Glorious prose

I’ve been re-reading Let The Great World Spin, waiting for the end of the month when I can write something about Tinkers — please tell me you’re loving Tinkers —  and I read a passage today that seemed to me both emblematic of McCann’s style and also wonderfully instructive for young writers. There is much beautiful writing in the novel, of course. McCann has the poet’s love of image, and his voice has a darkly lyrical eloquence; you can hear Yeats in his prose, I think (my favorite Yeats poem “When You Are Old,” is below.)

The passage quoted here is from Gloria’s point of view, as she rides from the Upper East Side to the Bronx with Claire; in moments they will see Janice and Jazzlyn being escorted outside by the social workers. The prose is remarkable to me for the simplicity of the sentences and for the energy of the images. It’s just a list, really, nothing fancy. But the brevity of the sentences — some are just fragments, actually — captures exactly the staccato experience of a view seen from a moving car, especially the view of a city at night. The passage has the flickering quality of old black and white movie footage, too, and in fact there is no color recorded here; everything Gloria sees is illuminated starkly and briefly, and even what is ugly (rubble, twisted pipes, slabs of masonry) becomes beautiful when seen in this way, each object purely isolated. And then McCann, having made this nighttime urban landscape of blight and ruin and dark and light with a painter’s attention to detail, finishes on the gorgeous phrase, “fire-blown night.”

For beginning writers, this passage is a lesson is less is more, and also in Chekhov’s marvelous dictum: the way to convey the darkness of the night is not through a description of the dark, but  through a description of the chink of light reflected in a pail of water:

“On the bridge she flicked a quick look back at the city. All was light — offices that looked as if they were hovering on the void, the random pools from street lamps, headlights flashing across our faces. Pale concrete pillars flashed by. Girders in strange shapes. Naked columns capped with steel beams. The sweep of the river below.

“We crossed over into the Bronx, past shuttered bodegas and dogs in doorways. Fields of rubble. Twisted steel pipes. Slabs of broken masonry. We drove beyond the railroad tracks and the flashing shadows of the underpass, through the fire-blown night.”

    When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep; 

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face; 

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
    And paced among the mountains overhead
    And hid his face among a crowd of stars. 

    William Butler Yeats

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