Peace Like a River

PLARThis new blog being primarily concerned with writing, I thought I’d start with an homage to one of my favorite books, “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger. As one reviewer put it, this book “serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with.”

The reason it’s fresh on my mind is, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading it for the fourth time. It’s weird, isn’t it, to read a book more than once? When we do that, we’re doing more than searching for the end of a cracking good story. If you already know the butler did it, something else must be calling you back to a commitment as significant as reading a 300-page novel.

We read books multiple times is to drink in the prose, to spend time with old friends we know well and want to know better, whose fate (for some odd reason, which I’ll scribble about in a later post) we care about. The writing in PLaR is so vivid, so crisp, so beautifully crafted, I would regularly stop and reread a passage as if I were a sommelier tasting a fine wine; to roll it around as a delicious taste that I wanted to savor as long as possible. Or a song that never grows old.

A few such snippets of Mr. Enger’s prose, in all its glorious Midwestern resonance:

That night Swede and I lay somewhat breathless under a hill of quilts. For drafts, there was no place like August’s farmhouse; you could roast under such strata and your nose still cold as a glass knob.

There’s nothing like a good strong meter to make a poem mind its manners.

I succeeded in worrying about this escalation business for a good day and a half before worry died as usual, at the hand of routine.

Good advice is a wise man’s friend, of course; but sometimes it just flies on past, and all you can do is wave.

So thoughtlessly we sling our destinies.

Winter was a train crawling north.

I won’t pretend that reading those brief lines out of context and without knowing the narrator will drive you to the library to pick up this book. But really, if you haven’t, you ought.

The same reviewer I quoted above also said, “He’s the type of writer that other writers read, and die a little.” While I’m a writer, I can’t say I died reading it — I’m here, after all, after four passes through that would-be valley of death. — but I know (I feel) what he means: Compelling plot, musical prose, lifelike characters… Mr. Enger has them all in a way I could never attain. This is a near perfect book. Rather than depress me (OK, it does depress me a bit) it motivates me to write better. He’s set a standard I can’t even dream of achieving, but it’s best to aim high. For as Mr. Browning says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Make of it what you will…

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