Books Beside Themselves (Nonfiction and the Double Life of Facts)

Monday, February 7, 2011

This is the last in a series of four nonfiction craft essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from a panel Subtext, Sidetext, Sound Tracks and More: Layering in Creative Nonfiction which was originally presented at the NonfictionNow conference on November 6th, 2010.


The human mind is by nature spiritually responsive, but since it is unavoidably burdened, one must, in order to gain access to it, use as a substitute something that does not have a mind.
—Shen Gua (11th century), commentary on The Book of Changes

The poet manifests his personality, first of all, by his choice of subject.
—Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel

A. L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting, Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, and J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine take up quite literal—and not overly eccentric—nonfiction topics: the lore and logic of a cultural institution, the mystery imbuing a terrible misadventure, the doings of creatures in the wild. Each book reports brilliantly, in exemplary detail. But each is driven to its compelling engagement with the facts (or the putative facts, as some would have it) by an ongoing, intimate crisis its narrator suffers. This traumatic state is explicitly revealed to varying degrees, with Kennedy’s book being the most forthcoming and Baker’s the least. But it is most fully and compelling manifest in the factual content’s becoming a metaphor for the narrator’s quandary. Thus, the nature of these books is doubled. Each is nonfiction report and memoir by inference. The latter is not so much subtext as “side-text,” if you will—personal narrative of distress, in distress.


On Bullfighting opens with the author in present tense telling herself—and us—that she is about to leap from her apartment window, that it is the right moment to do so. Now. The Sunday morning before her is quiet and empty, so her actions, she reasons, will be more or less private, not directly involving (or, it appears, endangering) anyone below. She closes her eyes before making what she thinks is her final decision. But suddenly in the distance, she hears the first strains of her “least favorite folksong in all the world,” the “pseudo-Celtic pap” (OB, 6) known as “Mhairi’s Wedding.” Desperate as she is, she simply can’t kill herself to a kitsch soundtrack. Unforeseen dignity will not allow it. So she gets down from the window—in an apartment that her heretofore successful writing career has allowed her to purchase—and meets again the impasse.

The inadequacy of my misery hasn’t escaped me, the fact that I’m literally boring myself to death. This all started with such utterly commonplace stuff, things other people can manage and that I should have managed, too: a man that I loved has died and another has hurt me, I am not in good health and don’t sleep, I have a rather averagely broken heart and no more need for the flat someone else would be glad of, or for its study, because I don’t write. I’m a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no one at all. I look very different, but I have nothing of value inside. (OB, 5)

Grief, betrayal, loss of vocation, damaged strength, spiritual vacancy, isolation . . . and presiding over all, mortification at the inability to cope with “such utterly commonplace stuff” as her personal standards insist she should. Aside from one somewhat extensive but curiously oblique scene later in the manuscript, Kennedy does not again speak directly of the source of these trials. “The test is conducted by other means. In writing this book, I am looking for faith. I am not unaware that I need it. I begin with a slender point of connection, that in attempting to control death, the toreros and I may have a little in common” (OB, 15). [pagebreak]

But even this endeavor began by chance. An editor offered the assignment. “I can tell you this book does not come from any prior interest or enthusiasm on my part. I have no love for the hairy, manly Hemingway approach to the corrida. . . . I am not a woman who finds the facts of death erotic (although we will discuss such matters in due course) and the sight of boys in spangled satin and slippers stiff-legging in through their required paces does nothing for me per se” (OB, 9).

What she gives is perhaps, she concedes, not what the aficionados may crave. For that, they can go elsewhere. “But my little confession of a contemplated sin is intended to indicate that I will give you as much as I can. I do promise that” (OB, 7). What she will give, finally, is an attempt to understand the corrida with nuance and equanimity, as a stranger of special qualities might the customs of tribe just encountered. “What happens in the ring,” she writes, “is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight” (OB, 8).

Thus the book introduces us to the mythic origins of the bull and conjectures on its psychic allure. It surveys the craft of breeding top fighting stock and elucidates the symbolic architecture of the bullring and the social context of an afternoon spent therein. We learn about the making of a great torero—and the disasters of mediocrity and incompetency that more often prevail. Kennedy explores the roles of superstition, bad faith, fear, and the temporary overcoming of fear in the delicate counterweighting of management and mayhem. “Even the almost always inevitable death of the bull is meant to be controlled within the corrida’s physical language, the structure and the sad necessities of the world. The corrida can be seen as an extraordinary effort to elevate the familiar, mysterious, slapstick, the irrevocable, indecipherable logic of damage and death, into something almost accessible” (OB, 12).

Over and over the discussion returns to the place of the artist in all this. (Kennedy examines ignominy in the ring, as well as the brilliance of masters such as Domingo Lopez Ortega, the first matador whose work she found beautiful.) Inevitably, the ever-present potential of the cornada, the wound, is central to the drama. While Kennedy is aware that practicing art is not at all like literally facing death, the analogy of matador to writer has already been established. As we know, she has her cornada and its consequences. And thus is drawn the implied comparison of the author (or a blocked author) to luminaries like Juan Belamonte, who because of age, spiritual damage, or some more obscure cause find themselves unable to continue in the ring, or unable to recapture the transport of their glories there, and now suffer the quotidian scourge of mere life (or, as in Belamonte’s case, finally choose suicide). The analogy pertains when Kennedy writes of the rarest moment in the ring, when something like what the poet García Lorca called duende is accessed and the self is seemingly cast off. Beast, matador, and the witnessing crowd become one in mystical contact, perhaps only for the duration of the next pass of the horns.

