An elderly man likes to paint the Missouri River. Over and over again.
"It might sound at first like an old man's fatuous surrender. But Henry is a gifted tonalist, neither a dabbler nor a dupe, and his decision was a masterful sharpening of focus and a concentration of energy worthy of a desert mammal. He loves awakening each day to find the Missouri still there, dependable as a dog. He loves its bulldozer sureness, its interchangeable gulls and random flotsam, and most of all the colors it begs from the Dakota sky. And every evening finds him there, accordingly, painting from a fertile trance where adoration flirts with and bleeds into dotage, singing out loud to himself on the breezy shore -- 'I Remember You,' or 'The Light Shines Bright Tonight Along the Wabash.'"
Did you like that?
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One day some years ago I was performing one of my favorite activities. Wandering from bookstore to bookstore -- yes, there more than two of them in those prehistoric times -- and picking up the random book I'd never heard of to see if there was anything providence had placed in my path to discover. I can see the store in my mind's eye, but the name escapes me. It's long gone. On a table near the front door my scan was arrested by a short stack of slender volumes, a book of short stories by someone I'd never heard of. Its cover was dominated by an unusual shade of blue.
It was called Sworn Before Cranes, by Merrill Gilfillan. I judge books by their covers all the time. The treasures I've stumbled on make the dogs worthwhile. A book with a title like that, and with that unearthly blue ruling over the cover landscape, deserved my patronage. I might have glanced at the end flaps to see what it was about, but I was already on my way to the cash register.
I cannot find an image of that cover anywhere on the Internet.
It doesn't sound like much. A collection of stories, if they can be called that, centered in the upper Midwest, many of them concerning that uneasy boundary between Native American and white, set in small towns that one is tempted to describe as "dying," except that they don't quite ever die. They survive because men and women survive.
The stories are almost always plotless. They are more in the nature of fictional observations of the comings and goings -- some of them dramatic, some not -- of the people of these small towns in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska. Some are set in the past, some are contemporary.
All wrapped in the most precise and gorgeous prose I had ever read.
I don't find it showy or consciously-arty or look at me. To me the lush locutions are simply the result of the artist's search for a new way to say -- that is, a new way to see. The constructions are vigorous, not mushy or sentimental. And they're just plain beautiful to the ears, which is a value independent of content.
Merrill Gilfillan has written numerous volumes of poetry, some wonderful books of essays (Magpie Rising and Chokecherry Places among them) but in the way of short stories -- perhaps I should say short fiction -- only Sworn Before Cranes and Grasshopper Falls (from which the above passage was taken, "One Summer by the River").
One of the pleasures of doing this page is being able to bring attention to some of my idiosyncratic passions. Gilfillan's stuff won't be to everyone's taste, and I hope that does not sound snobbish. If you're looking for plot, or a family saga, or romance, or surprise endings, you won't find them in his work. What you will find is true art, making things up to tell the truth about human beings, which is to say, about our very condition. And you will find some of the loveliest English you will ever read.
So rather than recommend it or issue a caution, I gave you a little slice to begin this article. And did you like it?
Thanks for indulging me this stroll down one of the vanishing lovely backroads of American writing.
(Sworn Before Cranes is pretty much only available on eBay and from used book sellers. Grasshopper Falls is more widely available, as are the essays and poetry.)