July 25, 2013

Stephen Dobyns - unsung hero?

I've been meaning for a while to write about Stephen Dobyns' new book, The Burn Palace. He made his name originally with a series of books set in Saratoga and dealing with the horse-racing set in that part of the US, featuring his laid-back detective, Charlie Bradshaw. He later expanded his purview with The Church of Dead Girls and Boy in the Water. He is also a poet.

The Burn Palace is set in a fictional Rhode Island township, Brewster, and seems initially to be a crossover novel dealing with the supernatural and possibly vampirism or werewolf-ism (?) However, as the main protagonists set about their police investigation, it becomes clear that what appears to be supernatural is common-or-garden evil-doing, and that the usual suspects - the good and the great of the local community - are just in it for the money.

What's particularly interesting about the novel is its style, particularly at the beginning:

Now, like an airborne camera, we move back from the hospital, which is called Morgan Memorial here in the town of Brewster, Rhode Island. The sky is mostly clear, and the three-quarter moon lets us see the town under a milky light. A stiff wind out of the northwest energizes the few clouds, tugs the fall leaves and sends them swirling. Windows rattle, and bits of paper and dead leaves swirl down the streets. Already the temperature has dropped to freezing, and those folks who haven’t covered their tomatoes are going to lose them. But isn’t that often a relief? With the garden gone, except for the Swiss chard and winter squash, it’s just one less thing to take care of.
 Dobyns moves in and out of this conversational style, sometimes being our knowledgeable guide, sometimes an impartial recorder of events.

The result is that we feel we've been given a very full picture of the happenings in the town. Because the author is all-knowing and all-seeing, he is able to move us into the experience of a variety of different people, both good guys and bad guys. We spend some time with the main investigator, Woody Potter, and some time with a man who seems to be undergoing a transition from human to wolf, Carl Krause.

What's more, Dobyns shifts between the present tense and the past historic, giving the impression that the town and its people are still living, breathing elements:
We can see Ocean Breezes four blocks east of the hospital as we rise above the town: a nineteenth-century inn and boardinghouse that was tucked, stretched, expanded, and renovated into a residence for seniors, as it’s called today. Most of the lights are out, though twenty elderly insomniacs stare up at their ceilings in wonder or dismay at where they find themselves. That happens when their numbers lessen.
And look how he shifts between the descriptive past and the present in the space of one full-stop here:

Hartmann put his bag up on the table next to the TV. He is a pudgy man in his late thirties, and he likes to wear a Hawaiian shirt under a blue blazer. What he has a lot of is hair, a thick dark brown mop that he combs back over his head and that gives him another two inches of height, and today it looks as it did when he was sixteen. He’s been lucky in the hair area, as he likes to tell himself.
 He 'put his bag up' in one breath, then he 'is a pudgy man'. This gives a sense of us watching him do something - put up his bag - and then the author telling us something about him in real time: 'He is a pudgy man ... '

The effect is quite disconcerting until you get used to it, and then it breeds a comfort, a sense in which you give yourself over to the author's care as he describes what's going on. As the book develops, this disparity between present and past tense disappears and it becomes more conventional in its telling. However, you never quite lose the sense of the writer lurking over your shoulder, ready to tell you something important should you need it.

This says something interesting about contemporary narrative style - that it's possible to move between tenses in the same way as it's possible to move between points-of-view, even first to third POV. It's as though the narrative conventions established in the nineteenth century are being challenged. In the days of Jane Austen and George Eliot, the third person narrator was god-like in her or his ability to tell us what was happening inside the heads of the protagonists. As the twentieth century dawned, this style faded - the first-person narrative and the close-third-person became more ubiquitous. Editors these days refer to a narrative style that moves between different characters' thoughts within a scene as 'head-hopping' - but writers like Dobyns show that it's possible to do this without losing your reader's attention. Moreover,writers like James Lee Burke and Jefferson Parker show that it's possible to move between a first person and a third person narrator without destroying your story.

Readers are able to keep up with these transitions so long as they feel safe with what they're being told, which is the challenge for writers new to the trade - how to move about stylistically while still reassuring the reader that the story is working, and the narrative shifts are deliberate and not accidental?

Crime writing is showing us how this can be done, and Dobyns has for a long while been at the forefront of writers willing and able to manipulate his prose cleverly. Maybe it's because he's a poet and a teacher of creative writing that these experimental tropes seem appropriate to him. Other crime writers are following close behind. The future looks interesting!

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