Throughout On Bullfighting, the reader is drawn on by Kennedy’s insights and observations about the overt subject matter but just as forcefully by the inferential suspense of the “side-text” narrative. We know this sardonic, grieving, and blocked writer has managed to produce the book in our hands. This accomplishment points toward some culmination, perhaps even some form of redemption and renewal. What will it be?


Maclean’s Young Men and Fire is an investigation into the Mann Gulch, Montana, blowup of August 5, 1949. Over the course of nearly forty years, Maclean probes and reconstructs the fifty-six minutes between the arrival on the scene of fifteen smokejumpers and the deaths of twelve of them in an ensuing conflagration. The book is recursive, layered. Maclean returns to the incident, and that place, over and over, approaching the events from different angles, adding new information, further insights into what happened amid the roar and bright horror of soaring flames. “The Mann Gulch fire was not only a tragedy,” Maclean writes, “but a mystery story of physical and intellectual dimensions, introducing mistaken identities and explanations accompanied by seemingly unanswerable scientific questions” (YMF, 282). How did this experienced crew get itself into a suddenly lethal position relative to the fire it was working? What caused this average blaze to metamorphose into an inferno? What inspired Wag Dodge, the foreman, to light what is now known as an “escape fire,” and did this technique exacerbate the blowup and perhaps cause the deaths of his crew though it saved his life? Why didn’t members of his crew follow his lead? And how did the two other survivors, Rumsey and Sallee, find their way through the smoke, up a nearly vertical incline, to a breach in the rock face topping the ridge? [pagebreak]

Maclean, the Montana-raised woodsman and Shakespeare scholar, is driven to go as deeply into those minutes as the facts and his imagination allow, to find the soul of the situation, to be able to say with confidence “this we know” but also to gain what he calls “compassion” for those young men bewildered and terrified in the solitude of their sudden mortality. So the book contains passages that fuse often-segregated domains of knowing—for instance, fire science and literature: “The percentage increase in the spread rate . . . varies in proportion to the square of the percent slope. This is a tragic statement; it was very steep where they died” (YMF, 263).

Beside this main narrative, entwined with it, is another as present in its effects as it is limited in its details. The Mann Gulch fire was also a kind of Proustian event for Maclean. In the opening section of the book, “Black Ghost,” he tells of visiting the Mann Gulch fire with his brother-in-law just as it was burning out. “I had to go and see the fire right then. I once had seen a ghost, and the ghost again possessed me” (YMF, 4). He tells us that when he was sixteen, he was trapped by a sudden burst while fighting a blaze at Fish Creek, Montana. In cheap boots bad for the business, he found himself racing up a steep slope ahead of the flames, wearing out and growing dim. A shadowy figure stepped from the smoke, addressed him, then slapped him once, back to alertness, and disappeared. “Although I was very tired the next morning, I hurried to where the fire jumped the trail. It was not until I stared that I realized that if I had stepped across a little fire and been on the other side of it where the cedar tuff was that I would not have had to race a giant uphill for my life or been stopped by a ghost along the way” (YMF, 10).

Drawn into the mystery of the Mann Gulch fire, he is drawn into the mystery of contingency, into the mystery of fate and loss—all of which are part of the mystery of identity, his own and others’—and part of another mystery that has no clear name. It is this last element, perhaps, that led the editors of this posthumous work to suggest in their introduction that it “had become a story in search of itself as a story” (YMF, xiii).

If a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to regard it as a calling, unlike a historian he cannot turn from the suffering of his characters. A storyteller, unlike a historian, must follow compassion wherever it leads him. He must be able to accompany his characters, even into smoke and fire, and bear witness to what they thought and felt even when they themselves no longer knew. This story of the Mann Gulch fire will not end until it feels able to walk the final distance to the crosses with those who for whom the time being are blotted out by the smoke. They were young and did not leave much behind them and need someone to remember them. (YMF, 102) [pagebreak]

“Until it feels able to walk the final distance,” the story will not end. But beside this kind of exploration, beside the facts and empathy with the dead smokejumpers at Mann Gulch, shadowing them, is the mystery of his own life (a life that has occurred only because the black ghost appeared) and the mystery of the other lives he himself has tried to know since that day.


J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine informs the reader that the eyes of its eponymous subject weigh approximately one ounce each and the speed of its wing-beat is 4.4 per second. It has a tooth in its upper mandible that fits into the neck vertebrae of its prey so as to snap the spinal cord. It molts fastest in warm weather. It mates in its second year. Yet factual details of this sort are secondary, finally, to the author’s obsession to get as close as possible to what he can know, can observe, of the bird in the wild. Not ideas about the bird, not representations of the bird, but the bird itself. “The hardest thing of all,” Baker declares, “is to see what is really there” (TP, 19).

