There’s a lot of talk about Great American Writers these days. Jonathan Franzen got branded with a version of that moniker (Great American Novelist) a number of years ago when he published The Corrections (and then made the Oprah Follies). Freedom, his latest, still gives the dude buzz 2 years after it came out (and gave him a chance to make nice with Big O). I’ve read as much of both books as I possibly can, and I’m sorry: Franzen is a great writer, a monster writer in fact, if you will let me invent such a term. Both novels are gargantuan stories about what it means to live in America here in the future. But there are many more profound and touching books out there that the press, Oprah, and Time Magazine don’t seem to be aware of.
My favorite writer over the past decade has been Anthony Doerr. I read his book of short stories, Memory Wall, back in early 2011 and was blown away. It’s out in paperback now. You should read it. See a short video here where he talks some about the main story, “Memory Wall.” They’re making it into a feature film too. The whole book is a collection of stories taking different angles on the question of memory, something all of us over the age of 50 are obviously very interested in…and concerned about.
In the video Tony also talks about his first published short story, “The Hunter’s Wife,” that came out in The Atlantic nearly 11 years ago (you can access the story here, although I suggest buying the whole book of stories, see references at the end of this entry). I read that story when it first came out and was blown away by Doerr’s talent. That one story made me believe there was still hope for short fiction in America. Although The Atlantic has stupidly discontinued their monthly offering, short story writing seems to me better than it’s been in several decades.
If we’re going to talk about Great American Writers on any level, the first and most important thing about them needs to be their ability to wield language like a kind of real world magic. Most of the bestsellers out there do very little with language. There is no heart and soul in the words, no click, as David Foster Wallace would say. In “The Hunter’s Wife” there is serious heart and soul and click, from the first line to the last. I highly recommend reading it if you want to spend time with a Great American Writer. (The same heart and soul and click can be found in most of Toni Morrison’s work for sure; Diane Williams and Amy Hempel, master micro-fiction artists are all about heart and soul and click; and what Annie Dillard does with language in her lone novel since 1992, The Maytrees, is truly amazing…and I’m sad that she says she is done writing).
Most importantly, what I find in Doerr’s work is a lyrical, intelligent and even spiritual (in a 21st century way) approach to stories and characters. Couple that with his astounding linguistic talents and you have the makings of quiet genius. He has a passion for the details of the physical world and enormity of “the environment” such as this paragraph when the hunter takes his wife out in the snow to “hear the grizzly”:
“The bear denned every winter in the same hollow cedar, the top of which had been shorn off by a storm. Black, three-fingered, and huge, in the starlight it resembled a skeletal hand thrust up from the ground, a ghoulish visitor scrabbling its way out of the underworld. They knelt. Above them the stars were knife points, hard and white. “Put your ear here,” he whispered. The breath that carried his words crystallized and blew away. They listened, face-to-face, their ears over woodpecker holes in the trunk. She heard it after a minute, tuning her ears in to something like a drowsy sigh, a long exhalation of slumber. Her eyes widened. A full minute passed. She heard it again.”
The grizzly listening section goes on for a few more paragraphs with the Hunter’s Wife wanting to touch the hibernating bear. That section is a treat in and of itself and well worth the read.
Doerr’s work is available digitally as well as in book form. Personally, I believe some fiction should be collected for the shelf. Memory Wall is a book you will want to go back to every once in a while over the next 30 years.
Quick Resource Links: