Reading Cormac through Walker’s telescope

I was ecstatic when Will Barrett, in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, trained his German telescope—”knurled and calibrated with a black spiderlash in the nickel”—on a brick building clear across Central Park:

Not only were the bricks seen as if they were ten feet away; they were better than that. It was better than having the bricks there before him. They gained in value. Every grain and crack and excrescence became available. Beyond any doubt, he said to himself, this proves that bricks, as well as other things, are not as accessible as they used to be. Special measures were needed to recover them.

The telescope recovered them.

Every writer reads with a split brain, right? One eye for pleasure, the other peering at technique–but with my mental telescope trained right on the sentences, I often miss the big picture and end up with the bulleted list. But that’s my lens. In this manner I began rereading Cormac McCarthy, and found three scenes in The Orchard Keeper that felt linked in how they revealed character: through action, not emotion, and through a boy’s interaction with animals.

Page 63: The boy John Wesley spots a young rabbit at the bottom of a dry well. Every day he brings greens and drops them in, till finally the greens flutter over the rabbit

and it didn’t move. He went away and he could see for a long time the rabbit down in the bottom of the well among the rocks with the lettuce over it.

Subliminal revelation: a compassionate loner, kind to animals, responsible: he doesn’t miss a day, checks back even when there’s little hope.

Page 77-80: John Wesley rescues a injured sparrowhawk that eyes him “without malice or fear—something hard there, implacable and ungiving.” With no expectation of gratitude, then, he feeds it grasshoppers and meat. After three days it dies and (this flows into a third scene, or new part of the same scene) he gets a ride into town and walks into the courthouse. “He held the bag up. Hawk bounty, he said.”

Hawk bounty is one dollar. John Wesley acts like someone who has never had so much money:

He held the dollar in his hand, folded neatly twice. When he got outside he took it and folded it again, making a square of it, and thrust it down between the copper rivets into the watchpocket of his overall pants.  He patted it flat…

…and pats it twice more as he walks. That’s a dollar he could have had three days sooner by wringing a hurt bird’s neck. But no, he’d perceived its majesty. For God’s sake, the boy was out catching grasshoppers so the hawk might live.

I was so happy when I saw the thread between the rabbit and hawk scenes that I went back to my novel-in-progress, wondering: might there be 2-3 short, spare segments (the rabbit is only 1 paragraph–half tell, half show) that I can weave in to establish the protagonist’s character in this way?

Good litnews is experiencing rapid cell division.

Jen Michalski, who edits the litblog JMWW, will have a story collection (her second), tentatively titled You Were Only Waiting for This Moment, published by Dzanc Books.

Sandra Beasley will have a poem in Best American Poetry 2010. (She also has three in the new issue of The Normal School, which is worth a subscription.)

Samantha Dunn had a stunning op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

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