How to and how not to
Man, have I picked some dudleys lately. Southland is — how do I put this nicely? — just awful. I’m going to give it a little more time, since In America just surprised me so pleasantly, but the main fault I find with the book is Revoyr’s writing. I think it’s just not great. (Not to mention that her main character is such a drag. She’s a lesbian, Japanese lawyer in LA, estranged from her parents and most of her emotions, in a failing relationship, unhappy and stressed out and tired all the time — thanks, I’ll go slit my wrists now.)
Here’s a for instance. Read this character description from Southland:
He had a really good face. His forehead was wide and expressive, and running across it were three long wrinkles, just starting to lay claim in the flesh. His nose was stately, and Jackie noticed that when she said something, it registered not in his eyes but in his flaring, widening nostrils. His lips were full and moist, and his jaw was square and anvil-like; any fist that struck it might disintegrate on impact. The thing that both disturbed his face and underlined its perfection was the deep, inch-long scar just inside his left ear. James Lanier was on the verge of being a beautiful man, and his scar both pushed him toward that distinction and held him safely away from it.
What does “a really good face” look like? Why not leave that out and jump straight to the description. A “stately” nose? Are we talking like Roman senator stately? And what’s all this business about his flaring nostrils and his full, moist lips? He sounds ridiculous and comic. The anecdote about a fist striking his “anvil-like” jaw is — what, foreshadowing of violence? And really, a scar? Let me guess, an outward physical scar to reflect the inward pain he has experienced. Did I get it?
Oh, but there’s more. A page later we get another lengthy monologue on Mr. Lanier. I’ll skip a bit at the beginning and just give you the meaty bits:
And [the boys] accepted him and admired him, his sternness and discipline. But women didn’t know what to do with him. He was like a mountain that provided no avenue for scaling, no trails up through the dense and thorny brush. So it was no surprise to Lanier that this woman didn’t know how to approach. Not that men understood him any better. Although they admired his purity, his complete independence, they couldn’t see that his strength came at the price of company and comfort. They didn’t know that half Lanier’s sternness was loneliness calcified. The empty solitude on top of the mountain.
Keep in mind we’ve just met this man two pages ago. What to do with this information? Men admire his purity and women think he’s a mountain, but no one seems to notice that he’s lonely. Now he’s going to find an unlikely friend in our unhappy protagonist, who is likewise lonely and “calcified.”
Contrast that writing with some excellent descriptions from James Lee Burke’s Lay Down My Sword and Shield, which I picked up to get the taste of Southland out of my mouth:
Mr. Posey rose from his round-backed wicker chair on the porch and shook hands. The lower portion of his stomach was swollen all the way across the front of his pants. His skin was soft, pudgy to the touch, and his head was almost completely bald except for a few short gray hairs. His eyes were colorless, and his voice had the bland quality of oatmeal. He reminded me of a miniature, upended white whale. When he sat down the watch in his pocket bulged against the cloth like a hard biscuit.
Mr. Posey is an attorney who showed almost criminal neglect in defending a recent client, a Mexican union picketer. The details we get of him (as he sips tea on the veranda of his ranch house) all show us that he might think such a client wasn’t worth his gentleman’s time.
Here’s another description, of the town sheriff:
The sheriff sat behind his desk with a handrolled cigarette between his lips, and my billfold, pocketknife, and muddy boots in front of him. He wore steel-rimmed glasses, and his ears peeled out from the sides of his head. His face was full of red knots and bumps, a large brown mole on his chin, and his gray hair was mowed right into the scalp, but his flat blue eyes cut through the rest of it like a welder’s torch. He put the cigarette out between his fingers in the wastebasket, and started to roll another one from a package of Virginia Extra in his pocket. The tips of his teeth were rotted with nicotine. He curved the cigarette paper under his forefinger and didn’t look at me when he spoke.
He didn’t come right out and say, “The sheriff was an ugly man,” or “The sheriff had a stern look about him,” but we get that, along with some great lines like “his ears peeled out from the sides of his head.” We don’t have to be told that a fist might shatter on his face; we can tell this is not a guy we want to mess with.
Burke has a great way of building character through dialogue, too, which would take too long for me to type out, whereas Revoyr just vomits up all her characters’ back stories and feelings and neuroses in long stretches of exposition. Even minor characters (like one of Jackie’s law school classmates) get the VIP treatment, and we have to read a whole pointless graf about her life. Tighten up that writing, Revoyr! Create interesting characters! Build some tension! Trust your readers! Stick to details that matter!
Overall, Burke gets an A; Revoyr gets a C-.