Walking Train Tracks on Superbowl Sunday


February 4, 2017

It was a warm day for February, mid fifties with a mild wind and overcast skies but no rain. Mid-afternoon, I had an afternoon to kill, waiting for the Superbowl to come on tv, waiting on my daughter, who was dancing at the ballet studio all afternoon and into the evening, (halftime to be exact, before she finished and we could make the hour drive home; she wanted to watch Lady Gaga, so we sat in the lobby of the studio for another fifteen minutes and watched the spectacle).

A couple of miles from the studio Two Rivers Park sits at the junction of the Little Maumelle River and the Arkansas River. There’s a big parking area, a boat ramp, and a bicycle/pedestrian bridge that crosses the mouth of the Little Maumelle and connects the Two Rivers trail to the Arkansas River Trail, which runs all the way downtown on the south side of the river and splits to cross the Big Dam Bridge and run into North Little Rock on the north side of the Arkansas. It being Sunday afternoon the parking lot was full and the Two Rivers trail, paved for bicycles, was busy. Railroad tracks ran west, toward cone-shaped Pinnacle Mountain in the distance, the tracks squeezed between a steep bluff and the Little Maumelle River. Opting for time away from crowds, I followed the tracks and soon found myself alone, following the curve of the rails as it paralleled the curves of the river.

I’ve got a history with railroad tracks dating back to my early teenage years, when a friend and I used the tracks near his house to get out of the neighborhood he lived in and into what passed for near-country despite being in the middle of a mid-sized Mississippi town. We’d lay our ears on the rails and try to detect approaching trains, like American Indians or train robbers in the movies, but never really heard anything even when we could see the big diesel engines a quarter mile down the track. We’d lay coins on the rails and wait for the train to flatten them into silver and copper pancakes. We’d collect rusted railroad spikes and look for blue-glass insulators at the base of utility poles that often ran beside the tracks. The benefit of railroad tracks is that they usually go cross-country, where highways and streets seldom seem to go. Unlike cars, trains don’t need to stop, or turn off or lead to houses or businesses, so in just a few minutes of walking, it can feel like you’re miles from nowhere. Traffic noises dissipate, trees crowd up close to the right of way, and the gentle curves provide an incentive to find out what’s around the next bend. Walking the rails, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s young hero Nick Adams, walking the rails and riding the trains to get away from something, or to get somewhere new and promising.

In college I rented a room in a house that sat on the edge of town. Behind the house railroad tracks led off into the country, and beside the tracks for a long way was a nice creek with steep banks and wonderful hardwoods. Across the creek stretched the experimental farmland of Mississippi State University’s College of Agriculture, several hundred acres. Afternoons I would gather my books and head off down the tracks and walk as far as I wanted until I found a nice place to study in the woods that sheltered the creek.

Despite the peaceful setting, passing trains never failed to excite the little boy inside of me. The deep throb of the diesel engines, the wave of the engineer, the screeching metal-on-metal of the wheels, remind me of the excitement Walt Whitman felt in his poem, “To a Locomotive in Winter”:

. . . .
Fierce-throated beauty!	 
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,	  
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,	 
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)	 
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,	
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide,across the lakes,	 
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Although there were no trains running today, it was pleasant to be outdoors. The Little Maumelle, about 40 yards wide at the mouth, narrowing to twenty by the time I had hiked two miles, barely registered a flow as it was backed up behind Big Dam Bridge. But the tracks were covered in fallen leaves, oak and hickory, and fat acorns had dropped between the ties. I tossed a few tie spikes and some rusted bolts into the river to hear the deep splash. The bluff towered above me on the left, a couple of hundred feet in places, and at the end of my walk I came upon a small marina on the far bank, with a tiny houseboat built on a small barge, and I watched a fat dog waddle down the gangplank onto the boat. In the marina a pontoon boat sported a confederate flag. I turned back toward the park where my car was, and as I walked back a few squirrels scampered across the tracks and up on the ridge a deer walked through the trees, silhouetted against the sky behind him.



