Thursday, August 15, 2019

THE DOG SEATED NEXT TO ME – Meg Pokrass

Meg Pokrass is celebrated among her flash-fiction peers for her deft hand arousing glee in the darkness and sober reflection before laughter’s quite finished its happy sputter.”
I wrote the above in my review of her last collection of mini-stories, Alligators at Night. I meant it then—every word—and the opinion still holds. Pokrass not only remains at the top of her game, she's ramped it up a notch in her new collection, The Dog Seated Next to Me, due out in a month. She includes several blurbs with the new collection, all of which I wish I had written. But she left out another one, my favorite, which I found on her publisher's page where you can pre-order a copy (click title above). If I thought I could get away with it, I'd pretend I had written the blurb I like best. Unfortunately, the name of the blurb's author comes with it:
To enter the portals of Pokrassland is to go on a magical journey: here there are sex-charged buffalo men and melancholic women who fear six-foot spiders and fall in love with their therapists. It’s a place where people make bald statements and odd connections, where there are strange animals, purple stars and ‘a deep-ruby moon’. Unpredictable, funny and charming, the world Meg Pokrass builds in The Dog Seated Next to Me is a location readers will enter gladly and, mesmerised, they will most definitely want to stay.
-- Nuala O’Connor, author of Joyride to Jupiter and Becoming Belle.

Were a good enuf lawyer affordable to me I might have been able to "forget" to credit Nuala O'Connor on some technicality and start a small business as The Great and Well-Lawyered Blurbist, but, as we heard the crumbling President Milhous Nixon remark on his infamous Oval Office tapes about authorizing something that rhymed with alter fate, deliberately pointing his pursed presidential lips at the hidden microphone: "that would be wrong." The accompanying sound lingers of his eyelid flapping in a series of awkward winks as he said it. How quaint in retrospect, considering...wink wink.
But that was then and now we're in Pokrassland, about to embark "on a magical journey...[where] there are sex-charged buffalo men and melancholic women who fear six-foot spiders and fall in love with their therapists." Interjecting here for readers who might be intimidated by the mere mention of a six-foot spider, this is one of Pokrass’s many female characters’ frequent exaggerations. The man in this story—either a husband, ex-husband-to-be, lover, or ex-lover-to-be—tried to reassure the woman that the spider was a “dot” and nothing more. The two points of view appear in a story called—ninnies should brace themselves--Spider. Perhaps to mitigate the shock of such a title, she tells us, “It’s frigid here in Siberia. Outside, nothing can live for long. We humans and insects are all in the same boat, hoping for food, praying for love.”
And herein lie the thematic fulcra of Pokrass’s magic: food and love. I suffered hunger pangs frequently reading these little paeans to things that taste good (or should) and things that excite the libido (and not always separately). Here’s what I mean, several sentences from from The Big Sleep: The police popped in one night to see if our fights were murderous. We’d been arguing loudly in the kitchen about the texture of a birthday cake I’d baked for the twentieth anniversary of our sweet dog’s death. It was hard as a rock, and nothing had ever been different. Arguing was part of the cake-eating experience...
I idled into the living room wearing my ‘Munch Me’ shortie night shirt, and my long-nosed barracuda slippers. Not much else. My legs were still shapely, and tan from bronzing gel.”
To clear up a possible misunderstanding about my use of the word “libido” above instead of the more commonplace “love,” knowing the latter frequently serves as a euphemism for the former, and understanding the two are virtually inseparable in modern romantic literature, I assure you The Dog Seated Next to Me is neither romantic nor lascivious as the terms are ordinarily applied. Nor am I trying to appear literary, something I ordinarily find supercilious. No, the point I am so laboriously edging toward is to note what seemed to me a confusion of the two concepts, and this mostly in the minds of the female characters. In fact it is solely the female characters’ sensibilities we experience in these sixty-seven fascinating vignettes—especially fascinating to me, a man. The heretofore eternal question what do women want? is addressed in each one.
The answer? Haha, I could simply say, Read the book! But that’s not enuf of a tease. In truth, as I found it—and maybe my impression reflects a denser sensitivity than I should admit—the answer to the existential question of what women want, as found in The Dog Seated Next to Me is akin to the only acceptable response to one of those infuriating one-hand-clapping Zen questions: a beatific smile that suggests understanding and acceptance of all whimsically inscrutable nuances the Cosmos chooses to reveal. In a more prosaic sense, Go gently with the flow, grasshoppah.
As one would expect, arriving at this enlightenment cost me some emotional distress and cognitive exercise. I can’t help but empathize with the male characters, hapless and dependent as they are on the women they encounter. And these women are brutally perceptive of our shortcomings. Maybe we could start with an ant farm,” the woman in The Capacity to Love tells us the man she was with said. “I almost laughed. I had just noticed that he resembled a large ant, his head larger than human heads were supposed to be. He couldn’t find any hats that fit.”


