Demand action from the quiet ghetto of literature Realism: Novels must do things, not just wallow in elegance.


October 19, 1997|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's official. I have now read enough dreary, well-crafted memoirs and dull, transparently autobiographical fiction to last me a decade. I will boycott the precious, wannabe-poetic language and the phony epiphanies.

Sweetie, I have friends, I've got a family, I own a TV with cable - I don't need to read a book that pushes me into a corner and, like a crashing bore at a party, tells me about the childhood, the first kiss and the drug abuse, all in a proud, warts-and-all, familiar voice. Dear soul, I too have been to school, gone downtown on the subway, and watched Grandma roll out her pie crust.

Not that I'll stop reading a couple of dozen books a year. I'm just reading different books now: seafaring chronicles, inside politics, movie books and erotica. I'm re-reading old books I loved the first time around. But most of all I'm reading literary thrillers - novels by respected literary writers (the broad category that includes .. Toni Morrison but not Grisham) that crackle with movie-star high-voltage plots, explicit sex and violence and plenty of raunchy dialogue.

This genre is more than simple pulp entertainment. Literary thriller writers directly engage the vulgarity of our times both in subject matter and narrative strategy. They arouse the reader in the manner of explicitly commercial writers, without the solemn remove of so much academic fiction. They imbue their characters with depth, humor and brains and then put them in chase scenes, courtroom battles and gunfights. For serious readers, these books are an antidote to the deadly inner gaze that pervades so much "quality" fiction.

And why shouldn't a book speed up our heart?

I say, Bless these books because they take me into fast company, someplace where the stakes are high and crises don't sputter out in a muted, subtle epiphany. These books are brutally physical, but always freighted with moral and emotional weight; as Hemingway said about good writing, these books take the reader on an adventure that "will become a part of his or her experience and seem actually to have happened." (From "Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 2," edited by George Plimpton.)

Perhaps the most famous example of a quality-lit writer who jumped to the thriller genre is James Lee Burke, who went from small print runs on Louisiana State University Press and short stories in Atlantic Monthly to million-plus mass paperback runs of his thriller series set in Louisiana, starring Detective Dave Robicheaux. The thrillers are lurid, deeply felt, violently moral. They evoke New Orleans and the bayou better than any other book I've ever read, and, as a body of work, they vividly document the demise of a region.

Burke sells big, but there are plenty of other writers, maybe undiscovered by the mass audience, who started out writing moody, graceful literature and in recent years have embraced the thriller format.

Start with Larry Brown. In his first collection of stories, "Facing the Music" (Chapel Hill. Algonquin. 167 pages. $12.95), Brown wrote about gritty Southern wife-beaters and murderers with compressed grace. Many of the stories end, in the manner of Joyce's "Dubliners," just at the point of physical or emotional violence. They are a haunting lot, artful and touching and not quite cathartic.

"Father and Son," Brown's most recent novel (Algonquin. 347 pages. $22.95), however, is a bruising free ride in which Brown's signature Mississippians, brave, full-hearted men and women, are let free from the quiet ghetto of literature and get to act out their passions in a story straight from classic movie westerns: Bad brother gets out of jail, comes home, commits evil and ends up in a nail-biting fight to the death.

What a writer like Brown can do is use words to show action better than any camera could. Here, early on, is a pet monkey attacking the bad-seed brother in an empty Mississippi bar: "In one leap it was on him and biting his hand. The fear came up in his throat the same way it had the day he almost jumped off the barn. The monkey was clawing at him, the little leathery black fingers clutching at his clothes with terribly surprising strength. He managed to get his other hand around its throat and it began to make a dreadful noise, crying almost like a child. The tail curled around his forearm and gripped it tight."

The scene continues for another full thrilling page, but it is not simply sensation. Artful foreshadowing is buried on the page: "the day he almost jumped off the barn," a past tragedy that we experience in fragments, memory triggered by action, illuminating souls.

From elegance to grit

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