Monday, June 22, 2009

Location is key in novels
Julia Keller CULTURAL CRITIC for the Chicago Tribune
June 21, 2009

Salesmen have a trick. It's a well-known trick, but even though you know it's coming, it really works: They use your name over and over again in their spiel. Hearing your name operates as a sort of verbal aphrodisiac. Ever seen a cat's reaction when a soft-fingered person slides an index finger across that continental divide that runs down the feline back? The closing of the eyes, the satisfied purr, the blissed-out arch of the spine? Hearing your name repeated ("I'm just sure, Julia, that you're going to love our new Super-Deluxe vacuum, because, Julia, a person with your taste and sophistication, Julia, would settle for nothing less, don't you agree, Julia?") Come to think of it, I'll take three.
Place names in literature work the same way. Engrossed in the narrative, you suddenly run across the name of a city that you know, a city whose streets you've walked, and you're hooked. Thus when "Chicago" shows up early in C.J. Box's crackerjack new mystery, "Below Zero," the ninth in his series about a Wyoming game warden named Joe Pickett, you take notice. You perk up. You may even start to purr a little bit, although that could also be attributed to Box's general ability to spin a come-hither yarn.
"Her sister in Wisconsin said people from Chicago were like that, as if they owned all the midwestern states and thought of Wisconsin as their own personal recreation playground ... " Box writes about a minor character in the first chapter. (Memo to people in Wisconsin: We don't really think that. Memo to people in Chicago: Of course we do, don't we?)
Later in the book, Chicago figures even more prominently.Anyone who knows Box's work knows that he's a Western writer, born and bred, and that Pickett -- one of the most appealing men in popular fiction, a laid-back, good-natured guy until he's riled, and then you'd better look out -- is pure Wyoming. He's "one guy in a red shirt in a state pickup," as a fellow law enforcer puts it. He drives the lonesome roads of Wyoming looking for trouble -- not to make it, but to stomp it out wherever he finds it, and then he goes home to a wife and children whom he loves more than life itself. (He loves them even more than he loves his pickup, which, to a certain kind of Western man, is a higher compliment.)
Read the full piece at the Chicago Tribune online.

1 comment:

Liz said...

While I didn't see this review until just now, somehow I ran across CJ. Box at the library over the weekend, and picked up one of his earlier books. I haven't started it yet, though. I never heard of the author or the series before!

I love coming across places I already know and love in books. I know an author who has set a whole series in the town I now live in -- one of these days I'm going to have to give one or more a read. Sadly, I haven't yet. But I think you also tend to be more critical -- as in, you can't get there from here, the way it was described in the book. So I think accuracy is important as well.

While I haven't started the Wyoming book yet I recently finished "The Shopkeeper," by James West, which is set in Old West Nevada. It's got great settings, plus some interesting characters, including the hero, who used to own a store in NY and moved west to find adventure. He is successful in that, getting involved in a deadly feud with a Nevada silver baron (you shouldn't go hankering after another man's wife...) Great fun -- it was the top-selling Western on for more than half a year.