This crushingly unromantic description caused my hand to rise up and touch my own head, despite its being more in the “pinhead” class (fortunately my narrow shoulders offset the tiny head, giving my appearance a perhaps normal, proportional cast, and yet…). You see what she did? This woman in The Capacity to Love, as, in fact, all of the women in this collection of disturbing, male-ego-deflating quickies do? She made me doubt my natured, nurtured, Norman Mailer-affirmed male supremacy! And then, while I’m still patting my head uncertainly, she yanks me back from looming despair: He stuck me with a kiss. His lips on my neck made a popping sound, like a suction cup. I let him keep me close, and we sat together like one load-bearing creature.”
Nice, huh. Yet I remind you these stories do not remain within the traditional corral of warm, furry romantic endings. These Pokrass women have a quirky, whimsical nature that seems to preclude confusing or merging the concepts of love and libido no matter what they might say to us or themselves, e.g. “‘Take it out,’ she told the man she was with in Cartoons. “He did not want to hear this, but he took it out. Now what? he asked. Cartoons, she said. Put cartoons on, please.”
So are these women completely flaky? Incapable of love as, say, a Pasternak or Byron knew it? I hope you’re not expecting me to answer this, but let’s hear one of the Pokrass women on the subject:Love is a dumbass in an old, red car, sputtering even going the right speed.” I could do that for love. I qualify. But, then I’d hafta hold myself in a constant crouch of anticipation, for rejection, for as dumb a reason as the sputtering old, red car. You’ve seen it by now, in these few examples. We’re at the mercy of these women. We get action, oh yes. As do the women, getting it with us, altho there are exceptions, such as, “She had not made love with him for a year and she didn’t know why.” That’s in Fire Eater. I didn’t find it quite as amusing as hoped, and I did know why.
Pokrass makes up for the abstinence, tho, in Cured: “Here she was in love with a man who could not laugh, and she was going out of her mind. She felt like a spider, or a monkey, or a toad. She just so wanted to soap him up, get down to things.” I don’t recall if she does it on the page. I’m still enjoying the soaping, knowing it could end at any second, as she warns us in A Detached Kind of Imaginary Cruelty, “I administer pleasure, and then disappear, because I can, because I am a splinter, that is all I am when not making an animal happy.” I’ll be the grinning puppy--me, me!
Here’s another blurb that can shed light on The Meg Pokrass Experience: The instantaneous back and forth between twinkle and anguish give Pokrass a dangerous edge, like a cat purring when its belly’s scratched switching in a blink to jungle mode, all teeth and claws. A lightness of style pulls us into a queenly Dorothy Parker mind where nothing ameliorates the keenest and meanest of observations. Her delivery is sly, indirect, and her cuts frequently self-inflict.” Wish I’d written it…oh, wait…
The link below is to a blogging collective that posts links every Friday to reviews of a variety of books, many of which have been out of circulation for a while. Occasionally a new one shines thru the almost forgotten. The Dog Seated Next to Me still has a month to go before you can read it. You’re getting a sneak preview! Therefore do not let the link below confuse you—or, in the time-tested vernacular, pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain.


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Engaging the Fire

Image result for bukowski images
The poet and the monk
and all
between
when they awaken to this Paleo inheritance
are stepping away
from a part of their
infancy.

The mother
of my childhood friend
helped a bunch of us feel
the light
when she burned Fred's fingers
for playing with
matches.

On Fiji long ago
Tunaiviqalita on a dare
walked on burning coals
siring down his lineage
a lucrative
tourist
attraction.

The poet
treats as metaphor
this roaster of loins, searer of egos
“care to close the gap?”
his boozy breath dares
the grinning, gaping pareidolic
maw. 



The monk
saw an ally in this element
of routine staring down delusions
of coveted
grandeur
nothing grander than love
with Thích Quảng Đức
incinerating himself
as click bait
for a world inured
to
persecution.
 
