A Tough Flower Girl: On Norman Maclean
Maclean claimed in interviews to be essentially agnostic. But prayer and biblical language still formed for him a coherent vision of the world and supplied the images he would use to great effect in all his work. Watching his brother Paul fish in "A River Runs Through It," he sees him in terms that are potent in their ambiguity:
Below him was the multitudinous river, and, where the rock had parted it around him, big-grained vapor rose. The mini-molecules of water left in the wake of his line made momentary loops of gossamer, disappearing so rapidly in the rising big-grained vapor that they had to be retained in memory to be visualized as loops. The spray emanating from him was finer-grained still and enclosed him in a halo of himself. The halo of himself was always there and always disappearing, as if he were candlelight flickering about three inches from himself. The images of himself and his line kept disappearing into the rising vapors of the river, which continually circled to the tops of the cliffs where, after becoming a wreath in the wind, they became rays of the sun.
That halo, always there and always disappearing, becomes the perfect metaphor for Paul: a man of great artistry and beauty with a fly rod in his hand, always in possession of that artistry but not always in a position to use it, and doomed to a tragedy that occurred in a moment outside his sphere of artistry. Eventually he will disappear altogether into the mystery of himself. One other potent symbol in his story--again redolent of the story of Christ--is the right hand with which he casts his fly. We see it again and again in the course of the novella, bigger and more powerful than his left, until it becomes a foregone conclusion that it will have a role in his end. The only solace Norman and his father can take from his death is that nearly all the fingers of that hand were broken when his body was found dumped in an alley, a sign that he had died fighting, a fact Norman must repeat more than once. The hand, in conversation between Norman and his father, becomes a thing they continually inspect, just as Thomas had to inspect the hand of Jesus to prove to himself that Jesus had returned from the dead.
Having begun to write so late in life, Maclean confined his energies to what his idol Wordsworth called "spots of time"--those moments when his life soared above the humdrum and took on the shape and beauty of a story. This gave him the head start he needed, aware as he was that his time for creation was short. Again and again in his work, he makes allusions to such moments: "Poets talk about 'spots of time,' but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment," he writes in "A River Runs Through It." In the later novella "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," his reminiscence of his work as a fire lookout in the early Forest Service, he put it this way: "Life every now and then becomes literature--not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened." Finally, in Young Men and Fire, he offers what is by now a more crystallized statement of the same view: "Far back in the impulses to find this story is a storyteller's belief that at times life takes on the shape of art and that the remembered remnants of these moments are largely what we come to mean by life."
As The Norman Maclean Reader illuminates, Maclean was attracted not only to spots of time but to tragedies of overconfidence. The first section of the book contains five chapters of a study he began in the 1950s on the battle at Little Bighorn, a book he never finished, although his fascination with what happened to Custer on that hill never left him. That fascination revolved, as he put it, around "how hidden we keep certain aspects of defeat from ourselves," not aware until too late that our defeat is imminent. He mentions the battle more than once in both "A River Runs Through It" and Young Men and Fire; in the second instance he sees a kinship between the crosses marking the spots where thirteen young smoke jumpers met their death and the memorials to the dead at Little Bighorn:
In the dry grass on both hills are white scattered markers where the bodies were found, a special cluster of them just short of the top, where red terror closed in from behind and above and from the sides. The bodies were of those who were young and thought to be invincible by others and themselves. They were the fastest the nation had in getting to where there was danger, they got there by moving in the magic realm between heaven and earth, and when they got there they almost made a game of it. None were surer they couldn't lose than the Seventh Cavalry and the Smokejumpers.
It seems now, as editor O. Alan Weltzien points out in his introduction to the Reader, that the story of Custer's defeat was too impersonal for Maclean to wring from it everything he wanted in a story. In one of the chapters of the aborted book, in fact, Maclean comes close to defining the philosophy of storytelling that would guide his efforts much later: "No literary sense is deeper than the one that recognizes the emotions most inherent in an actual situation and then does everything in its power to preserve this emotional unity and to magnify its impact by addition, subtraction, and embroidery." Addition, subtraction and embroidery: these were the recipe for the compressed and poetical stories he achieved in A River Runs Through It. His major problem in the writing of the Custer story was that it was too removed in history, too layered in mythology, for him to excavate the emotions inherent in the battle; he simply stalled out in frustration. Only when he turned, two decades later, to events from his own life did he find himself able to write by his creed.
"If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don't come with it," Maclean once said, "then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart." He often said his father had wanted him to be tough, his mother had wanted him to be a flower girl, and so he ended up a tough flower girl. His message is certainly tough--"there's a lot of tragedy in the universe that has missing parts and comes to no conclusion, including probably the tragedy that awaits you and me"--but it comes garlanded in a prose style very near to unsurpassed in the rhythms of its rolling anapests, its bright flashes of remembrance, its whispers out of time.