My recent five-week marathon wallowing in misery with Walker Percy's brilliant neurotics left me hungry for something ordinary—mellow, even, I was thinking, if that were possible in this day of action thrillers, noir bummers, and speculative (science) fiction mind blowers. It were, of course, although I needed to poke around among some memory banks to find the mellow spot that had begun pulsing the instant the word mellow popped into my prefrontal cortex from the synaptic circuitry where the happy music of Donovan and his ilk spends its retirement from comforting souls jangled by the "far out" weirdness accompanying a certain sort of pharmaceutical entertainment that in many stoked simulated versions of the neurotic adventures Percy's characters experience unwillingly. (You may breathe now.)
Suddenly (a word I use happily in defiance of Jonathan Franzen, and because I like it) I recalled Bill Geroux, a mellow reporter colleague at the newspaper that employed us too many years ago, recommending his favorite mystery author, a new name to me, Tony Hillerman. “His books are sort of mellow. I like them. They’re the only ones I buy as soon as a new one comes out,” Geroux said. For some odd reason I tend to avoid books others recommend to me, but for some odd reason, perhaps simply being in the mood for mellow, I read my first Tony Hillerman mystery. Geroux was right. There was something inviting about the voice and the easygoing style. The writing was plain and crisp, the characters seemed real, they engaged me, and the story kept me flipping pages long past bedtime. I subsequently read most everything Hillerman wrote, including Seldom Disappointed, his autobiography, which I re-read yesterday to soothe a sensibility jangled to distress by Walker Percy’s brilliant neurotics.
Right from the get-go you feel the generous spirit of a man who, gently defying his agent’s advice to “get rid of the Indian stuff,” brought modern Navajo and Hopi people into the forefront of popular fiction. Here’s his dedication:
To Marie, who wanted me to do this, and to all you other writers, wannabes, shouldbes, willbes, and hadbeens included, I dedicate this effort. You’re the ones who know it ain’t easy. May you get as lucky as I have been.
“My agent’s advice caused me to seek a second opinion,” Hillerman says, “which sent me to Joan Kahn, the Einstein of mystery editors, who saw possibilities in the Navajo cultural material and subsequently forced me to be a better plotter than I had intended.”
With Kahn’s guidance Hillerman rewrote the novel and published it as The Blessing Way, launching the award-winning Navajo Tribal Police mystery series his daughter Anne would continue after his death in 2008 at 83. Anne Hillerman’s three since then brings the total to twenty-one. The elder Hillerman also published two stand-alone mysteries—The Fly on the Wall, drawing on his long experience as a newsman, and Finding Moon, set in the last days of U.S. combat involvement in Indochina. I’ve read Fly twice and now am re-reading Moon, which Hillerman proclaimed “the closest I have come to writing a book that satisfied me.” It’s good, certainly different from the others, but it’s far from my favorite. That laurel, such as it is, goes to Seldom Disappointed.
|Gen. Anthony "Nuts" McAuliffe pins Silver Star on Pvt. Hillerman|
“Blessed are those who expect little,” he recalled his mother saying. “They are seldom disappointed.” This was her consolation when Hillerman’s father dropped a huge Black Diamond watermelon--“the most delicious fruit known to humanity”--he was lugging home after nurturing it in a garden all summer. It smashed to bits. Hillerman says he was about five then, “and probably didn’t appreciate the doubled-edged irony in that beatitude. Looking back at life, I find I have often received more than I ever expected and suffered less than my share of disappointments.”
He credits both parents with instilling principles in him, his older brother, and their sister that served him well through many challenges. From his father he learned not to cheat (although he admits to being extraordinarily lucky at poker, which I would attribute to an evidently extraordinary memory) and not to bear grudges. Perhaps ironically he learned bravery from his mother (reinforced less nobly by his peers to whom he dared not appear a “sissy”.) These values, he says, were severely tested when faced with the temptation to deliberately smash his bum ankle during WWII to get out of the terrible trials of fighting Nazis in Germany. He ended up badly wounded anyway, and being awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars for valor (which, with characteristic modesty, he claims were undeserved), but those came awhile after his decision to forget the ankle and soldier on.