 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

THE TALE TELLER – Anne Hillerman

I am so disappointed, my critical faculties so disarrayed by The Tale Tellers bad writing, I must warn you any gaps you might discover in this review’s syntax might well be the fault of my falling asleep during the writing. I’m not trying to excuse such lapses, but merely to note that in my hurry to complete this exercise for the week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books blogging feature readability may suffer a tad in the struggle with fatigue my lips incurred death marching thru the 320 tedious pages of Tale Teller’s leviathan swamp of redundancies, non-sequiturs, blizzard of characters, infantile dialogue, detail overkill, and virtually zero suspense. Truth be told I might just cave at some point, and file whatever I’ve written without so much as a glance for errors of any kind or attempting a snappy ending (please don’t judge me for moving my lips when I read, you know I have excuses).
So why? Why did I slog thru the damned thing and not hurl the book against a wall? Well, I didn’t have the book. OK, so why didn’t I cruelly delete it from my Kindle archive? Because books in Kindle archives cannot be deleted, so far as I know. I’ve tried, and the covers just blink as if silently laughing at me. So why didn’t I just stop reading, return it to the archive, and read something else? Good question. Not sure how to answer it. I’m stubborn--part Norwegian—I started it, and had to finish it (I almost wrote to see what came next, but the narrative fell far short of being so compelling). Maybe there was a glimmer of hope if I kept reading I’d of a sudden burst from the swamp into a musical meadow, and my heart would begin whirling and leaping and urging my lips to cease flapping sullenly and dance into song. Maybe that was the ticket. More likely it was my Hillerman jones, my addiction to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series and its memorable characters and engaging plots and just enough well-placed Navajo lore and descriptive scenic beauty to pull me into his world and leave me with enough of its taste and lyrical ambience to draw me back for more and more. And then he died in 2008 and his daughter Anne picked up the legacy and kept it alive, extending the series, with the same principal characters—Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee—and adding several others, including Chee’s bride, Officer Bernadette Manuelita. I was less than ecstatic, but I read her first effort, Spider Woman’s Daughter, and found it so un-enchanting I’d forgotten I read it when I started re-reading it for last week’s FFB.
The re-read was un-enchanting, too, but I decided to give Anne Hillerman another chance. She’d written four more, so I picked Tale Teller, the most recent, figuring her craft must have improved since Spider Woman. I was encouraged by professional reviewers, one noting in the Library Journal that her writing grew “stronger with every new installment in the series.” It would have behooved me to read some of the Amazon “customer reviews,” as well, especially the pans, some of which indicated Tale Teller was the worst book they had ever tried to read. Alas, I read these comments after the fact, and found most of them expressed my feelings precisely. Altho I wouldn’t go so far as to say Tale Teller is the worst I’ve read, it is, sadly, an unmitigated stinker.
Boiling Anne Hillerman’s problem down the best I can, I would say she suffered from notebook-dumping syndrome. Writers in the newspaper business rushing toward deadline, lacking either the energy or skill, or both, to craft readable narrative from their notes have been known to simply dump everything they’ve gathered for the story onto the page. This includes the newsworthy stuff as well as all of the smidgeons, detritus, and extraneous crap they’ve scribbled down. This puts the burden on editors to shape this raw material into a story.
Anne Hillerman gives us more than we could ever wish to know about road numbers and conditions--The hogback, the road’s most interesting geologic feature, sat a few miles west of Farmington’s sprawl. She took US 64 across the bridge over the La Plata River and it became Main Street. Traffic was light, typical for a Sunday morning--geographical landmarks and traditions, weather conditions and implications—both historical and present—and...o, lort, I’m getting sleepy again… Whew! How long was I out? Anyway, even the characters dump their notebooks whenever they’re conversing. Remember the old Dragnet trope, when Sgt. Joe Friday would be questioning a witness or suspect for “just the facts,” and the dumb slobs would start telling Friday everything from the time he or she kicked his or her slats out of his or her crib up to the present including non sequiturs about uncles and aunts and cousins and neighbors and their cats and turtles and...holy Christmas, even on the show it got tedious even tho it usually made us all laff. Time was more forgiving back then. And we knew the language. Tale Teller has so many Navajo expressions, with their plethora of accent marks and pronunciation squiggles my lips damned near got charley horsed moving along with the ink.
What? You think my example of tedious unnecessary description above isn’t so bad? Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just a wee sample. Not enuf for a skeptic like you. Want a better example? I have one here? Just for you? You might be sorry you wished for it, but that happens in life. No? Anyway, take a deep breath. If you move your lips like I do you’ll want to spit out or swallow whatever you have there. You might try reading this real fast. Maybe I’ve missed some poetry in the cadences or something. Anyway, you asked for it. Here goes:
Interstate 40, the quickest way to Winslow, drew an abundance of truck traffic and, in the summer, a bevy of tourists in sticker-covered RVs. Unlike the orange barrels and shoulder repair work he had encountered on his way west, the two eastbound lanes lay clear of construction. They left ponderosa pine country for red rocks, piñon and juniper trees, and then flatter, emptier landscape. As many times as he had driven this route, Leaphorn never tired of it. The vast sky where he’d seen double rainbows and clouds bigger than skyscrapers made whatever problem he puzzled over seem insignificant.
...zzzzzZZZZZT!!! Uh...oh. Sorry. I was dreaming of giving you an idea of the plot, but now that I’m awake I can’t remember what I’d planned to say. How sad. And it really is time for a serious nap. I can tell you this, tho, what the title means: All Navajo weavings could be described as Tale Tellers. Each uniquely reflected its creator and the time of its creation.
And how might this fit into one of the several disparate plots in The Tale Teller? Well...frankly I can’t rightly recall. I would advise anyone who’s read this far and who might be chomping at the bit for a little something about one or more of the hodgepodge of plots to scroll up to the hyperlinked The Tale Teller (I just now hyperlinked it again, for you!), which will take you to the book’s Amazon page, where you can read the publisher’s summary. And while you’re at it you might wish also to read some of the “customer reviews,” to see how right I am with this one.
Snappy ending? Who in hell do you think I am, Norman Mailer?


