Sunday, July 19, 2009

Breathing Water in Shadow Country

Late last Wednesday afternoon, I finally finished writing my review of Breathing Water, a novel by Timothy Hallinan, and posted it online. With that belated accomplishment behind me, I fired off a brief e-mail to Tim to reassure him that the ARC he sent to me in early June had indeed fulfilled its purpose. A return e-mail from Tim graced my inbox on Thursday morning; his message said, in part:

“So THAT's why I became a writer. Reactions like this make it all worthwhile, even the days (weeks) when it's impossible to write a simple declarative sentence. Weeks like this one, in fact.”

You see, Tim frequently alludes to his struggles with writer’s block, an affliction that affects most writers (with the possible exceptions of Dean Koontz and Stephen King) at one time or another during their careers. I, too, struggle with writer’s block—usually on a daily basis—and I tend to regard any day that I’m able to add at least a single finished paragraph to whatever project I happen to be working on to be a highly productive day.

Unfortunately, when it came to writing my Breathing Water review, I couldn’t attain even that low standard. Having written more than two dozen reviews—none of which took longer than two or three days to write—I reasonably expected this one to emerge in a comparable time frame. But it just. Wasn’t. Gonna. Happen.

But let me begin at the beginning. When the Breathing Water ARC arrived at my door, on June 3rd, I was about a 100 pages into the second of two books I’d checked out of the local library a couple of weeks earlier, and I needed to finish it before starting another. Five days after its arrival I began reading Breathing Water, which I finished reading six days later. In the meantime, I’d returned the borrowed books to the library and checked out two more.

For me, the problem with having an unread book on hand (and no other reading in progress) is that I can’t wait to start reading it. As soon as I closed the covers on Breathing Water, I immediately launched into reading Shadow Country, a huge, rambling novel (892 pages), by Peter Matthiessen, about the fictional E.J. Watson’s life in the Florida Everglades during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And that’s when things really started to bog down.

Instead of banging out the review when plot and characters were still fresh in my mind, I procrastinated. And, as I became mired ever deeper in Shadow Country’s complexities of plot and character, my memories of the sequence of events in Breathing Water became hopelessly scrambled. When I was finally ready to start writing the review, I discovered I wasn’t ready to write the review; no way was I going to write a coherent review based on a quicksand foundation of fading memories. My only solution was to read Breathing Water a second time.

It proved to be a wise decision. A second reading not only refreshed my memory of Breathing Water, it restored my enthusiasm for the story and gave me a new appreciation of Tim’s writing skills. Even minor details that had somehow escaped my attention in the first go round took on new meaning and greater importance. Take Breathing Water’s opening sentence*, for instance:

“The man behind the desk is a dim shape framed in blinding light, a god emerging from the brilliance of infinity.”

Powerful imagery born of pure genius. The first time I read those words I thought, oh, that’s good, Tim. The second time I read those words I thought, oh, now that’s just absofuckinglutely brilliant. Compare Breathing Water’s opening sentence with another great and memorable opening sentence, this from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (first book in The Dark Tower series):

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

To my mind, these are two of the best story openings ever written; they’re the kinds of story openings whose raw energy draw in readers and help to create legions of fans for the authors who write them. And when such powerful, well written openings are backed up by equally powerful, well written stories, the results are—more often than not—spectacular.

Stephen King already knows this.

So does Timothy Hallinan.

*The Breathing Water ARC is an unedited, pre-publication version of the story, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that this beginning will make the final cut. What I can say with absolute certainty is that if it doesn’t make the final cut, Tim has an idiot for an editor.

Q >>>