée Thanatogenos, a young cosmetician who specializes in freshening the appearance of "loved ones" with makeup and haircuts. She works under the rock-star embalmer Mr. Joyboy, charismatic and beloved of everyone at Whispering Glades, who has been making his intentions toward her clear by passing his freshly embalmed "loved ones" on to her work station wearing enormous grins. 

Think Barton Fink crossed with Bernie.

After Aimée criticizes the Happier Hunting Ground, the pet mortuary where Dennis works, he determines to woo her strictly through his poetry, never mentioning his job. Unfortunately, he has writer's block, and cribs from everyone from Keats to Poe in order to win her over. Aimée finds herself torn between the flashy and winsome Mr. Joyboy and the apparently unemployed but sweet British poet.

I can't summarize much more without giving things away, and the novel is less than 150 pages long, so I'll stop there. The situations that develop from these circumstances are hilarious, and finally intersect in first funny, then shocking ways.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), master of savage satire.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66), master of savage satire.

Waugh's sense of humor is notoriously dark and cruel, and this novel has some of the blackest comedy I've ever read. It's also one of the funniest novels I've ever read. I laughed out loud throughout, even through some of its darkest and most shocking turns.

Beyond the dark humor, Waugh's sense of irony gives the whole book a cutting satirical edge. Most obvious are Waugh's digs at American manners. "They are a very decent, generous lot of people out here and they don't expect you to listen," one elderly Englishman remarks near the beginning. "Always remember that, dear boy. It's the secret of social ease in this country. They talk entirely for their own pleasure. Nothing they say is designed to be heard." 

More biting are Waugh's critiques of American beliefs and sentiments, particularly around the subject of death. Whispering Glades is a very obvious spoof of a real place—Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Waugh visited on an abortive trip to MGM to discuss filming rights for another book, and left more fascinated with the cemetery than anything else in the film capital of the world. The sentimentality, the tasteless displays, the rootless striving for legitimacy, the commodification of a sacred rite, the litany of unthinking euphemisms—many of which, like memorial park and loved one, we no longer even notice as euphemisms—all show a world in retreat from the realities of life and death. A world like Hollywood.

Waugh brings these themes out poignantly in several late incidents in the plot, but I don't want to give anything away. The Loved One is a rich and hilarious novel, and I highly recommend it.