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Thursday, August 1, 2019

SPIDER WOMAN'S DAUGHTER – Anne Hillerman

It took the movies to awaken me to my addiction to the late Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police mystery series. I realize now the junkie that I've been since the '80s when a friend suggested Hillerman's books were well-written and—and here was the clincher—they were mellow.
So I tried one, then another, and another...until I'd read all eighteen plus The Fly on the Wall, a mystery about an investigative reporter, and then I bought Hillerman Country, a coffee table book the novelist produced with his brother, a photographer, and when I'd read all of his fiction and my addiction for Hillerman mellow had become pronounced I read his autobiography, Seldom Disappointed. Nor was I disappointed by anything of his I read. I even enjoyed the TV movies Robert Redford produced of four of the Tribal Police novels, even tho the first one, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward disappointed Redford so much he ditched the two actors and hired Wes Studi and Adam Beach as the two fictional Navajo cops—Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee.
And then, when Hillerman died in 2008 and his daughter, Anne, picked up the baton and continued the Leaphorn/Chee series, I read the first one, The Spider Woman's Daughter, thinking like a junkie that even tho she was a Hillerman, I'd find her writing more akin to a heroin addict's substituting methadone to kick his habit. And that is sort the way I remember my first reading of Spider Woman. In fact, my recollection of having read it was nonexistent when, unknowingly, I decided last week to read it again. I caught on that this was a second reading about a third of the way into the book. It is long, about twice as long as her father's novels, which are the ideal length for my attention span. Spider Woman left so weak an impression on me that I turned away from the Hillerman milieu and read none of the next four in the series Anne has published.
Dad & daughter

