by Weston Cutter
Norman Maclean might’ve written the most heroically pretty sentences in English in the last 35 years. Heroically pretty herein meaning a prettiness that’s (obviously) hopelessly aesthetically pleasing, that contain and impart a prettiness that almost makes you drool, but a prettiness that’s also got not just a morality to it—issues of good v. bad, etc.—but a prettiness that seems to be always moving toward goodness and beauty, to thebest version of the self there may be. It’s probably not at all coincidental that this is a man who grew up with a Presbyterian minister for a father, and that the Presbyterian minister father had (from all we can gather in Maclean’s writings) and imparted a sense of holiness-as-beauty. “Good things come by grace, grace comes by art and art does not come easy,” Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, a book that’s so outrageously good and has been so well-praised for the last three decades that to do so here’s silly. If you haven’t read it, oh man. Just read it. There’s a fineness to it, a nuance and rhythm and (his word, but it’s the word you’d think regardless when reading it) grace that’s just astounding (it’d be worth reading back-to-back sometime with Robinson’s Housekeeping, for whatever it’s worth).
The fact that Maclean’s writing is so good is doubled by the fact that his story is so good: guy and his family moved to Montana when he was six (year: 1908), and he went to Dartmouth (where he took a class with Frost), and then he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago, and there he taught for something like forty years and, on retirement, writing the two books his literary reputation rests on: River (which, for the record, was the first book of fiction U of Chicago press ever published (year: 1976), and if you’ve got a hardcover first printing of it, you’re $1500 richer than you knew: the original run was something like 1160 or something), and Young Men and Fire, which was published posthumously, and which won the National Book Critics Circle award, and which was about the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, and which book was, like it’s predecessor, just freakishly good and moving and interesting.
And now, decades after all that, The Norman Maclean Reader is getting published by, of course, U Chicago press. It’s a heartbreaker deal, really: if you’ve read any Norman Maclean writing, you want to read more, but there’s only so much; the well is finite. And so I, at least, got the book and just gorged, read 150 pages…and then had to stop, basically, because if I read it all in one sitting, just like that, I’d have no more new Maclean ever. But the thing with reading Maclean is that once you start reading him, you can’t really stop.
Go back to that bit above, about grace and art and hard work: Maclean had a rhythm—worked damn hard toward that rhythm—that’s about as ‘true’ or ‘natural’ (or whatever non-bullshitty term you want to use to describe something that feels totallycomplete: think of McPhee’s sentences set to a different sort of music) as any, any book, any genre. And that rhythm’s all through the reader. It’s impossible to say what the best part of the Reader is: The correspondence with four friends is dynamite, as is the interview that immediately precedes the correspondence, as are the essays that fill the pages before the interview, and, right at the start (not totally true: right at the start is editor O. Alan Weltzien’s introduction, which is its own kind of stellar, and, as would likely surprise no well-read reader, Weltzein’s edited two other books, one on (of course) McPhee, the other on Rick Bass (about whom more should be written, here and elsewhere: he’s a magician)), there’s this huge, wonderful chunk of writing about Custer—a topic, apparently, Maclean was hugely interested in and worked on on-and-off for long stretches. It’s amazing! It really is. While the essays gathered here are great (especially the one about Michelson and billiards, and the one about great hunting dogs, and the one about baseball), the Custer stuff’ll just knock you flat out.
Because what I’d guess Maclean had in just excessive spades was not simply focus and concentration, but a sort of focus and concentration that came from working with/within literature for more than half a lifetime; what he brought to the subjects he wrote on was a storyteller’s awareness—for pacing and rhythm, yes, but for an innate guiding sense of the overall—that seems, at least among what I read, pretty absent (for what its worth: it’s a different style than lots of what gets written now, and this isn’t spectrumized territory. Maclean’s devotion to and skill with rhythm (as he used it) isn’t somehow better than, say, Richard Powers’ devotion to and skill with his own, different rhythm. The Custer stuff—it’s incomplete, understand, and it’s never been published—justsings. Reading it is, very simply, exactly what it feels like: it’s like reading the great, not-quite-there work of a master (if you’ve seen Picasso’s “Guernica” along with all the sketches that he did in prep for it, the feeling’s sort of akin to that experience).
This is just going to keep spiraling outward if I don’t just quit here, so I will. In all honestly, reviews won’t (and sure probably shouldn’t) even be needed for this book: Maclean’ll sell no matter what, I’d guess (I mean that as a good thing). But really, really, seriously (as always): read this fucking book. The holidays are coming up and if you’re a US citizen (and especially if you’re from the midwest) you probably know well/are related to some older dude who’s not much for chitchat and who likes sort of outdoorsy stuff (I’m realizing as I write that that maybe it’s just the people I grew up around, and that that’s maybe why I’m into Maclean as much as I am): for that man, for the holidays, buy this book. Seriously.