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August 02, 2006

"Flint's Gift"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I think it may be a common mistake to assume that you'll like the artist who has made work that you've enjoyed, and that you''ll dislike the person whose work you haven't cared for. How could this not be the case? That painter whose images click for you ... That musician who knows how to touch your heart ... That filmmaker who rouses your imagination so reliably ... The inner stirrings their work makes you feel can't just be tricks of art, can they? No, they must -- they simply must -- represent something real.

Well, perhaps most people aren't as naive as I once was. But it took small-town, dreamy me a while to get over this particular fantasy. In fact, back when I was interacting regularly with authors, artists, and filmmakers, I found that the opposite was as likely to be true. Adrian Lyne, for instance: I don't care for most of his movies -- except for the magnificent "Unfaithful" -- but I got on with him (in an interview setting anyway) like a house on fire. On the other hand, Alice Munro: I worship much of her work, but in person we chatted agreeably like the polite strangers we were and then went on our separate ways.

I still retain a bit of apprehension when I look at the work of someone I've met and liked. Good lord, is it so much to ask to enjoy both the artist and the work? So I'm not just happy but relieved to report that, midway through my first Richard S. Wheeler novel, I'm lovin' it. Not that Richard and I are buds; visitors to this blog know Richard as well as I do. (Prairie Mary did the honors of introducing Richard to the blog, and us to him.) Richard sometimes drops by and sometimes leaves comments, all of them urbane, helpful, and interesting. Richard gave us permission to print a couple of pieces by him -- highly recommended, here and here. And I'm hoping to coax him into contributing more to the blog. But we've never actually met.

Still, what a likable, class act. Happily, I can say the same about his novel. The book I'm in the middle of is his western "Flint's Gift." It's a gem: spacious and leisurely yet full of understated drama, fragrant and atmospheric when it isn't exciting and tense ... Richard has a phenomenal intuitive sense of how to combine his ingredients as well as how to spread his creation out before us for our enjoyment and pleasure. He mixes just the right combo of the stern with the gentle, the impressionistic with the Biblical. Action, psychology, and history lie side by side, enhancing each other to the max.

His narrative makes use of noble themes: honor vs. love, tradition vs. progress, the longing for home vs. the love of adventure, the ways wars play out in both public and private arenas ... The story setup: A newspaperman -- cursed by a roving spirit as well as a desire to sink down roots -- moves to a newborn Arizona town. Not much is happening there yet, but it's full of potential. It's in fact a paradise in terms of its gifts and its endowments. Could this be the right place for him to finally grow up? As the reporter gets to know the nascent community, we learn that Eden has its share of snakes and demons as well as angels. Looking into the heart of a community, we're also looking into the heart of human nature.

It's a dignified and moving, intensely enjoyable performance. I'm not the world's biggest fan of the novel-reading experience generally. Like J. Goard, I'm more inclined to short pieces: poems, essays, stories, movies. Get to the point, dammit. Even where genre fiction is concerned ... Recently, for instance, I loved this wonderful collection of Elmore Leonard's early Western short stories: tangy stuff! But Richard's novel has won me over. I'm blissfuly happy to be sinking into its expansiveness, to be savoring its lived-in quality, to be getting to know its characters as though they're real, and as though we're fellow inhabitants of the same town. It's not an experience I succumb to all that willingly -- but "Flint's Gift" has me wondering why not.

Quick caveat: This isn't a book for modernist, writin'- obsessed, literature-appreciating types. Not because Richard isn't a helluva prose writer. He certainly is: fluent, eloquent, and un-shy about pressing pedal to the metal when some writin' is in fact called for. But his prose-work is always at the service of something larger: story, character, place. In his patient, low-key way, Richard lays out the elements of the world he's depicting and the story he's telling. Then he ropes you in. He has the all-too-rare gift of always keeping a bit in reserve even while making sure that his story's power builds and deepens. As classic as the book is in many ways, it's still a novel for people who relate to fiction as a human artifact, not an intellectual one.

I know that what I'm about to say isn't playing by strict critical/scholarly rules -- but hey, who's a critic? Who's a scholar? Not moi. Anyway: I'll venture the opinion that Richard is a master novelist. In any event, halfway through his novel I certainly feel like I'm in the hands of one.

"Flint's Gift" can be bought here. An audiobook version of it can be rented or bought at the wonderful Blackstone Audiobooks.



posted by Michael at August 2, 2006


Wow. Thank you. I started a memoir the other day, and now you have me thinking maybe I might say something intelligent in it.

Your cultural explorations have won you gentlemen a wide and admiring readership.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on August 2, 2006 2:54 PM

It's a very nice book that I enjoyed reading in 2001. Glad you are into it.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on August 8, 2006 1:49 AM

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