Friday, January 17, 2014

Descriptive Prose

I write pretty much full-time these days so expect some blogs about writing now and then. Can't help myself.

I recently read James Lee Burke's early novel THE LOST GET-BACK BOOGIE, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in addition to re-launching his career. I've enjoyed his writing for many years but had never read this early novel and I'm very glad I did.

Burke is a master of descriptive prose. Some criticize him for going to that well too often, or for dipping too deeply. Me, I eat it up.

The novel is the story of two men who have made some seriously bad choices and are trying to put their  lives back together. One (Buddy, a blues piano player) dies, but the protagonist survives and finds a measure of peace, as the end suggests. Here are the last two paragraphs of the novel:

It’s May now, and the runoff from the snowpack on the mountain behind my house has filled the creek bed in the canyon with a torrent of white water that bursts over the boulders in a rainbow’s spray, lighting the pine and fir trees along the bank with a dripping sheen, and then flattens out at the base of the mountain and runs in a brown course through the pasture toward the river. The grass is tall and humming with insects where the water has flowed out into the field, and occasionally I can see the sun flash on the red beaks of mudhens in the reeds. The river is high and yellow, the sandbars and gravel islands have disappeared under the churning surface, and the bottoms of the cottonwoods cut long, trembling V’s in the current. I can feel the spring catching harder each day, and the irrigated fields across the river are a wet, sunlit green against the far mountains and the patches of snow still melting among the pines on the crest.

In the early evening it turns suddenly cool, you can smell wood smoke in the air, and mauve shadows fall across the valley floor as the sun strikes its final sparks against the ridge. From my front porch I can see Buddy’s cabin faintly in the gathering dusk. Even after it has dissolved into the darkness and black trees and the laughter of his sons playing in the yard, I can still see it in my mind’s eye, lighted, the wood stove lined with fire, and sometimes in that moment I’m caught forever in the sound of a blues piano and the beating of my own heart.

Beautiful, isn't it? Spring coming to the valley is an obvious metaphor for the protagonist's own possible rebirth--so obvious I think it would be clichéd if it weren't for Burke's prose.

Why does that prose lift this metaphor from cliché to something profound? I think it's because what we really see here is the rebirth of the ability of the protagonist to experience and appreciate beauty and the promise of life. This isn't what the coming of spring looks like; it is what it looks like to him. That he is capable of noticing this amazing level of detail tells us more about his soul than about the mountain valley.

I think that may be part of the secret to powerful descriptive prose: it has to tell us as much or more about the character noticing the thing as it does about the thing itself, because stories are about characters, not things, right?
I think another part lies in the fact that stories are about change. That's what distinguishes them from sketches and vignettes.  Very powerful description doesn't just tell us what a thing is, it shows us that thing in a moment of the present as it careens along the path from what it used to be to what it will inevitably become. But for just this one fleeting instant it is this.

That's part of it, part of great descriptive prose, but not all of it. Passages like this probably can't be completely deconstructed, analyzed, and explained without losing some of their magic. And maybe that's the real secret of great descriptions--magic.


Sorry there's so much variation in font style and size. I've fiddled with this for an hour trying to get it right and Blogger (the host site) just won't cooperate. It's getting very fiddly lately, sending me odd messages about incompatible browsers (same one I've always used). I hope we're not building up to a crash of some sort, but we'll see.

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