What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Year In Reading: Philip Connors' "Fire Season"

One of the best books of 2011 is Philip Connors’ Fire Season. The New Yorker calls it "a compelling study of isolation, wildness, and 'a vocation in its twilight'" ("Briefly Noted," May 9, 2011). That’s an excellent description of it. But the magazine’s anonymous reviewer also says that Connors' "prose style can be portentous" and that his "personality veers from smug to misanthropic." Reading Fire Season, I didn’t detect any of those alleged attributes. Granted, there are passages in which Connors bluntly expresses aversion to what he calls “nonlookout work” and to “any task involving contact with the public in an official government capacity.” He’s quite open about his wish to be “left utterly and blissfully alone.” But he’s equally honest about the fact that his aloneness lasts only ten days at a time. After each ten-day stint on the mountain, he takes a four-day break during which he returns to Silver City. Even when he’s up on the mountain carrying out his duties as a fire lookout (or, as he calls himself, “a professional watcher of mountains”), he has occasional contact with the outside world, either by radio or in person (e.g., when hikers unexpectedly appear, or when government colleagues trek or fly in to see him). In those outside contacts, Connors doesn't come across as cold or aloof; on the contrary, he seems affable and easy to get along with. One time his wife visits with him for three days. Connors calls that time "three days of delicious domesticity." That doesn't sound like misanthropism to me. Yes, Connors has an attraction to solitude. But that doesn’t make him a misanthrope anymore than Thoreau’s solo existence at Walden made him a misanthrope. In fact, as Robert Sullivan points out in The Thoreau You Don’t Know (2009), Thoreau “kept a chair by his door to encourage visitors, and took it away only when he was writing.” Note that exception – “only when he was writing.” The need for solitude and the urge to write are closely knit. Connors uses some of his time at the lookout to think and write. At one point, when he’s up in the tower, he says, “In all my seasons I’ve never seen the view so clear, so I open my notebook and begin to name and count the visible mountain ranges….” Then, in one of Fire Season’s most beautiful passages, he proceeds to recreate the list:

… the Wahoos, the Details, the Cuchillos, the San Mateos, the Magdalenas, the Fra Cristobal Range, the Oscuras, the Caballos, the San Andres Mountains, the Sacramentos, the Organs, the Franklins, the Doña Anas and the Rough and Ready Hills, the Sierra de las Uvas, the Good Sight Mountains, the Cookes Range, the Floridas and the Tres Hermanas, the Cedars, the Big and Little Hatchets, the Animas Mountains, the Pyramids, the Peloncillos and Chiricahaus, and Big Burros, the Pinaleños, the Silver City Range, the Pinos Altos Range, the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons – more than thirty in all and me in the middle of them, goggle-eyed and rapturous, alone in my aerie in the vastness.

Alone in my aerie in the vastness – aloneness is the key; if Connors hadn’t been alone at that particular “goggle-eyed and rapturous” moment, he likely wouldn’t have been moved to get out his notebook and compile his wonderful mountain list. As a consequence, we might not have the pleasure of reading it now. Connors’ self-confessed “attraction to solitude” isn’t a function of misanthropy; it flows from his being a writer. The book we hold in our hands today, Fire Season, is the result of the solitude that Connors sought and found on the Black Range. You’d think The New Yorker, the most literary of all magazines, would appreciate that. E. B. White would certainly have appreciated it. He wouldn’t allege misanthropy against a writer seeking solitude.

As for the criticism that Connors is “smug,” I find no basis for it, unless it’s in his “reference to his “peonage in newspapers,” and assertions that he doesn’t have the requisite temperament for what he calls “the hamster wheel of the eight-hour day.” I don’t find these passages smug; I find them bracing. They contain a Thoreauvian friction, a resistance to the culture at large, that I really admire.

This brings me to the most irritating aspect of the New Yorker review – the description of Connors’ prose style as “portentous.” Of the many adjectives I can think of to apply to Connors’ writing (e.g., clear, vivid, precise, detailed, honest, lyrical), “portentous” is most certainly not among them. Fire Season struck me as a remarkable piece of writing, remarkable for its clarity and concreteness, and for the present-tense immediacy of many of its descriptions. Here is birdsong (“Through the open tower windows I hear the call of the hermit thrush, one of the most gorgeous sounds in all of nature, a mellifluous warble beginning on a long clear note”), clouds (“Lenticular clouds dot the highest peaks, their elliptical shapes and striated edges bringing news of howling winds a few thousand feet above me”), air (“Come morning the air will smell sweetly of burning grass and pine duff, and my tower will cast its silhouette against a hazy salmon sunrise”), smoke (“All past folly recedes, at least momentarily, beneath the roiling smokes of June”), more smoke (“The mountains to my north are mantled in a haze of drift smoke stretching sixty miles”), trees (“On the north slope red-bark ponderosa far older than the Vitorio war throw their shaggy shadows on the needle-cast floor”), mountain peaks (“Off in the other direction, the shadow of my peak stretches in the shape of an arrowhead forty miles across the desert, the tip of it touching the Rio Grande just before sunset”), a snake (“Bit by bit the snake – a Western wandering garter – walks its jaws up the length of the salamander’s body, preparing to swallow it whole”), lightning striking his cabin (“For several minutes there’s a weird smell in the air, like an over-heated radiator, and my heart jiggles in my chest like a fox in a burlap bag”) – on and on, a multiplicity of acutely seen details that bring the page alive. At one point in Fire Season, Connors says, “I produce nothing but words.” Yes, that may be so. But what words! Fire Season is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it immensely.

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