 Deriving from the Latin peregrinus, “foreign,” the bird’s name is sometimes given as Pilgrim Hawk, and Baker’s quest suggests the designation applies to himself—a stranger, a hunter, and a kind of pilgrim. “I have always longed to be part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; the return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival” (TP, 10).

In his introductory chapter he declares, ”For ten years I followed the peregrine. I was possessed by it. It was a grail to me. Now it has gone” (TP, 14). Literally, the bird is dying out, from pesticides in its environment, and the book is an elegy for a vanishing world. But this writer also asserts that “the hunter must become the thing he hunts” (TP, 13). He has tried, in the writing, to preserve another unity, “binding together the bird, the watcher and the place that holds them both. Everything I describe took place while I was watching it, but do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behavior of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded” (TP, 14). [pagebreak]

Emotions as facts. The watcher’s behavior as fact. (And a primary behavior of this particular watcher is the production of scintillating metaphors for natural phenomena.) For one avid to see “what is really there,” Baker is elective in his observations. No other person populates this landscape. Rarely is an artifact of human presence noted (though this is Essex, England, in the 1950s and ’60s). The first-person pronoun is generally renounced. Instead, the journal entries that make up the bulk of the book present a timeless, creaturely world where the drama of the hunt is played out over and over, though with seemingly endless permutations. The greater part of its magnificence, however, is entirely supplied by the resourceful muse of Baker’s prose. And this “fact” causes one to feel the book’s twinned (and twined) nature. Its highly poetic “information” commemorates the literal, vanishing peregrine but also serves as a kind of symbolist elegy for a dying world within the author-observer, an inner loss for which the peregrine stands.


Remove the concerns of “I” from any of these books, and they suffer profound narrowing. Flesh out the terms of the narrator’s trauma, make it central, and these books are pushed toward familiar and more disposable patterns of “crisis” genre nonfiction. Instead, their side-text structures allow for aesthetic resolution without the deforming demand that metaphysical distress be relieved or overcome. Kennedy, as we know, does not leap from her study window. Instead, she fights the bull, so to speak, and writes—but not fiction, her passion and self-creating vocation. On Bullfighting ends with her back in her study, looking at a souvenir figurine from her trips to Spain, a small cloaked and hooded man with the word rescate (redemption) emblazoned above him, but with nothing redeemed by her effort: “I sit down and try not to think that I’ve spent so many hours of my life here, working in the space my work made for me, inside the vocation which has closed with me inside. I don’t know what to do” (OB, 156).

Suffusing Maclean’s troubled questions of identity, accompanying his storyteller’s compassion for the young men in their moment of death, are the bewilderments of another grief. His wife, Jessie, died in 1968, several years before he began writing Young Men and Fire. She is mentioned only twice in the text—with irrefutable import, an absence carefully established—when he tells us that her ashes are scattered in a valley near Mann Gulch and when he announces in the final sentence of the book: “Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy, where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death” (YMF, 301). [pagebreak]

Baker’s expressed desire to flee the “human taint,” to be “part of the outward life,” indicates the degree to which his suffering with self cannot be resolved. At the conclusion of The Peregrine, the first-person pronoun reappears when the narrator draws nearer to the source, inner and outer, of his obsession.

I have to guess where I am in relation to the hawk. . . . I keep still and hope he will relax, and accept my predatory shape that bulks against the sky. . . . Swiftly now he is resigning his savagery to the night that rises round us like dark water. The great eyes look into mine. When I move my arm, they look on, as though they see something beyond me from which they cannot look away. The last light flakes and crumbles down. Distances move through the dim lines of the inland elms, and comes closer, and gathers behind the darkness of the hawk. I know he will not fly now. I climb over the wall and stand before him. And he sleeps. (TP, 191)

Though Baker announces at the start of his book that “the long pursuit is over,” we never finally learn why this is so, or how that understanding was achieved, or what it might mean to him. The declaration, like the narrator, like the peregrine, remains a vivid enigma.


The doubled nature of these books make them durably compelling. But we might also wonder how stable the status of this tension can remain over time. Perhaps a nonfiction book must grow more fictive with the years, since the nonfiction claims of a particular volume, unlike the claims of a novel, are not sequestered from changing realities beyond its covers. Perhaps it affects On Bullfighting that A. L. Kennedy has subsequently published novels and is a stand-up comedian of note. Perhaps it alters The Peregrine that, thanks to pesticide bans, the bird has not perished as Baker assumed it would, and that he was a librarian so apparently private that his death date remained unknown until recently, even to the publisher that brought his neglected book back into print. Maclean’s editors inform us that they have not updated, or corrected, any of the facts of fire science in his book, leaving them as he knew them at the time of his death in 1990—leaving some of them (like, say, most of Pliny the Elder’s facts) to grow less factual and ever more symbolic. Metaphor imbues and extends fact and observation. It also competes with them. It sometimes completes them. Perhaps it must ultimately survive them.