An Introduction to Jim Harrison’s True North (2004)

jim_harrison     true north

Many of Jim Harrison’s novels and novellas are set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP), an isolated finger of land that extends from Wisconsin into the Great Lakes Michigan, Huron, and Superior. The UP is only thinly connected to the mainland of Michigan, by bridge, and this isolation has created a distinct sense of regionalism. Harrison, best known for his novellas like Revenge and Legends of the Fall, has made the small towns, eccentric characters, and sparsely populated wilderness uniquely his own in the novella Brown Dog and his novels Warlock, Wolf, Sundog, and Farmer. His protagonists are usually middle-aged literate and worldly woodsmen, appreciative of fine cuisine, literature, the arts, and philosophy. They fish, wade, and row the waters of the UP, wander the woods, notice the flora and fauna, and think deeply about life in all its banality and wonder.

It is this quality that attracts me so to Harrison’s work, and especially his settings and characters. Like Harrison’s protagonists, men and women and children, I’ve tramped woods, climbed mountains, waded creeks, and floated boats in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolian, Tennessee, Florida; in Colorado, New mexico, Utah, and Arizona; Texas and Alaska. Most of that time I had a book in my hands, and more often than not it was a book by Jim Harrison, Edward Abbey, Ernest Hemignway, or Louise Erdrich, or Wallace Stegner. All of these writers treated the land as character, and their characters both defined the land they walked on and were defined by it. This blending of literature and land, and coming to care for characters who loved the wild and books equally, kept me haunting the book shops for every book by every one of these authors. I haven’t read them all yet, but I have a small library of these authors, and I have the reading to look forward to. For my own writing, I turn to these authors for inspriation, for for technique, for companionship.

It is difficult to read Harrison’s UP books without recalling the images of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams and his restorative fishing trip to the Big Two-Hearted River, which made the Upper Peninsula an indelible part of the literary landscape. Both authors ably capture the rugged beauty of the UP and explore the effect of nature on characters whose very soul seems to be connected to the land. However, until the publication of Harrison’s True North in 2004, with the introduction of the novel’s youthful narrator, David Burkett, there was never a clear connection to Hemingway’s Nick Adams. Nick Adams and David Burkett fish the same waters, but they illustrate widely varying generations. Adams’ journey into the wilderness of the U.P. represents a generation’s search for inner peace following a time of war, but Burkett’s guilt-prompted journey reflects a generation’s sense of social responsibility and the need for forgiveness.

Nick Adams and David Burkett have both been damaged by life, and as a result, retreat to the UP for spiritual healing. In order to exorcise their personal demons, both characters adhere to the healing regimen of fly-fishing for trout, living in Spartan conditions, physically embracing the land they walk on, and contemplating their lives and the circumstances that have brought them to the wilderness. “Big Two-Hearted River” takes up the story of Nick Adams following his return home from service in Italy during World War I. True North begins with the story of sixteen-year-old Burkett sometime in the mid to late 1960’s, already possessed with deep wounds, a searching nature, and a love for the outdoors, and traces his life into his early thirties. At the time “Big Two-Hearted River” is set, Adams would have been in his early twenties. Burkett’s lifetime of crisis climaxes at age twenty-seven. Both embark on a path toward healing, but the nature of the paths is quite different.

A Reading List for English Majors

A few years ago one of my students asked the faculty in our department to compile Top Ten reading lists for our majors. There were no specific criteria, just books that meant something to us and we hoped our students would read at some point in their lives. Of course, I couldn’t stop at 10, but here’s what I turned in, and I would emphasize that these are in no particular order. Every book on the list has had a profound impact on me at some point in my life. Happily, this list will continue to grow every year. I’d be happy to share more about any of these books:

