A Good Story…

A number of years ago I sat with my granddaughter, age 4 or 5, while we watched “Zootsuit” with that electrifying El Pachuco performance by Mr. Olmos. In fact the entire film was electrifying.

Pretty heavy stuff for a little kid, you may say, but I didn’t see any reason she couldn’t see the film. Since I was the babysitter, I had little choice. Either not watch, send her to bed, or let her watch. I’m easy.

We both sat entranced throughout the entire film, but at the end she suddenly burst out crying.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Why are you crying?”

She wiped her eyes and took a moment before she said, “Because I didn’t want it to be over.”

That got me thinking about my own feelings. Some stories make you want to stay with them all the way. You’re really not ready for them to “be over”.

I’ve read some of my favorite books several times, I suppose because that’s as close as I can get to having them not “be over”.

This morning I read a comment about how tedious Moby Dick is, and how the commentator couldn’t get past the first few pages. I remember my own yeoman struggle to get through the entire book. My thinking was that if it’s so damned famous, it must be worth reading. So I read it. It is a powerful story set against a strange and wonderful background. But tedious, yes. Tedious? More like absolute murder. Especially for today’s reader.

But continuing my wandering thought processes, I thought of other books that are considered classics. They mostly have one thing in common: they’re long and meandering. But then it occurred to me that readers of a hundred or so years ago, having no radio or TV or movies, spent a lot more time reading. And I believe they wanted their money’s worth when they picked up a book. They wanted a book that would engross them not just for an hour or two, but one that would be a companion for perhaps a week or more. Life was slower in those times, and there were fewer distractions for the average person. Reading obviously provided the best part of a person’s solitary amusement and education. Small wonder then that when people in those days got their hands on a good book, they didn’t want it to “be over” too soon.

These days, if we wrote in those dated styles, we’d get a rejection that would out speed  a Voyager spacecraft.

Today you have to start with a “hook” to get the reader involved, and then you’d better keep going. No pulp fiction padding these days when being paid by the word is meaningless. At one time a penny a word could bring in $50 which wasn’t peanuts. Today, too many outlets are wise to the fact that they don’t have to pay anything at all.

There are always exceptions to the good story rule however.

Like many kids, at one time I thought it would be great to join the French Foreign Legion. After all I’d seen “Beau Geste” and “Flying Deuces”. I seem to remember some French film where Jean Gabin hid out in the Spanish Foreign Legion which was patterned after the French model.

Well, I just finished “Legionnaire” by Simon Murray. This romantic 19-year old joined La Légion Etrangère and spent five years undergoing torture that makes Guantanamo Bay look like an expense-paid vacation in the Bahamas. Luckily for us, he kept a pretty close diary. Imagine walking for hours with a bag of rocks for a backpack with wire shoulder straps, digging a “grave” and lying in it beneath a tarp in the Algerian sun all day long without water. How about a twenty-five mile march wearing full gear in the heart of the Sahara summer and coming back to find that while you were gone, everything in the barracks had been thrown onto the floor, including taking the beds apart, throwing soap powder over the entire mess and soaking it in water. Then your company was told there would be inspection in two hours. How about letting a tank knock you down and roll over you without getting smashed, or parachuting into the unknown in the middle of the night. These were but some of the toughening episodes Mr. Murray survived during his five-year stint. Sure, life in the Legion had its moments, but they were few and far between. I have to admit that while I really lived that adventure, this is one in which I was glad for it to “be over”.

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One thought on “A Good Story…

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  1. You could very well be right about readers a hundred years ago not having to deal with the distractions of television and the Internet. That said, I tried reading a modern-day classic not too long ago, Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Sweet mercy . . . you want to talk about tedious?

    I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel that stupid.

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