A Tough Flower Girl: On Norman Maclean
It's not as if Maclean didn't know his stories were strange. He often said he wrote them in part so the world would know of what artistry men and women were capable in the woods of his youth, before helicopters and chain saws rendered obsolete the ancient skills of packing with mules and felling trees with crosscut saws. Artistry, specifically artistry with one's hands, was for him among life's most refined achievements. As he says in the opening pages of "A River Runs Through It," "all good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy." Among the many things that make the novella charmingly weird is how it begins with a long piece of expository prose on how to cast a fly with a four-and-a-half-ounce rod--an opening almost Modernist in its diffidence to the rituals of storytelling, as if begging for attrition from the uncommitted. Once he is assured you are with him, however, he then shows you, as the story progresses, how to make more specialized casts, how to read a river and see where the trout live, how to choose the correct fly to entice them and, finally, how to land a big fish once you've hooked it. All the while, he is mingling comedy and tragedy, and making metaphors of surpassing beauty, often while hinting at his brother's coming doom:
As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are more often like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. And I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness.
In a story in which every piece is irregular and every piece fits with every other, it is no accident that the final line is this: "I am haunted by waters." If, as Chekhov said, the object is not to paint a picture of the moon in the sky but in a piece of broken glass, Maclean had learned from his masters and, being tough, picked up the jagged shard and used it as a knife.
If "A River Runs Through It" lightly fictionalized Maclean's life story, Young Men and Fire offered him a chance to explore the other life he might have lived, the life of a Forest Service firefighter. In "Black Ghost," which appears again in the Reader, having served as the prologue to Young Men and Fire, Maclean recounts his arrival at a scene of conflagration along the Missouri River in August 1949, with the fire still burning in stump holes and scattered trees. The smell and the look of the gulch in which the fire blew up haunted him the rest of his life. The book is, in one sense, the story of an unforeseen disaster, in which smoke jumpers accustomed to unifying earth, wind and fire found themselves overwhelmed by that final element, which they could not outrun. It is also, as Maclean put it, a story in search of itself as a story--or, to say it another way, a tragedy in search of a tragedian. He spent most of the last fourteen years of his life on it, and the typescript remained unfinished at his death.
His description of the gulch after the fire offers a sense of how he managed a poetically laconic style that was also occasionally religious in tone, suffused with images he absorbed in his youth as the child of a preacher:
Nearly half a mile away the [rescue] crew could hear Hellman shouting for water. In the valley of ashes there was another sound--the occasional explosion of a dead tree that would blow to pieces when its resin became so hot it passed the point of ignition. There was little left alive to be frightened by the explosions. The rattlesnakes were dead or swimming the Missouri. The deer were also dead or swimming or euphoric. Mice and moles came out of their holes and, forgetting where their holes were, ran into the fire. Following the explosion that sent the moles and ashes running, a tree burst into flames that almost immediately died. Then the ashes settled down again to rest until they rose in clouds when the crew passed by.
"In the valley of ashes"--the phrase reminiscent of The Great Gatsby--is in this instance meant to evoke the biblical valley of the shadow of death, as indeed Mann Gulch appeared to be and smelled on that August afternoon when a fire whirl caught thirteen men as they ran for their lives uphill. Maclean also returns repeatedly to a version of the event as a kind of Passion play, with Stations of the Cross scattered up the hill, marked now by literal crosses where each of the dead men fell, monuments to their unimaginable end. With dogged precision he taught himself the latest wildfire science, coaxed a friend to help him mark time on the hill and read and reread the official report on the fire, with its details about the recollections of the three survivors, two of whom he led back to the scene to revisit their close encounter with death. The smoke jumpers' foreman, Wag Dodge, had lit an escape fire and lay down in its ashes as the larger fire whirl passed over his men: he tried in vain to persuade them to join him, the only hope for survival most of them had, though none of them listened. He would die five years later, haunted by his inability to show his men the way to their afterlife beyond the fire. Although Maclean never says so explicitly, Dodge resembles a kind of Jesus figure, misunderstood in his message at the moment it counted most for the world, that world for Dodge consisting of young men running uphill in a gulch and a fire running faster forever and ever.