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Friday, May 23, 2008

But he talks like a gentleman, like you imagined him

Before Thomas Harris succumbed to the unfathomable moral idiocy of his most famous creation, he had some pretty serious game. Regard this passage from the perhaps only slightly overpraised SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (a book so much better than the movie derived from it that even Harris at his peak could not adequately describe the unbridgeable qualitative gulf between them):

Starling heard a lot of the Arkansas hills in the man's voice. She could speak that with anybody when she wanted to, and her time was short.

"Yessir, if you could help me out I'd be much obliged. I'm trying to get ahold of Mr. Lomax Bardwell? This is Clarice Starling?"

"It's Starling somebody," the man yelled to the rest of his household. "What do you want with Bardwell?"

"This is the Mid-South regional office of the Ford recall division? He's entitled to some warranty work on his LTD free of charge?"

"I'm Bardwell. I thought you was trying to sell me something on that cheap long distance. It's way too late for any adjustment, I need the whole thing. Me and the wife was in Little Rock, pulling out of the Southland Mall there?"

"Yessir."

"Durn rod come out through the oil pan. Oil all over everywhere and that Orkin truck that's got the big bug on top of it? He hit that oil and got sideways."

"Lord have mercy."

"Knocked the Fotomat booth slap off the blocks and the glass fell out. Fotomat fella come wandering out addled. Had to keep him out of the road."

There's a compact, elegant precision to Harris' prose that I find deeply satisfying. Said elegance, precision, and, alas, sly authorial cruelty is equally evident in this shorter passage from further along:
When she was far enough away, one of the younger deputies, a newlywed, scratched beneath his jaw and said, "She don't look half as good as she thinks she does."

"Well, if she just thinks she looks
pretty god-damned good,I'd have to agree with her, myself," the other young deputy said. "I'd put her on like a Mark Five gas mask."

"I'd just as soon have a big watermelon, if it was cold," the older deputy said, half to himself.


Harris is, to me, much of a much with Stephen King as a writer; his earlier books are tremendous artifacts I can reread over and over again (and have, often) while the product of his later career is severely marred by the excesses of his own success -- which is to say, he's become so commercial that, like King, he can demand to have his every word published entirely unedited, and, also like King (and Heinlein, and most other writers, including, I'm sure, myself) this is an indulgence he cannot well afford.

Few artists have the disciplined detachment to successfully critique their own work, and Harris certainly does not number among that select number. Not only does he badly require an editor for more mundane editorial tasks like pointing out passages that desperately cry out for at least one more draft before publication, but he also needs someone to slap him hard two or three times just prior to advising him that one's hero is the character trying to stop the sociopathic cannibalistic mind controlling serial killer-rapist. Further, serial murder, cannibalism, mind control, and recreational rape are not in any way justified or made acceptable by describing said cannibal serial killer/rapist's unpleasant childhood, or attributing to him a lengthy list of evil Nazis he has killed and eaten during his young adulthood in occupied Europe.

I suppose Harris could still redeem himself; in his next novel, he could have Clarice Starling come to her senses and flee to Florida. When the evil doctor inevitably pursues her, a surprisingly sober Will Graham could spring up from behind a palm tree and thoroughly air condition Lecter's small, sleek torso with eight or nine well placed Glaser rounds. True, it might make for an exceedingly short narrative, but it would be one I myself would find enormously satisfactory.

Until then, though, I'll just have to keep rereading BLACK SUNDAY, RED DRAGON, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. And you really should, too.

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