A Little Bit on Didion and Wolfe

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Photo: Tonya Rice

Today, we lost one of Richmond’s literary giants: Tom Wolfe, author of acclaimed works such as The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities. He was eighty-eight years old. My copy of the latter has been pulled from my shelf after an embarrassingly lengthy stay since buying ages ago, so I can add to the TBR pile for the summer. I’m surprised I haven’t yet read his hugely popular, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I will.

In grad school, one of our required readings included “Yeager”, Wolfe’s essay on Chuck Yeager. There, I learned his masterful way with words and place. The Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story today about a man who’d moved into Wolfe’s childhood home in the Sherwood Park neighborhood of Richmond (where the characters of my novel live, but I digress) and shared the incredible, delightful nostalgic letter Wolfe wrote back to him after he’d sent a letter and picture of the home to the author letting him know how proud he was to have purchased it. Click below (and be sure to open the link in the article for a clear pdf version of the letter!):

http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/books/tom-wolfe-recalls-acca-yard-state-fair-and-more-in/article_91ed5065-4731-5a0a-9e79-4935fa103074.html

My essay with my thoughts on “Yeager” is below, which also includes my commentary on a piece by Jon Franklin and one of my lovefests with a Joan Didion essay from Slouching Towards Bethlehem which were also a part of our syllabus. Dialogue with my professor also follows. I thought of this all today when I learned of Wolfe’s passing and realized that along with my pride of sharing his hometown, how much I’d gathered about writing from him.


Jon Franklin’s “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster” was an emotionally draining read, yet riveting at the same time. The tension pulsated through his use of otomotopaeia (the heartbeat’s popping on the monitor throughout), the sounds of the operating instruments, and the punctuation of time with the keeping of the clock from Dr. Ducker’s breakfast to Mrs. Kelly’s last heartbeat.

I liked the way Franklin first introduced “the monster”. It was characterized specifically as the menace with a personality of sorts. It wasn’t “a monster”; it was “the monster” (Sims 75). It was known and feared.

As Franklin explains the Mrs. Kelly’s condition, he attaches her to us. She’s more than a woman on the operating table. The “tangled knot of abnormal blood vessels in the back of her brain” that she possesses is detailed. The consequences of its eruption were not merely told, but illustrated, “one of the abnormal arteries… burst [and] Mrs. Kelly grabbed her head and collapsed. After that the agony never stopped.” (76). Franklin garnered our sympathy. We understand of her plan to endure the risky operation.

It was a gripping, highly informative article about a life-threatening brain ailment. In order to reach a larger audience, it needed people, not just statistics. Franklin gives us that. We were connected to the patient and the doctor. I liked Franklin’s metaphors; they embodied concepts. The mind was incarnate – “the landscape of the mind expands to the size of room” (78) on the screen, as was the feeling of horror and pain combined, when he identified the “topography of torture” (81). Franklin deciphered mounting frustration in the operating room as the doctor tried again to move through that tunnel: “Millimeter, millimeter after treacherous millimeter the tweezers burrow…”. Repetition, such as “gently, gently” also intensified the slow and deliberated pace against the race where time was also the opponent.

Short sentences also resembled verse in the middle of the narrative beating to the crux of the battle, along with the heartbeat, and even the end (82, 84):

The neurosurgeon freezes.

The monster.

And withdraws.

The instruments retract.

Mrs. Kelly is dying.

The monster won.

That concept stood out for me the most as one to practice in my writing. This abbreviated sentence structure packs more power than lengthier ones would.

As a Richmond native, I was happy to read Wolfe’s Yeager. It’s also his hometown. I love southern literature and his folksy tenor was up my alley. It was a compelling biography of an influential man in work and spirit. Wolfe’s narration kept Yeager close to us.

I liked the way he filtered our vision to Muroc from the broad scope of the Mohave Desert: “Nevertheless, there was something extraordinary… to Muroc Field in California for the X-1 project. [Next paragraph, the pinhole transition to the place] Muroc was up in the high elevations…”. (294) The spacious topography featured a busy terrain of its own in full action. I read his description about the shrimp and sea gulls, and the Joshua trees, more than once. I admired it so much; I realized I could see it. I loved how he stressed his wonder of the place with repetitive emphasis, even though the terms were different. I was amazed by the “antediluvian crustaceans in the primordial ooze”. (295) Quite a phrase! Even the witty account of the Joshua trees, standing out “in silhouette on the fossil wasteland like some arithmetic nightmare” returned later in the story. I learned a lot about the desert and certainly about the Mach I. It wouldn’t have been interesting without Yeager’s participation in it all and nor perhaps even Pancho Barnes (296).

Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook was a writer’s portrait. A narrative that fellow writers get, the one we try to explain to others and after a few aggravating moments of wasted breath, we sigh and change the subject. Didion eloquently explained the meaning of writing, the need to write, the feeling of writing for one’s self. Reading this, I remembered my early days with a pencil and the encouragement from my mom and teachers to write what I thought and to primarily draft an account of my day. Like Didion, I believe that writing goes beyond merely chronicling events. Once I begin recounting something as I write, I have to attempt to find significance in that moment, of the moment, with the people involved, the affect on me. It’s what we do. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed… afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” (Didion 133) Yes – there is a need to decipher, to rearrange, to finagle outcomes lived and imagined, keeping us secure and sane in our humble and content little worlds. It encouraged me to keep writing.

I also liked the slices-of-life in Didion’s Los Angeles Notebook. Each segment reminded me of a brief skit on an old Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In program. Especially the Helen Gurley Brown bit. Music and all in between. Her blurb about the Santa Ana winds included a rare opinion:

Easterners commonly complain that there is no “weather” at all in Southern California, that the days and the seasons slip by relentlessly, numbingly bland. That is quite misleading. (219)

As she explains it, in her distinctive style, she is detached from the topic again with facts and accounts involving the winds. I’ve never experienced them and I realized that her opinion, “That is quite misleading”, kept me grounded. I wanted her to disprove the aforementioned complaint, and I knew she would.

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. 1968.

Sims, Patsy, ed. Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.

 

Tonya: “Short sentences also resembled verse in the middle of the narrative beating to the crux of the battle, along with the heartbeat, and even the end (82, 84):”
Dr. G:  “This type of reflection is great to consider.  I often tell my fiction students that they should take a lesson from the poets.  Poets test every word to make sure it is working for the whole piece.  As short story writers, we do that some of the time, as novelists, wow, most of us forget to consider it.  CNF writers too should learn from those poets and play with how the words sound and act on the page. What would it take for you to dig deep like this?”

“Hello, Dr. G. I think the rhythm of a piece has a lot to do with it. I’ve employed this technique in fiction, which stems from writing poetry over the years. With the mood, I feel the tempo. I don’t think I’ve seen it in non-fiction like this, which to me certainly characterized it as creative and it stood out. Franklin was winding down, slowing down, the pace was still pretty quick and the tension remained high. However, those sentences were like breaths in between the tense final moments of the narrative, bringing the story down to the gentle stop. ~Tonya”

 

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