Thursday, August 12, 2010

Out West

After toting Wallace Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West from our last home to this, in a move that saw probably 2/3 of the library depart, I started reading it yesterday.

One of the essays (I peeked ahead) is about Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, and I will wait until I arrive honestly at page 190 to read about his unexpected, unlikely success with writing which he began at age 70.

Stegner prefaces his chapter called "Thoughts In a Dry Land," by saying, "You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale." The West of which he writes seems to cover everything that is not east of the Missouri River. The West I know is Southern California but the advice applies.

Our first family home was part of a post-war housing tract in Baldwin Park, east of Los Angeles in land so dry that tumbleweeds blew through before people began fencing their yards. Even with fences, the tumbleweeds simply congregated against the chainlinks. The tract was bordered by a commercial gravel pit, a dairy and orange groves, irrigated with water we must have acquired from somewhere to the north. I grew up knowing that we, evil desert dwellers with aspirations of green yards and orchards, stole water from the Owens Valley. Robert Towne managed to turn that, and other betrayals, into an Academy Award-winning screenplay.

Which brings me, by skating the long way around, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer, film noir in a marginal way, and the schnook. Watching Ghost Writer last night and not remembering, in the moment, who had directed it, I had the feeling I had seen this guy before - more than once - and wanted to convince him to turn around, reminding him to, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

Since I know I have the capacity for schnookdom with regard to certain things, I suspect it is a (we can but hope) mostly dormant aspect of our smarter, better selves. But like Jake Gittes and his doomed intentions, the leading man as dupe makes for great stories, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past and Body Heat among them. Not wanting to be a spoiler for Ghost Writer, I will merely leave you with the schnook association.

Because I believe most of us live on hope of some description part of most days, we simple humans are easy prey for those who are determined to mislead us. We may be blinded by greed, beauty, lust or the desire to do the right thing but while our eyes are on a self-serving - or noble - goal, the guy in the good suit with a thick insulation of yes men and thugs or the femme fatale with her troubled marriage is picking our pocket and messing with our mind.

In Jack Nicholson's detective who thought he had all the answers, Towne and Polanski gave us an iconic version of Everyman, deceived and abandoned by fate or design. In the overlays of Stegner and Polanski as I absorbed their stories, there seemed a connection between the opening of the West as begun by Lewis and Clark and the refusal of entrepreneurs at the turn of 20th century Los Angeles to accept that our arid land would not, as it stood, support their dreams.

Writing of expectations of those seeking to discover and claim the West, Stegner says, "Illusion and mirage have been built into it since Coronado came seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola in 1540...Witness the young men from all over the world who fill graveyards in California's Mother Lode country." Dreamers or dupes, they are not unique to the West but do seem attuned to that inaudible call, so filled with promise at a price not yet determined.


Penny said...

I love this post!

Big Rock Candy Mountain was an anthem of hope, for sure. Now my curiosity is piqued by a volume of essays with such a title, plus an essay about Norman Maclean. Who can resist?

I had to Google "schnook" -it's definitely a word to add to the repertoire. I know that I am a schnook - frequently. A title to wear with pride perhaps, we can all identify with the protagonists of the movies you refer to, can we not? (OK, confession: I've only seen three of them.)

Hope is a worthwhile star to steer by.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Penny - Thank you so much. Welcome to schnook, you and I wear it in good company. If you've seen three of the movies, you know enough. I am a fan of all of them, probably for the familiar theme. (I was just visiting your blog...we crossed paths in the ether.)

Robert the Skeptic said...

My wife was born in Moab Utah. Her dad was born there as well; her mother born in Santa Fe. They grew up exploring the red rock canyons and wind carved spires of Arches and the Colorado River.

Zane Grey was popular then although their family actually lived some of the stories Grey wrote about - my wife's great grandfather, the local sheriff, shot and killed in a jail break. A posse hunted the men down and hanged them. The real wild west.

Lisa H said...

I think that I actually LIVE in Schnookville.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Robert - The real wild west as it has been passed on in fiction and family history. I haven't seen the land that was home to your wife and her family but those canyons, the prairies, are the places that Stegner especially seems to revere. Your comments add dimension to the post, and I thank you.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Lisa - It takes an extraordinary turn of mind not to reside occasionally in Schnookville...I remember one used car that looked so sweet...My guess is you are, if at all, a very infrequent visitor.

Sultan said...

Gracefully expressed, I haven't read Stegner but I love Norman Mclean's work which is just wonderful.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Laoch - Thank you. While I can't be certain, I think fans of Maclean's writing will discover a familiar spirit in Stegner's non-fiction. I have yet to read his fiction but think the same would hold true.

Anonymous said...

I had to google it too..

easily sucked in is my term.

And I was a tad disappointing in the ghost writer...almost a typical ending.

And Ewan mc Gregor seems to play the ingenue so often.