Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A vivid sense of place

I don't know about you, but I'm the kind of reader who is a re-reader. I always like to go back and re-read a book that really grabbed me. And when I do find such a book, I like to keep reading in the same vein.

If I read a book by an author I like, I like to read all the author's works. Once I exhaust that, I like to read the author's biography. Or maybe the works of a contemporary or friend of the author. Or maybe books about the same region an author hails from or writes about.

A few weeks ago I pulled Richard Russo's book of short stories, "The Whore's Child," off my bookshelf. The collection is a nice introduction to Russo's work, from his earlier stories about life in a depressed upstate New York mill town to his wryly comic take on academia to his portraits of successful yet unsatisfied Hollywood types.

These roles seem to be mismatched, yet they reflect Russo's own life. Born in the small town of Gloversville, NY, Russo went on to become a professor of English. His novels were made into movies, and Russo went on to write screenplays and adaptations of his and other works.

He won the Pulitzer Prize a couple years ago for his novel "Empire Falls" which was made into a TV drama. Paul Newman starred in a film version of his novel "Nobody's Fool."

One of my favorite Russo books is his second novel, "The Risk Pool." It tells a story of a boy growing up in a small town, a broken marriage, a ne'er do-well father and a damaged and unhappy mother. But it's richer than that - Russo re-creates the emotions and embarrassments of adolescence; he evokes the flavor of his setting, and he lovingly - and comically - portrays the companionship between men. His characters ring true - even the minor ones are multilayered and complex, and his dialogue springs to life on the page. The sour-tempered bar owner, defeated and fearful postal worker, defeated ingenue doomed to a life under her mother's thumb are real enough to make a reader mourn for them. And the defiantly disorganized Sam Hall - the narrator's father - is an anti-hero as engaging and yet as hilarious as any character summoned from Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or John Kennedy Toole.

A few days after I finished reading "The Risk Pool," I went to see an exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum, of the works of the American painter Charles Ephraim Burchfield.

The exhibition shows work throughout his career, starting with a period in 1917 when he lived in Ohio. He was very prolific as a young man, painting landscapes and scenes from nature that are almost hallucinogenic in their quivering energy, in the words of the Hammer site:

"Childhood's Garden" - Charles Burchfield, 1917

"vibrate with color and sound like visual symphonies where the humming of insects, rustling leaves, bells, moonbeams, and vibrating telephone lines are woven together to reveal the beauty and power of the American landscape."
Burchfield moved to Buffalo, in upstate New York, and worked for a wallpaper company, designing patterns. He married, raised a family, and continued to paint. During this period, he depicted small-town scenes, industrial scenes, and regional landscapes. He was a friend and contemporary of Edward Hopper, whose work his has often been compared to. In fact, one critic likened Burchfield's work to "Edward Hopper on a rainy day."

"Civic Improvements" - Charles Burchfield, 1928

While touring with theatre companies in the 1980s, I spent a little time in upstate New York. We played Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Utica. When I saw the paintings of Burchfield's middle period in the exhibition, I was struck by how vividly they evoked that part of the country. The wintery sky, the staid brick buildings, the bare trees in the cold. The theatres I played were often in older downtown areas, with vacant retail zones, or modest businesses like diners and quiet bar-rooms.

"Winter, East Liverpool" - Charles Burchfield, 1927
The sights in the paintings remind me of the way those towns looked, and the descriptions in Russo's novels evoke memories of my own life in them - the drear Holiday Inns, the meals taken in red-sauce Italian restaurants or diners. The dialogue rings so familiar, too - the stagehands I worked with in each town, good-naturedly insulting one another and bumming money or drinks, like Sam Hall and his friends in "The Risk Pool."

"Early December Snow" - Charles Burchfield, 1945

I can just see Sully from "Nobody's Fool", shoveling Miss Beryl's sidewalk when I look at this painting.

A little more than twenty years ago, [The Man I Love] and I lived for a year in a small upstate New York town. It was a college town, and we were there on an academic fellowship. The town was at the base of a long glacial lake, and the land rose up from the banks of the lake, and the highways and railroad tracks rose up the hills from the center of town and continued on through rolling countryside and farms.

"Road and Sky" - Charles Burchfield, 1917

Russo's comic novel about academia, "Straight Man" is set in the fictional Eastern Pennsylvania town of Railton, and the college where his hero Hank Devereaux is a professor is a bit less well-known than the one in the town we lived in, but Russo describes the same sense of town vs. gown that we sensed during our year there. I got a job on campus myself, and worked with college staff workers who were at the bottom of the pecking order from the professors. Oddly, it was the least talented professors who made a point of stressing staff's lowly status, as if they knew inside that little else than a title separated them from the carpenter shop foreman.

Russo captures this so vividly in "Straight Man" with his characters - a bright but unschooled secretary, a middle aged handy-man admiring the well-spoken divorcee professor from afar, the disgruntled waitresses and unemployed railroad workers condescended to by young post-modernists - it immediately resonated with me.

As do the paintings. The happy convergence of memory, literature, and art heightens my experience of all three things, and makes me think I know the places better than I actually do.


Gary Rith Pottery Blog said...

I love Russo's writing too, and I live in the middle of his territory in upstate NY, and you said it, those paintings show it :)

mo.stoneskin said...

I like the sound of The Risk Pool, on your recommendation I will check it out.

I love devouring books by and about a particular author. Ideally I read the biography early on because then I feel I can appreciate their writing more.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I took a weekend tour of the Finger Lakes with a friend back in the 90s. It happened to be a gorgeous fall weekend, so there was sun and colors and growing things everywhere.

Those paintings remind me more of my years in New Haven, just because that was so much of the weather I remember (not that it didn't get hot and humid in the summer in N.H.).

Gigi said...

What a wonderful post! I have long been a fan of Russo, and Straight Man is one heck of a novel! My husband and I teach college in an old New England mill city, so that town-gown split is something we know well. Russo's characters are so vivid that I feel like I am in their world completely while I read his books. I adored Empire Falls, too.

I don't know Burchfield's work well at all, so I was thrilled to read your description of his life and works! I like the description of him as "Hopper on a Rainy day" very much.

Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and leaving a nice note! Now I feel lucky because it brought me here, to your lovely blog!

xoxo Gigi

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