As I have trouble handling suspense in life, and can tolerate it in fiction understanding it's only a vicarious immunization, I won't try to torment any of you who might have a similar aversion to prolonged uncertainty, and say right now that while I still feel Spider Woman could be trimmed by half without hurting the narrative one whit, leaving out much of the domestic subplot lines that for me only bog down the main story, I feel much better about Anne Hillerman's writing and devotion to her father's legacy and to the Navajo and Hopi people whose lives are depicted in these novels, and I intend to read the other four. I've downloaded the most recent The Tale Teller, to see if the professional critics are right in judging Anne’s writing to have becomestronger with every new installment in the series,” from a review in Library Journal. Regardless, I’m reading them all because my Hillerman jones is back with a vengeance.
And as I said up top, the pusher was Robert Redford’s movies. I’ve recently taken to relaxing after a day of writing and loafing (with creative flummery going on in my head, of course). As I no longer possess a TV, I’ve been digging thru my collection of DVDs and rewatching some of the old favorites. Eventually wanting something new, I bought the three Studi-Beach videos and watched the first, Dark Wind (which is not on DVD) as an Amazon Prime online feature. I then went back and started rereading the novels. After the first and fourth (for reasons explained in my reviews—here--I decided to leap ahead to Anne’s. And so here we are. 
Anne in Hillerman Country
  Once I recognized I’d read Spider Woman before, I soon remembered it was, in a sense, a sequel to one of the four Leaphorn/Chee movies, which I’d just rewatched: A Thief of Time. A couple of the minor characters in Thief have advanced to limelight time in Anne’s sequel. And a new member of the ensemble cast, Officer Bernadette Manuelito, whom Tony Hillerman introduced in the latter half of his series, now has a starring role. As I recall from my first go-round with the original series, “Bernie” started as a dispatcher and eventually became a regular Tribal Police officer and the presumptive future wife of Jim Chee. If they were married under Tony’s watch, I’ve forgotten, but they sure as hell are man and wife in Spider Woman! Their married life undergoes the typical strains of any pair of young newlyweds as well as the additional pressures and conflicts of both serving as cops in the same department.
As plots go, Spider Woman’s is fairly simple—no then-there-were-none-Golden-Age-of-Mystery-Agatha-Christie-puzzle-mystery here, nosirree, Bob. Didn’t take me long to know beyond any doubt whodunnit and whydunnit, and nor would it you, and the only mystery to me is why it took so long for Bernie and Chee to figure it out, as well. But that’s not what I look for in the Leaphorn/Chee/and now Bernie novels. They’re really more police procedurals in the brutal, breathtakingly beautiful Southwestern U.S. landscape no doubt known now to millions of readers worldwide as Hillerman Country.
I should note that the “procedural” plot is not without some serious suspense involving physical danger to the main characters and some downright spooky situations forcing me to fight down the urge to shout NO, FOR GOD SAKES NO! on several occasions to keep from having the neighbors call 911. You see, the plot involves an investigation by Navajo, state and federal officials to solve the shooting of a civilian of no great political or monied significance. I’d like to keep face down the card with the identity of the shooting victim emblazoned upon it, but I can’t, because the secret will be revealed in the very next several paragraphs I’m including here as an example of Anne Hillerman’s narrative prowess. And so, as masters of ceremony typically say when it’s time to reluctantly pass the microphone to someone else, take it away, Anne!
Leaphorn strolled into the lobby, nodding to Bernie, cell phone at her ear. “Say hi to Chee for me,” he said. She watched him head toward the parking lot, noticing that he was limping a bit. She knew he had a touch of arthritis in his knee. She should have asked him about that. And about Louisa.
Hello, beautiful,” Chee said. “Done with the meeting?”
Not quite. The lieutenant had some good stories. Now the humdrum stuff looms on the horizon. Your timing was perfect.”
Through the lobby window, she saw someone climb out of the blue sedan backed in next to Leaphorn’s white truck. She watched Leaphorn walk toward the truck, extract the keys from his pants pocket.
You still grumpy?” Chee asked. “I got off to a bad start this morning.”
The person extended an arm toward the lieutenant. Bernie saw a gun. Heard the unmistakable crack of the shot. Saw Leaphorn stagger back, falling against his pickup. Crumple to the asphalt.”


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]





Tuesday, July 23, 2019

PEOPLE OF DARKNESS -- Tony Hillerman

Of even more interest to me than the Navajo origin myths, which comprise the heart and soul of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mystery series, are the stories of how he created its two main characters: Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. For the myths, Hillerman’s research included heavy reading and personal immersion into the Navajo culture, interviewing tribal elders and attending sacred ceremonies. My research was much easier. I simply read the author’s tell-all memoir, Seldom Disappointed. Last Friday’s report was on the series debut, The Blessing Way which Leaphorn entered as an afterthought. Four books later, Chee made his entrance, reducing Leaphorn to just a name (albeit with a one-book promotion to captain) in People of Darkness.

Hillerman had intended to use Navajos only as minor characters. Relying on his long experience as a news writer, his primary emphasis would be on setting. “If the actors and the story line were weak, maybe I could make the stage scenery so interesting it would carry the book.” The lead character in Blessing is an anthropology professor studying Navajo culture. When the professor needs information from a Navajo friend, Hillerman gives him Joe Leaphorn, a tribal policeman. At this point, the author realized he needed to know more about the Navajo people in order to give Leaphorn credibility. “Making him seem genuine forced me to admit I didn’t know nearly as much as I should about the Dineh.

