I’m a fan of good lyrical writing.
So much so that I am open to reading pretty much anything if it’s said well, even if other elements of writing – such as a plot and a point – are lacking. I’ve often said that I would be happy to read the back of cereal boxes if the content was written well. Just last night I saw that very word-picture used also by Don DeLillo in White Noise, where he invented an academic department at Fictional U devoted to the practice.
Even for me, though, a 600-page non-fiction doorstop about a single county in Kansas (of all places) seemed like a rather rich undertaking. Had I not known the author I would’ve marveled that a publisher would take on such a thing.
I did know the author, however, and I see why the book exists. William Least-Heat Moon wrote this book, PrairyErth. He’s a travel writer (author of Blue Highways, among others), but is essentially doing the opposite of travel writing here. He’s drilling down into a single spot in rich, deep layers, capturing the essence of this rural spot in the middle of the country. “[I]f a traveler can’t penetrate a place, maybe it can penetrate him; sometimes he must let his theres come to him.”
Though he grids the county and stays inside its boundaries, the book nonetheless feels like the best of travel writing. For my money, rivaling Bill Bryson. Moon’s voice is less chirpy and more portentous. You’ll often stop in mid-paragraph and re-read, slowly, just to savor the words again. A few more examples:
He writes of his friend,
whose mind is as eccentrically contoured as you can find among those of us walking at liberty
A person or people who cannot recollect their past have little point beyond mere animal existence: it is memory that makes things matter.
Had American Indians – whose notion of time is so much more unified and unlimited than the European conception – ever built clocks, I think theirs would run like this one, its hands moving forward while its voice speaks backwards. If, in your sleep, you sometimes dream of, say, a dead parent living again or yourself as older or younger than you are, then you may have an inkling of the breadth and depth and oneness of Indian Time.
Sometimes it’s more invigorating to have your disbelief broken than to have it confirmed.
The place goes suddenly quiet with the last door slam, and we all stand locked in the guilt of an evil topic, and nobody knows what to do until a fellow says, using words to cover his exit, ‘Ed, you better be at that nut fry tomorrow,’ and Ed hooks himself to those words and gets pulled out the door and calls a bantering farewell that someone else hooks on to, and, like a string of caught fish, they’re all pulled out into the night.
And her bedroom under the roof-sloped ceiling, the walls close: tidy, sparse, only a chair and steel bed with a white coverlet over the little concavity in the mattress where she sleeps in the fetal position, a string from the pull chain on the naked bulb in the ceiling to the bedstead, and an old mirror with the silver mostly gone as if all its reflections had worn through.
I have never been permitted inside the house, but I understand it has been modified, remodeled away from grace to practicality, the commonplace absorbing the fanciful and superfluous, as the twentieth century often does to the nineteenth.
Across America, lone risings have been sacred places to tribal Americans, places to reach out for the infinite. Where whites saw this knob and dreamed gold, aboriginal peoples (it’s my guess) found it and dreamed God, and it must have belonged to their legends and gramarye, and they surely came to this erosional ellipse as leaves to the eddy.
On the prairie, distance and the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as difficult to penetrate as a forest. I was hiking in a chamber of absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot fell just where it had lifted from. . . . Whatever else a prairie is — grass, sky, wind — it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.