Monday, April 8, 2013

James M. Tabor

James M. Tabor is the bestselling author of The Deep Zone, Blind Descent, and Forever on the Mountain and a winner of the O. Henry Award for short fiction. A former Washington, D.C., police officer and a lifelong adventure enthusiast, Tabor has written for Time, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Outside magazine, where he was a contributing editor. He wrote and hosted the PBS series The Great Outdoors and was co-creator and executive producer of the History Channel’s Journey to the Center of the World.

Tabor's new novel is Frozen Solid.

Late last month I asked him about what he was reading. Tabor's reply:
Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell

Light Years by James Salter

I just finished reading (literally—this very morning!) Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s exhaustive, discursive, novelistic biography of George Armstrong Custer. I came late to Connell, having read other Custer biographies—most recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand—first. Though tempted to say that was a mistake, in the end I’m glad to have capped my Custer works with Connell. Philbrick is far and away the best of the rest: eminently readable, primary-sourced to a fair-the-well, and painfully accurate. (We learn, among other things, that Custer’s assailants shoved an arrow up his penis, though no one could say whether it was peri- or post-mortem. Also that the gruesome information was not divulged until after Mrs. Custer had died in 1933.)

All that said, I liked Connell better and here’s why. Pure chroniclers in any discipline tend to be linear—Vermeer, Beethoven, Philbrick. There is value in being able to stand in a room in 1658 with Vermeer’s milkmaid (who was not really a milkmaid—she did not pull milk from cows—but a kitchenmaid preparing bread pudding) and know her world exactly, photographically, right down to the heft of her forearm, the folds of her apron, and the holes in her footwarmer on the crumb-scattered floor. As there is in knowing that grim fact about Custer’s corpse and, for example, that no fewer than 105 arrows pierced a cavalry trooper’s body.

Evokers (for lack of a better word)—Monet, Bach, Woolf, our contemporary novelist James Salter (about whom more later), and Connell—tend to be non-linear, suggestive, poetic. A neurosurgeon once told me that autistic children are like great poets in that they make non-linear associations beyond the grasp of “normal” brains. We see “cloud” and think “sky.” They see “cloud” and think “love” or “porpoise” or “window.” While by no means suggesting that Connell was autistic, I did revel in his Monet-like evocation of Custer. A novelist before he was a biographer, Connell happily wanders off on multi-page digressions. They include Custer’s peculiar fascination with taxidermy and, despite trumpeted love for wife Libby, sly dalliances with Native American women. A narcissistic sociopath, Custer treats his dogs like men and his men like dogs, fattening and pampering the former while starving and whipping the latter. For his own dining pleasure, he hauls along a massive, cast-iron cookstove while eschewing Gatling guns (that might have saved his bacon at the Little Bighorn) because the combined weight would have slowed overmuch his headlong dash to destruction. By themselves, such details do little more than hint at aberration. Taken altogether, they—like the countless dots and dabs in Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals—reveal something ineffable that straight description, no matter how comprehensive and precise—can never approach. I came away from Philbrick’s book knowing what Custer did, down to the last (so to speak) detail. From Connell’s I emerged knowing, for better and mostly worse, who he was.

Not long before opening Son of the Morning Star, I closed James Salter’s great novel, Light Years. In earlier times, a writer like Salter might have been brought before an inquisitory panel on charges of magery for the things he can make words do. We humans all work and play with words, of course, for infinitely varied reasons and with equally various degrees of skill. We can do so by the time we are four years old and frequently right up to the end of our lives. (“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go,” quipped Oscar Wilde from his hotel deathbed. Who doesn’t hope to go out like that?) Similarly, any one of us can throw a ball starting and ending at about the same ages. But then there are people who do things with balls—Koufax, Seaver, Clemens—far beyond the norm. So far beyond, in fact, that they come to seem (as Arthur C. Clarke famously said of imponderably advanced technology, if you will allow me to further muddy an already ridiculously mixed metaphor) like magic.

A very few writers make magic with words. Virginia Woolf, Tillie Olsen, Annie Proulx, Charles Frazier. I read them and smack my head (in frustration and envy) and go, “How in the hell did they do that?” For my money, Salter is the best. I’ve read all of his books at least twice and this last trip through Light Years was my third. Here’s why:
We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked by the wind.
My God. Those are the opening sentences and the book continues like that for 308 pages. It is emphatically not page-turning, speed-reading prose. You have to take writing like this in very small, very slow portions, making sure to mine the secrets of every sentence before turning a page. And even after having done that 308 times, when you return to the show after months or years, the mage unveils new delights you could not have imagined the last time he performed.
Visit James M. Tabor's website.

--Marshal Zeringue