“How can you like a killer?”

by DRM

Lake Superior Beach

Detective Sunderson walked backward on the beach glancing around now and then to make sure he wasn’t going to trip over a piece of driftwood. The wind out of the northwest had to be over fifty knots and the blowing sand stung his face and grated his eyes. It was below freezing and the surf at the river mouth was high and tormented where Lake Superior collided with the strong outgoing river. The wind and surf were deafening and Sunderson reminded himself how much he disliked Lake Superior other than something admirable to look at like an attractive calendar. He had been born and raised in the harbor town of Munising and two of his relatives who were commercial fishermen had died at sea back in the fifties bringing grief and disarray to the larger family. The most alarming fact of prolonged local history was the death of 280 people at sea between Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie. How could you like a killer? In his soon-to-end career with the Michigan St. Police he had never met a killer he liked. His ex-wife who had loved even the crudest manifestations of nature thought his feelings about Lake Superior reprehensible but then she had never been held tightly by a sobbing aunt at a funeral. With two sons and two daughters his mother had only room to hold his crippled brother Bobby who had lost a foot in the rail yard of the local pulp mill.

The Great Leader, Jim Harrison

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Jim Harrison. This paragraph made me remember how intimidated I was when I read Wolf: A False Memoir. I was a kid who wanted to be a writer, and Harrison swaggered around in his novel like a man who never worried about what a kid worried about. Experience was declarative and unswerving in his writing. I got dizzy trying to follow the structure of every sentence through to the intention of the piece and the story of the moment.

This time my reading was different. I wrote this paragraph down after I finished it. It deserved some extra time. The choice of words was confident. Each sentence in the paragraph carried its own weight so that it stood independently like a column. It tells us something of the man who is walking. He is solid and committed to each thought. He spans time so that his memory and his attention progress from one idea to the next.

I liked the way that Harrison consigned the inner workings to the middle of each sentence without relying on too much subordination or spinning out.

When I was a boy I felt like I was being beat around the head by his writing. My style was looping, each image coming into focus as the words circled in an ever-tightening spiral, and I had trouble keeping one idea in mind as I worked my way to the next, but what I knew that I wanted was for a reader to feel the click-jump that the moment of internal recognition would bring when they saw the image and surrendered to the words that surrounded them.

Time smooths out worry, I guess. Everyone tries to get where they are going in their own way. I was reading a confident and good writer, who likes the way that words work, and I particularly appreciated what he’d done in this one passage. It’s probably the best paragraph in the book, and it’s a book that holds your attention at the beginning and the end, and that you’ve got to work through some slow stuff about two-thirds through, but if you don’t, you’re not going to appreciate Sunderson’s conclusions. You’ll think about passion, about blind faith, about charlatans and violence, the desire to be close to someone, the embarrassment of seeing our weaknesses, the peaceful surrender of fear. Those are good things to think about. Harrison wrote a book that can keep your interest without making you too aware of the loftier themes.

I’d feel silly being intimidated by that.