Crowbars and the Sound of the Century!

Next week I’ll post the promised text of my Opening Talk to faculty defending liberal arts from specialization (I’ll bet everyone can’t wait).  But here I celebrate two passages by the writer Lee Child.

Child is categorized as a mystery writer–his tough guy hero Jack Reacher (6’5″ and between 230 and 250 pounds over the years) rambles about the country and responds much like a modern-day Robin Hood to various crises. He is NOT searching the crises out–they find him.

Patrick Anderson, the terrific mystery/crime/espionage/adventure reviewer for the Washington Post has remarked that Child’s vision is essentially a comic one–and I think that’s true though that argument would need quite a bit of explication and will be the subject of a later entry. I’ve read 10 or so of the Reacher novels and I really like them. Here are two things in particular to like about The Enemy–a book from the middle of the series but set earliest of them all–while Reacher is still a Military Policeman during 1989-1990 as the fallout from the turmoil in Europe that resulted in the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union is being felt in the American military.

Here are two passages that do NOT advance the plot but that are wonderful to read. In the first, Reacher is meditating on the “signature sound’ of the 20th century.  What a great hook!  Think about it for a minute before you read Reacher’s take.  I thought of the jet engine myself–unknown at the beginning of the century and in many ways the culmination of the Wright brother’s work at Kitty Hawk (though you could also argue rockets); there are many other contenders.  This would be a wonderful, quick “free-write” prompt for students.  Here are Reacher’s ideas:

      “What is the twentieth century’s signature sound? You could have a debate about it.  Some might say the slow drone of an aero engine [Child occasionally reveals his British background with terms like “aero”].  Maybe from a lone fighter crawling across an azure 1940s sky.  Or the scream of a fast jet passing low overhead, shaking the ground.  Or the whup whup whup of a helicopter. Or the roar of a laden 747 lifting off. Or the crump of bombs falling on a city.  All of those would qualify.  They’re all uniquely twentieth-century noises. They were never heard before.  Never, in all of history.  Some crazy optimists might lobby for a Beatles song.  A yeah, yeah, yeah chorus fading under screams of their audience. I would have sympathy for that choice.  But a song and screaming could never qualify.  Music and desire have been around since the dawn of time.  They weren’t invented after 1900.

     “No, the twentieth century’s signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street.  That sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin.  Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, in Seoul and Saigon.  It’s a brutal sound. It’s the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference. Tank treads squeal and clatter and the very noise they make tells you they can’t be stopped. It tells you you’re weak and powerless against the machine. Then one track stops and the other keeps on going and the tank wheels around and lurches straight toward you, roaring and squealing. That’s the real twentieth-century sound.” (316-317)

Notice the straightforward declarative sentences–relentlessly Senecan in style I’d say.  A piling up of ideas each separated by a period.  Little nuance or digression–as befits way that Reacher lives and who he is.  His language reflects the brutal sound with near onomatopoeic effect.  There are even cool poetic effects–the repetition of “squeal and clatter,” the cataloguing and piling up of “and” and then the parallelism of “in Budapest and Prague, in Seoul and Saigon.”  Reacher/Child is covering geography and time.  There is also a cool double-vision–everything he says about the tank is true–and is also true that the Tiananmen square protest had happened in June of 1989 giving rise to the iconic picture of a man standing up against the tank.  Reacher, and Child, are concerned that our love of the machine and our fear of the machine may rob us of our humanity and that’s an interesting idea to come to given that its “just a mystery story.” From Metropolis and Modern Times to The Matrix and Terminator–Rage Against the Machine. 

Here, Reacher is interviewing a hardware store owner about a break-in that resulted in a stolen crowbar.

     “How many different sorts [of crowbars] are there?”

     “Dozens,” he said. “there are at least six manufacturers that I would consider dealing with myself. And plenty of others I wouldn’t.”

     I looked around the store. “Because you only carry quality stuff.”

     “Exactly,” he said. “I can’t compete with the big chains on price alone. So I have to offer absolutely top quality and service….  Low-end crowbars would come from China,” he said.  “Mass produced, cast-iron, wrought iron, low-grade forged steel.  I wouldn’t be interested.”

     “So what do you carry?”

     “I import a few titanium crowbars from Europe,” he said. “Very expensive, but very strong.  More important, very light. The were designed for police and firefighters. Or for underwater work, where corrosion would otherwise be an issue. Or for anyone else that needs something small and durable and easily portable.” [Who knew about the underwater work? This is fascinating!]

     “This is a small store,” he said. “I have to choose what I carry very carefully.  Which in some ways is a burden, but which is also a delight, because choice is very liberating.  These decisions are mine, and mine alone.  So, obviously, for a crowbar, I would choose high-carbon chromium steel.  Then the question is, should it be single tempered or double-tempered? My honest preference would always be double-tempered, for strength.  And I would want the claws to be very slim, for utility, and therefore case-hardened, for safety. That could be a  lifesaver, in some situations. Imagine a man on a high roof beam, whose claw shattered. He’d fall off.” (282-283)

     The great WORD in this last paragraph is “obviously” because it’s NOT obvious to anyone except this merchant.  It shows his passion for what he does–and his closing lines reflect his devotion to his mission–he wants to make sure no one is hurt because of equipment he sold them.  This man believes, not to put too fine a point on it, that his job is a sacred calling and that to save his soul he must do it well.  This man is “religious” whether or not he is conventionally so.  I’ve known many people like this and admired every one of them–it is what makes them worth admiring.  All this in a minor character in a 460 page novel who comes fully to life in just a few words.

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1 Comment

Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

One response to “Crowbars and the Sound of the Century!

  1. JesseRitz

    Speaking as someone who experienced only twelve years of the twentieth century, glorious though they were, I can say with some certainty that whatever it’s signature sound may have been, it’s death rattle was that hideous bleating you used to hear whenever you logged onto your AOL account with a dial-up modem. A yak that had accidentally swallowed an air horn could hardly do any worse. I anxiously await the first 90’s period film that makes use of it.

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