I talked to Navajo friends, discovered I didn’t even know enough to ask intelligent questions, and began endless hours of reading. Reading everything: various versions of the creation myth, of curing ceremonials, of witchcraft beliefs, clan structures, sand painting, social life, sexual beliefs, taboos, puberty ceremonials, place names, hogan building, etc. I read Ph.D. dissertations, proceedings of dignified and scholarly societies, collected papers of the Peabody Museum, the autobiography of Son of Old Man Hat, the accounts of River Junction Charley, and on and on and on. Now I was ready to interrogate Navajos. And the Navajos I asked were ready to recognize that I was motivated by something more than idle curiosity.”

The professor remains the central character, but Leaphorn’s is a strong supporting role—so strong he’s promoted from officer to lieutenant and takes the lead in the next two novels. And in the process he teaches Hillerman a costly lesson. Excited by a film company’s interest in the second book, Dance Hall of the Dead, he signed a contract giving the producer TV rights to the Leaphorn character. The movie was never made, but Hillerman’s star was now “held hostage.” Years later, when Robert Redford approached him about making movies of three novels, Hillerman had to pay to break the contract. He confesses in Seldom Disappointed, “Ransoming this figment of my imagination cost me twenty thousand dollars and earned me a place in Guinness Book of Records if it ever lists classic stupidities.”


Chee already had joined the People of Darkness cast by the time Redford came along. Hillerman created him, partly for artistic reasons, he said, “but also because my fondness for Joe Leaphorn was undermined by the knowledge that I only owned part of him, having signed away TV rights.” Perhaps Leaphorn’s one-book promotion to captain was an unconscious gratuity for being shunted aside—Hillerman never mentioned it--but he did admit to the occasional error: “Alas, my books tend to be noted for glitches, where I have characters drive south when I meant north, for example, or change the name of characters in the middle of a chapter, etc.” Going with “glitch” as the more comfortable explanation, Leaphorn is back on stage in the next episode, The Dark Wind, where he remains thereafter with his proper rank, co-starring as Chee’s superior up to and beyond active duty into venerable retirement where he becomes, as Chee likes to needle him, “The Legendary Lt. Leaphorn.”

But it’s all Chee in People of Darkness. We meet him as a sergeant, which I had forgotten from my first reading of the series nearly four decades ago. As I recall, and as my recollection was refreshed this time, rank doesn’t come into play much with Chee—even when he did a stint as “acting lieutenant” in a later novel. Besides introducing Chee in People, Hillerman brought in another new character, but just for this outing. Its unusually complicated plot, which “proved terribly tough to keep...from being as boring to read as it was to write,” prompted him to try something “the bona fide masters of suspense were doing. First I had to have a professional hit man— a species I have never believed in.” To add authenticity to this character Hillerman drew on a death-row interview he’d conducted as a journalist. Far as I’m concerned his fictional killer is as authentic as anyone I would ever wish to encounter in the real. This addition to the “boring” plot that has Chee methodically trying to find survivors of a long-ago oil-well explosion, along with a perky young, blue-eyed single schoolteacher who joins Chee on the search, ramps the story up to a suspense level well worthy of those “bona fide masters” whose success had inspired him. 
 
With the ingenuity of a magpie building its nest, Hillerman made use of odd idea scraps he picked up along the way, such as his detailed description of the three WWII medals—a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star—found in the mysterious “keepsakes” box of a character. Hillerman had received all three himself in that war.

His research for People led to a joint venture with his “big brother,” Barney, a geologist who specialized in analyzing core samples at oil-drilling sites. On a visit to a site in Texas, where Hillerman kept an eye out for plot ideas, the two cooked up the idea that led to the successful photo book they called Hillerman Country. Barney had been thinking of leaving his nomadic life chasing oil wells and turning his photography hobby into a career. Their mother’s health had begun failing, and Barney, still a bachelor, decided to build a house to share with her. Some years later, with Barney now married and with three adopted children, the two brothers decided to tackle the project they’d talked about, to try to capture in words and pictures the Four Corners country that provides the distinctive background for Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police novels.

In one of the several boxes of books and sentimental keepsakes I have yet to unpack from a couple of moves ago, rests my strikingly beautiful, coffee-table-size, clothbound copy of Hillerman Country, which, thoroughly hooked on the mystery series by then, I’d bought when it came out in 1991. Hillerman adds a characteristically self-deflating note to the story, this one with a sad twist. 


The experience taught me that, published author or not, one’s role as Little Brother lasts as long as life,” he confessed in Seldom Disappointed. “Before [Barney] had a chance to notice that the reviewers were more impressed with his landscapes than with my text, he had a sudden and fatal heart attack while shooting another assignment.”


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]