  1. Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (A novel about an ill-prepared fundamentalist Christian missionary family attempt to spread the gospel in 1960s Congo)
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (A dying congregationalist minister writes a letter to his 6 year old son–an exploration of grace)
  3. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (nonfiction–a season in the wilderness of Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park, arguing for the preservation of wilderness)
  4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (A collection of linked short stories exploring the Viet Nam War and the problem of how to tell a “true” war story)
  5. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (An exploration of family history, the juxtaposition of American East and American West, as well as the conflicting values of the Victorian Age versus the 1960s)
  6. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler (Written from the  POV of Vietnamese men and women dealing with the aftermath of the Viet Namese war, often as expatriates living in the United States)
  7. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (interlinked short stories set on an Objibwe reservation in North Dakota–the titular story helped me navigate the greif following the death of my father)
  8. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (A meditation on religion, family, and flyfishing in 1920s Montana)
  9. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger (A postmodern look at the history of the wild west, and in particular, the adventures of Jack Crab, lone white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; the story of a person raised in two cultures, belonging to neither)
  10. 10.True Grit by Charles Portis (A reflection on revenge and justice in post civil war Oklahoma Indian territory)
  11. No County for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (An examination of change on the 1970s Texas Border–the nature of evil and chaos)
  12. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (A collection of existential short stories showing the lives of people on the margins of society)
  13. Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge (A short story collection that could easily serve as the text for a regular Bible Study. Everyone should be able to recognize himself in one of O’Connor’s Spiritual Grotesques)
  14. Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall (Three novellas that explore the nature of revenge (“Revenge”), fate (“Legends of the Fall”), and loss and remaking (“The Man Who Gave up his Name”)
  15. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (A portrayal of bureaucracy of war, or war as American Industry)
  16. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (The Lost Generation searches for meaning as expatriates following WWII and home of possibly the best final lines ever written: “Oh Jake,” Brett said. “We could have had such a damned good time together.” “Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

The Tools We Work With, Part VIII

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During the period when I was working on the lines, I began to work at writing stories. I had always read–mostly thrillers about Viet Nam vets and cowboys–but somehow I stumbled onto Hemingway, and from there to Fitzgerald, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien, and Richard Ford. In those writers I began to recognize a power, an ability to touch someone with words, and I wanted that for myself. I bought an Olivetti manual typewriter and dragged it from job to job. In the evenings after work, or on rain days, I would sit at a table in the room and type for an hour or so, until I was too tired or something else came up. There were enough excuses that I didn’t work at writing very hard.

My friends on the line were curious about what I was doing, and whenever a fight, or accident, or close call occurred on the job they would always ask, “Is that going in the book?” My climbing partner, a kid named Ben who climbed two years before he was old enough to buy beer, wanted to die a spectacular death in the story. He always said, “I have to fall at least two-hundred feet so I can scream my little lungs out.”

There was a certain romance to dangerous work, but it was consuming.  Weather wore at my face and hands. Climbing aged my knees and ankles. The voices of the men I worked with had deepened and grown harsh from years of yelling at people on the ground. And it was lonely–motel rooms five nights a week, long drives from the job to my home that burned up weekends. But worse, though they were curious, no one understood about wanting to write. I pictured myself–sitting at my typewriter at night–as a young Salinger writing on weekend leave from the army, or as Hemingway writing in a tent after a day’s hunting in Africa. But I began to realize that I could spend my life writing in motel rooms and never learn what a good writing program could teach me in two years. I thought that making myself into a writer would require undivided attention, and guidance, and I knew that I would never accomplish that as a lineman.

I didn’t know what to expect out of a graduate writing program, or the people in the program. On the powerlines I talked about hunting, fishing, women, sports, building powerlines, and living away from home–the things I knew. I thought that if I had any advantage it was that I had lived a lifestyle that few people were familiar with. I knew that I wanted to write about the people and places I had lived with and worked at. I thought the confidence that I had developed on the powerlines would carry me through.

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The last day I worked for TVA we clipped in new conductor wire on a powerline outside of Montery, Tennessee. I climbed five towers, but after lunch my foreman called me down and took my hardhat. Everyone on the crew signed the hat, most by nickname, the last guys I climbed with. Just before I left, Ben said, “Kill me good in the book.”

Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part VIII

Part VIII: The Red Wheelbarrow, Second Time Around


December 7, 2014

On the train to Arles in the south of France that evening in 2009, and on the days following, I relived Hemingway’s days in Paris. On our last full day in Paris, five years later in 2015, I attempted to revisit the Red Wheelbarrow book shop on a cold Sunday afternoon in intermittent rain. We had walked to the Bastille market earlier in the morning to shop, and since the rue St. Paul was on the way back to our flat just across the Seine on the Isle St. Louis, we found ourselves retracing the same route, more or less, that Julia Rose and I had taken five years before. I had looked up the bookstore on the internet earlier that morning, found its website, and located the address on Google Maps. I had taken a screen shot of the map on my phone and used it to guide us to the store.

We found the address, but no bookstore, and I walked back to the flat in the rain with my family, dejected, though the mood lightened for a moment as we paused long enough to watch a string of thirty high school students trudging single file in the rain, loaded down with backpacks or pulling wheeled suitcases behind them, looking for their hotel.

If I had Googled much further that morning, I would have found the following blog post mourning the demise of several neighborhood bookshops in Paris:


The Red Wheelbarrow’s owners had to leave the city for personal reasons. They tried to sell the store but couldn’t find a buyer, so they sold the books and closed the doors. The sign remained for a while, but by the time I went looking in December of 2014 even the sign was gone. Parisian Fields: Exploring Paris One Blog at a Time is a good blog, and “Going, Going, Gone is a fine, sad post, well worth reading.

The author of that post, Philippa Campsie, captured some of what I think I feel about Paris. She writes about how something as simple as a book shop, even one visited ever so briefly, as I did once at the Red Wheelbarrow, can give a visitor a sense of belonging to a city. She writes: “[The bookshops] were never just about selling books. They hosted readings and launches, and they were places to go for conversation and news. At the Red Wheelbarrow, the people behind the desk recommended not just books, but the best boulangerie in the area. The staff weighed in on the merit of local cafes, and introduced us to other browsers crowding into the tiny space. You can’t get that in an e-book.  In Paris, where sometimes it can be hard to find one’s feet and where much is unfamiliar, a space like the Red Wheelbarrow allowed us to feel on solid ground. Lost bookshops are lost friends. When a place like that disappears, it is not just the end of a business, it is the end of a friendship.”


How difficult it is to own a city you only visit—one undergoing constant change at that. (Campsie also mentions the author Charles Baudelaire, who mourned the city he remembered as it transformed in the 1850s: “Old Paris is no more (the form of a city / Changes more quickly, alas! Than the human heart).”) Yet that is the reputation that Paris enjoys. Almost everyone who goes there buys into the sentiment expressed by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.” We feel that for the short time we are there we own the city.


The problem of owning a city you only visit is compounded even further because the real city is nearly inaccessible to the average visitor. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who lived in Paris for five years, writes about the changes the city is undergoing and the effects of tourism in “The View from a Bridge.” He writes:

“ . . . every city with mass tourism makes an implicit compact with tourists, which involves certain territorial concessions. No New Yorker would be really indignant to hear of an insult to the urban fabric of the South Street Seaport. Changing the guard at Buckingham Palace is a moving and entertaining ritual, and the Tower of London is a fascinating historical citadel. No real Londoner would be caught dead near either. Mass tourism doesn’t just overcharge its locales; it devours its objects. Our conversion experience to cities inevitably alienates us from the thing that first converted us

“. . . . If Parisians, of Venetians, tried to distinguish between mere tourists and true travelers and adopted visitors, they would never stop. Better to make two lumps—Them and Us, and stick to the Us places while surrendering the Them spots. Where the people who put up love locks insist that people have always been putting up love locks, Parisians pretend that the Pont des Arts is the kind of place you would have always wanted to avoid because it attracted the kind of people who put up love locks.”

