Sunday, February 20, 2011

Guns Over Fireplaces: Wendell Berry's WATCH WITH ME

I love good first sentences, opening lines, opening images, opening paragraphs.  Ones that, after you have finished the book, you can look back on and see the entire work foreshadowed there, the spirit of the novel distilled and divined.

We tire of cliched or hackneyed opening lines, the "if only I had known" or "if this small thing hadn't happened, the whole thing would have been different" openings.  Although some otherwise very good books, exceptions, open that way.  Whatever the opening approach, I try to keep an open mind and listen as if the author were telling the story in person.

Stop me if you've heard this one, they'll say.  But we're conscious of the need of the teller to tell this story, and so we listen yet again.

Regarding opening images, Chekhov's Gun Theory  is often cited, the notion that if a gun on a fireplace is described in the opening, someone in the story should later be thinking about firing that gun.  A generic rule with many exceptions, but a good one.

The little known masterpiece that immediately comes to mind is Wendell Berry's pastoral epic in the form of a novella, Watch with Me.  But the gun is not shown in the opening paragraph.  Instead we see what's really important to the story at hand, and what's really important to humanity in a mythic and universal context.

The opening paragraph is a description of a farmer's workshop, with forge and anvil and vise, where he mends things, harness or shoes or whatever needs mending.  Sometimes he goes there to putter, sometimes just to sit and think.  The concluding sentence of the opening paragraph says that the double doors of the shop admit "a fine flow of light."  It seems mundane, and you won't see the significance in the opening until you reflect back on it.

Berry's farmer protagonist becomes alarmed at the threat that an otherwise harmless cow snake poses to his hatching chickens.  He goes to the house and returns with his shotgun, now loaded.

Chekhov's gun theory now comes into play.  A neighbor stops by to talk, a well-known eccentric commonly known as Nightlife, whose impaired vision through thick glasses sometimes confused nighttime with day.  Nightlife unexpectedly grabs the loaded gun and walks off with it. 

This character is afflicted with what we today call autism or Tourette Syndrome, and his marginalism is described in tolerant 1916 terms, long before there was such a diagnosis:

"Nightlife was an oddity, and no one could quite account for him.  His mind, which contained the lighted countryside, had a leak in it somewhere, some little hole through which now and again would pour the whole darkness of the darkest night--so that instead of walking in the country he knew and among his kinfolks and neighbors, he would be afoot in a limitless and undivided universe, completely dark, inhabited only by himself."

"From there he would want to call out for rescue, and that was when nobody could tell what he was going to do next, and perhaps he could not tell either."

Berry's protagonist, with a mixture of alarm and responsibility, then sets out after Nightlife, trying to find a way to get the gun from him without making him angry enough to shoot himself or somebody else.  Thus begins this epic novella, epic because it begs to be read slowly and because it is so much larger than the sum of its parts.

The story is set in 1916, and the book was first published in 1994--but the story is a timeless masterpiece.

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