The thing that ate Tony Hillerman

I was drawn to James Doss’s Grandmother Spider because its themes and setting (to judge by the blurb) reminded me of Tony Hillerman’s excellent novels about the Navajo Tribal Police.  This is what I found on the opening page:

To the east, an iridescent rainbow arches shimmeringly over misted mountains; in the west, the crimson sun descends through opalescent clouds.  Far above, unbound by the fetters of this world, a lone hawk floats serenely.  Having gathered perfume, the evening breeze whispers sweetly of blushing flowers.  How glorious these hours!

But wait—the translucent mask of day slips away.  At twilight’s cue the bright masquerade ends, the darkling’s dance begins.  In the black heavens are fiery omens; On the flinty field, sheep of the flock are scattered in terror.  And where the icy water drips, living flesh is cleaved from bone.


Tony Hillerman appears to have been eaten by Robert James Waller (don’t tell me you didn’t know Waller was a flesh-eating zombie).  I suppose that teachers of creative writing have run across prose more cloyingly awful than this, which is a reason to be thankful that I am not a teacher of creative writing.  Anyway, the question that interests me is, what exactly makes it so sucky?

I think it is the combination of soaring pretension and limping incompetence.  “Darkling”?  Really?  If you must use darkling (and I think it is best avoided unless you’re Thomas Hardy), you should know that it means “in the dark.”  There used to be several adverbs in –ling, including groveling, which meant something like “on the ground,” hence prostrate, abject—the verb grovel is a back-formation from groveling, based on a misunderstanding.  Anyway, I have no idea how Doss came up with darkling as a noun, or what he thinks a dancing darkling is (perhaps that is what pretentious racists used to call the little African-American  jockey statues they put on their lawns).

Doss also has a flair for tautology.  A rainbow can’t just arch shimmmeringly, it has to be iridescent too; since iridescent means “rainbow-like,”this is analogous to the character in The Squid and the Whale who thinks he Metamorphosis” is very Kafkaesque.   There are also “sheep of the flock,” presumably so specified to distinguish them from sheep of the Rotary Club, or the loner sheep, or those lone sheep who prowl the Rockies in splendid isolation like the Marlboro man or the Unabomber.

I have nothing against a lush adjectival style in principle though it’s clear that Doss’s assault on good writing would be less devastating if he toned down his modifiers.  His style is the opposite of  a spare, economical mode in American literature that I became especially aware of when I saw it reflected in other languages.

When I first tried to learn German, and again when I started to study Italian, I was surprised to find introductory readers with real short stories in them, by real writers, written in a style so simple that a first-year student could read them.  It seems that after the war, many writers felt that the tools of traditional rhetoric had been tainted by their association with the emotional manipulations of Fascism/Nazism,  and what had once counted for beauty now, sounded false and suspect.  They were looking for a style that would convey clear-sighted, plain authenticity, and they found models in American realists like Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson (I suspect they also read James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett, but I don’t think they let on).  Hemingway’s direct, stripped-down style is of course also a form of rhetoric, and it is easy to parody (He put ketchup on the beans and heated them.  It was good to sit and eat the beans, there by the river.)—but it must have seemed very fresh and unencumbered with bad associations.

I was grateful to have real stories that I could read instead of the canned crap that is usually fed to language students, though the Germans, not surprisingly, took things to extremes.  A typical example was “Schlittenfahren” (“Sledding”) by Helga Novak, which in two pages narrated how a brother and sister decided to sled down the hill behind their house but continued on to the brook at the bottom of the hill, plunged through the ice, and drowned.  You get the general idea…they were not cheery stories by any means, but they made for easy quizzes.  So I can’t honestly say that studying under Helga Novak would make James Doss a decent writer, but it would serve him right.

You probably need something to cleanse your palate, so here’s a classic opening paragraph that really does evoke a powerfully ooky atmosphere:


No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”


(Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill Houuse

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3 Responses to The thing that ate Tony Hillerman

  1. Megan Kasten says:

    I adore this post! I especially love the literary karma of Doss studying under Helga Novak, and the reminder of what a beautiful opening Shirley Jackson created for The Haunting of Hill House. If you are in the mood for spare and economical (being a lazy reader, I always am…), you might try We the Animals by Justin Torres, if you haven’t already read it. He manages to sound sage and childlike at once, without pretense or unnecessary adverbs. It was my favorite book last year from the book club in Charlottesville that I am now painfully without.

  2. Mary Evelyn White says:

    Loved this. It WAS funny.

  3. Ann Foxen says:

    Loved the shout out to Caledonia property owners–maybe darkling means darling Darky to them. And how about Tony Hillerman’s autobiography, Seldom Disappointed.

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