The Paris that I imagine, the one inspired by Hemingway (whose café on the Place Saint Michel—a few blocks from where we stayed in Paris on either of our visits—is surely gone now), the one inspired by Buffett, is an idea or a concept more than a reality. The one that Woody Allen captured in that wonderful film Midnight in Paris is a dream. Even the Paris that my wife and I see on House Hunters International, a television program where couples shop for new homes in exotic places while routinely flouting a budget ranging into the millions of dollars, is a Paris that we will never be able to share. But despite all of that, the Paris that I shared with my wife and daughters, walking the streets, browsing the markets, cruising the tourist attractions, searching for bookstores, and lounging in a small flat that felt like home after nearly a month of living out of suitcases, where we could cook a meal, do laundry, and relax with a book or catch up on journals in comfort, is still Paris, and even though I could only borrow it for a short time, I would rather be there than almost anywhere else. Even though I never lived there, I feel I can share what Hemingway felt about the city as he closed A Moveable Feast:

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”


Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part VII

Part VII: The Red Wheelbarrow, First Time Around

June 22, 2009

On the next to last day of my first trip to Paris, a Sunday, we had breakfasted on a variety of manakishes, bread wraps with fillings of cheeses, ham, and spinach, made to order at a stall in the Bastille market, just around the block from our hotel. My wife and two daughters—seven and nine—and I spent the morning battling the crowds in the Louvre, had lunch in the Tuileries, then walked up the Champs Elysees toward the Arc d’ Triomphe. Along the way we shopped in the Virgin music store and used the rest room at McDonalds, then walked to the Eiffel tower and waited in line, amusing ourselves with the still-surprising sight of military patrolling the grounds with slung machine guns and the Middle-Eastern souvenir vendors hawking illegal keychains and scrambling out of the way of the police every few minutes.

Place de la Bastille, Paris

Place de la Bastille, Paris

By the time we got off the tower it was after seven p.m. and the weather was cold and windy. We had a forty-eight hour pass for the Batobus—the glass enclosed tour boats wending up and down the Seine with stops at major tourist attractions—so we got on the boat and headed toward our hotel. As we motored up the Seine we observed parties growing in size along the banks. Whereas the day before, Saturday, we’d seen small groups and couples sitting along the banks of the Seine playing guitars, drinking wine, and watching the sunset, on Sunday, as the hour approached ten p.m., the parties were large and raucous, with bands and food vendors and people dancing and drinking like New Year’s Eve.

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We crossed the bridge and walked toward our hotel, fighting the crowds that rivaled Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras. Outside the McDonalds near the market where we’d had breakfast, there was  a full-scale concert blasting and a bouncer at the doors of the McDonalds tossing out drunks and non-customers with full bladders trying to sneak upstairs to use the restrooms. The bouncer spoke enough English to tell me that the day was a “holiday of music.” Only when we got to the hotel, carrying our McDonalds takeout to eat in the peace of our room, did the woman at the desk tell us that it was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, a day to celebrate music and light.

The next day the city woke up with a hangover. The woman at the hotel desk directed us to a boulangerie down the street for breakfast pastries. We stored our baggage in the hotel lobby and made reservations for a late afternoon train to Arles, then we picked our way through the litter of the street from the Solstice party and began a long walk toward the Pere Lachaise Cemetery to visit the grave of Jim Morrison. The names of those buried in the cemetery is an honor roll of French writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and politicians, among others. I looked sharply for the grave of Moliere, the French playwright who wrote Tartuffe, and I would have liked to look for Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde if there were time, but really I just wanted to see the grave of Morrison, knowing it would be worthwhile since it was a pilgrimage for so many people.

Along the way we stopped at a small grocery for meat, cheese, and chocolate, then at another market for fruit, and a bakery for fresh bread. Outside a high school French teenagers slouched and smoked. We found the cemetery, arrayed on a wooded hillside, with narrow driving lanes leading to a circle drive and more lanes spoking off the hub in all directions. There were thousands of graves and tombs and some mausoleums and memorials. I was reminded of the tombs in New Orleans, obviously developed on the French model. Having no idea how to find Morrison, we locked in on a couple near the front gate and followed them. They sounded British from what I could overhear. He wore black leather pants and mascara. She was tall, platinum blonde, and wore a zebra print mini skirt and military style lace up boots.