“Our company had at least two cases of men courtmartialed for self-inflicted wounds, but a broken ankle wouldn’t provoke punishment,” he writes. “Why didn’t I do it? It had nothing to do with patriotism, or how badly it would hurt. I think it was because I didn’t want to miss whatever lay ahead, or I didn’t want to go through life knowing I was a sissy.
His modesty, a sense of basic honesty, and an unflinching memory for detail come through with exceptional clarity in this description of his first day at Oklahoma A&M shortly after getting his high school diploma and after he and his brother buried their father on their dirt-poor farm.
|Hillerman, United Press|
“Years later, after reading Catcher in the Rye,” he writes, “memories of that day came flooding back to me and I tried to pull them together into the raw material for a short story—working in the good-bye hug from Mama, shaking hands with Barney, standing on the mostly dead bermuda grass of Mrs. Pulliam’s yard watching our sedan disappear down the street, the mixed feelings of fear, exultation, loneliness, and excitement. Suddenly I was a formally recognized adult. Free at last from boyhood, a career at which I had not felt myself successful. I was skinny, clumsy, slow of foot, the survivor of two tough pre-antibiotic bouts of pneumonia, and a struggle with malaria that kept me home from sixth grade classes for months. I had the sort of ears that made Ross Perot a favorite of cartoonists, a large and bony nose, and a tendency to do dumb things to minimize the risk of being considered a sissy by my peers. (For example, jumping out of a barn loft to show pals how paratroopers did it and, as paratroopers often did, tearing up ankle tendons.) Now I had a new start. I was simultaneously scared and jubilant, an emotional mix that was (and still is) beyond my ability to handle in fiction.” Oh, I don’t know about that last.
He lasted one semester, receiving terrible grades except for an A in English composition, went home, enlisted, and entered WWII as a combat infantryman. You don’t want to hear about the nightmare “over there,” I’m sure, at least not from me. So let’s skip ahead to Hillerman having mustered out at age twenty, limping on a cane, and with a vague notion of becoming a journalist, “whatever that might prove to be.” This he becomes, finds out he’s good at it, makes a name for himself, gets married, goes back to college, begins writing and selling nonfiction, teaches in college, switches to fiction, and becomes a New York Times bestselling mystery novelist. He and his wife Marie (whom we met in the dedication and whom he praises without restraint throughout the rest of the book describing her marrying him as “the greatest coup” of his life) produce Anne, and then adopt five more children.
His generosity comes through even in sharing some insights to the writing craft, the kind some successful authors slyly guard under generalities, such as “show, don’t tell,” rather than giving specifics.
Working on the novel Skinwalkers, Hillerman found himself stumped by a scene where his Navajo policeman protagonist, asleep in his trailer home, must be awakened in time to avoid an assassin’s bullet fired through the trailer’s aluminum skin. “Everything I try sounds like pure psychic coincides—which I detest in mysteries. Nothing works until I remember the ‘clack, clack’ sound made when a friend’s cat goes through the ‘cat door’ on his porch.” Voila! Something outside scares the cat, the cat dashes to safety through the little door, and “clack, clack,” the policeman wakes up and rolls to safety on the floor.
Five years earlier, studying for a graduate degree at the University of New Mexico after barely gaining admission to the program, an essay he wrote describing his father’s dying day earned him an A. This surprised him, as it was the first time he’d tried writing in first person. His professor, Morris Friedman, had suggested the approach after Hillerman explained he’d been trained as a journalist “to be invisible.” to keep himself out of the story. He asked Friedman what made this approach work so well.
“‘For example,’ Friedman said, ‘You show us not just his books on the shelves, but the glass which preserves them.’
“I said, ‘Yes, he loved his books.’
“‘From the titles you mention, I’d say they were politically inflammatory for the times. So, as your reader,’ said Friedman, ‘I think that glass protects both his books from the dust, and his children from the books.’
“Thus, Morris Friedman caused me to begin thinking of what can be done with those significant little details, and the value of the sort of ambiguity from which readers form their own conclusions.”
Next step, the “clack, clack” of an imagined lifesaving cat door in a bestselling, much celebrated career.
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]