Once we found the grave, which was secluded behind a row of larger tombs, a group of people soon gathered. Besides the original British couple, there were three British girls, two pushing the other in a wheel chair. They parked the girl near the grave and she opened a notebook and began to journal. Most of the people who came by were not what I expected, meaning they looked fairly normal, but Lisa and I were the only ones who brought seven and nine year daughters to picnic near Morrison’s tomb. We ate our lunch on a bench and watched the pedestrian traffic flow through the cemetery, including several large tour groups, which I also didn’t expect. Several people paused to take a picture of something directly behind our bench, and when I turned, expecting to see the grave of someone famous, I realized that we had lunched in front of a tomb with a sculpture of a shrouded figure clinging to the front. I wasn’t sure exactly what the sculpture represented, perhaps Death calling, perhaps a parent or loved one mourning, or maybe just a body trying to escape.


After lunch we walked back toward the hotel. Since we had time before the train, Lisa and Stella stopped off at a sidewalk café to rest and enjoy a “Coca Light.” Julia Rose and I kept going toward an English language bookstore I had heard about, The Red Wheelbarrow, named after the William Carlos Williams poem and listed by travel writer Rick Steves as a favorite.

The poem, an example of the Modern style called Imagism, has always been one of my favorites, though it has sparked endless critical interpretation. It reads:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


courtesy of pinterest

courtesy of pinterest

Imagism obviously focuses on precision of imagery and clear sharp language. Critics have argued that the form of the poem is just as significant as the words, and some have even argued that the lines of the poem itself take the shape of a wheelbarrow. I like the idea voiced by the poet John Hollander, who stated that the breaking up of lines forces readers to slow down and meditate on the poem. Peter Baker thought that “Williams is saying that perception is necessary to life and that the poem itself can lead to a fuller understanding of one’s experience.” I like what Williams said regarding the influence for the poem: “[It] sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.” I like the idea that whenever Williams looked at that poem he remembered his friend.

I had been looking for something new to read. I had borrowed Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth from the library at the villa in Florence, but I was having trouble getting into it after having enjoyed The Age of Innocence. Julia Rose and Stella had exhausted their supply of books they had packed for the summer and the villa had little to recommend for them. Wandering the streets of Paris had made me long to reread A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, since it had been years since I had last looked at it.

red wheelbarrow

The bookstore was wonderful. It was about the size of a decent hotel room, a single floor on the rue St. Paul, an inconspicuous small street in the Marias district, stacked floor to ceiling with crowded book shelves and the floor space occupied by tables piled high with books. I was still wearing my day pack with the remains of our lunch and I had to walk carefully to avoid knocking books to the floor. I was impressed by the selection, noting the high representation of the authors that I use to gauge the quality of a book store: Jim Harrison, Tim O’Brien, Louise Erdrich, Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey, and Wallace Stegner (not to mention the classic modernists). I picked out A Moveable Feast and a fictionalized biography/memoir by Doris Lessing (about her parents). Julia Rose bought Anne of Green Gables, and I picked out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (by James Bond creator Ian Fleming) for Stella. I could have easily filled my day pack with books, but refrained, knowing everything would have to be flown back to the U.S. at the end of the summer. As I always do, I listened to the shop girl running the store as she helped French customers shopping for books they wanted to read in English (bi-lingual showoffs!) and her knowledge, and taste, was impressive. I complimented her on her store as we checked out, but she told me in unaccented English that she only worked there, so I imagined her as an American expatriate living out a literary dream in Paris.

Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part VI

Paris 1

Part VI: A Moveable Feast

“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.

            . . . .

            All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife—second class—and the hotel where Verlain had died where I had a room on the top floor where I worked.

            . . . . I walked on in the rain. I walked down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St-Etienne-du Mont and the windswept Place du Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally came out on the lee side of the Boulevard St-Michel and worked on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St-Germain until I came to a good café that I knew on the Place St-Michel.

            It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The Waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story . . . . “

                                                    Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast


I have been a reader for as long as I can remember, but early on my tastes ran to whatever I could find in school libraries and cheap paperbacks, mostly adventure or war stories. Once in a while I found something really good: Catch 22 and MASH introduced me to the absurdity of modern life. When the Legends Die and From Where the Sun Now Stands I Will Fight No More Forever made me think about race, and especially American Indians, in a way I had never thought about before, and The Once and Future King and all of J.R.R. Tolkein opened my mind to mythology and the quest. But for every good book I stumbled upon, there was a load of crap to be waded through. I read more pulp than good books.

Late in college I found the authors that changed my life. Edward Abbey’s fiction and essays attracted me to environmental writing and the isolated canyons of the desert Southwest; Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane lured me to the trout rivers of Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan; J.D. Salinger taught me the rhythms of dialogue and the dynamics of dysfunction; Walker Percy taught me to admit my beloved South was in spiritual decline; Tim O’Brien showed me the blurred edges between fiction and nonfiction and taught me to think about how to tell a true story; James Joyce taught me about epiphany; and Hemingway taught me how to write and how to think about myself as a writer.

imageThe Paris of Hemingway is the Paris I fell in love with, back in the mid-1980s when I worked that soul-sucking job in Georgia and felt more isolated than at any time in my life. I had started to read for real then because I had ideas about writing, and I found writers that spoke to me and I’d read every book they had put out and troll the bookstores for new releases from those still alive.

Hemingway’s writing seems simple at first, but it is richly layered. Short, declarative sentences—“Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over”—set the stage for writing that unfolds like a city map, first placing the reader in a position to react to the weather—“We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain”—and then painting the weather so that we can feel it and see it for ourselves: “ . . . and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.”  Hemingway’s sentences accumulate detail through a steady arithmetic: “and . . . and . . . and.” The repetition of “rain,” three times, helps the reader settle in for a long, cold rain that threatens to stay on for the duration of winter. [Note that all italics are mine.]

Taking us into the Café des Amateurs, Hemingway adds sensory detail, which makes us feel like we are in the café with him—“It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness.” Next, Hemingway provides the commentary that makes us feel like insiders, making the knowledge of the café our own: “The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time, or all of the time they could afford it, mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter or liter. Many strangely named aperitifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on”. And finally, Hemingway gives us language to cement our new-found status as insiders—“The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.”

The Paris of Hemingway is the Paris I fell in love with, and part of the reason is because he writes it so well that I buy into the illusion that it is mine. First, Hemingway makes us feel the cold of his flat, waiting “six or eight floors up.” He knows that the flat is cold, but rather than describe the cold, he guides us through the mental accounting that it would take to heat the place: “I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped packets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-dried lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that would warm the room. So I went to the far side of the street to look up at the roof in the rain and see if any chimneys were going, and how the smoke blew. There was no smoke and I thought about how the chimney would be cold and might not draw and of the room possibly filling with smoke, and the fuel wasted, and the money gone with it, and I walked on in the rain.”

Paris 3Next Hemingway takes us out on the streets, where, along with him,  “. . . [we] walk on in the rain. [We walk] down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St-Etienne-du Mont and the windswept Place du Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally [come] out on the lee side of the Boulevard St-Michel and [work] on down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St-Germain until [we come] to a good café that [we know] on the Place St-Michel.” Hemingway doesn’t describe the streets or the buildings, but he names places, creating a sense that the reader knows them as familiar landmarks. He gives us a sense of the meandering route along the narrow streets, and he uses enough sensory detail for us to imagine hunching our shoulders as we cross the “windswept Place du Pantheon” and we feel a sense of relief as we “cut in for shelter” from the wind.

Finally, in the “good café” that is on the Place St-Michel, Hemingway convinces us that his Paris is our Paris. As he is writing his story about Michigan—most likely “The Three Day Blow”—and “since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story,”  he sees a girl come in the café and sit by herself at a table, where she is obviously waiting for someone to meet her there. He wishes he could put her into the story but doesn’t. He is distracted by her and can’t focus on the story until he plants this final illusion in the reader’s mind: “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

paris 2That is the illusion of Paris. It is a city that prints itself so large in our imagination that we feel we can own it and make it ours. Like Humphrey Bogart said at the end of Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.” I would like to think that it is true, but I don’t. And none of this is to say that I don’t love the city. I do. I’ll go back, and I’ll have a good time. But deep down I know, that as much as I’d like to think Paris belongs to me, all I can do is quote another Hemingway book, The Sun Also Rises:  “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”