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Don Rogers: The blinding prose of Josh Weil

I’m reading Josh Weil’s “The Great Glass Sea” and marveling at the sentences. Can’t help it.

Great writing is so clear, readers pass right through the page, no longer reading but living the story. That’s what I was taught, anyway.

But I’m reading for clues as well as pleasure. That is, critically. I’m going back as I go along, hoping to unearth how he put me there — in a world at once familiar and deeply weird, where the sun never sets.

Weil’s a master storyteller, damn him. I can tell from the reading. Whole pages slip past before I remember my mission here, caught up in the tale and forgetting the investigation.

Weil lets his words run loose compared to Hemingway’s tight leash, though he worked and worked to make each count in the novel.

I take comfort that he dazzles far greater critics than me. Clues come from national awards like the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation.

Also a Pushcart, the Pulitzer of short stories. I’m a fan, and so see the Pulitzer itself down the road. Don’t scoff. The runner-up to Weil for the Dayton prize in 2015, Anthony Doerr and his “All the Light We Cannot See,” won the Pulitzer that year. The 2016 winner of the Pulitzer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, also won the Dayton award then.

Yep, Weil’s just another of our obscenely talented neighbors.

You can hear what I mean at the next Yuba Lit Thursday night at the National Hotel in Nevada City. He will read from his work, along with Louis B. Jones and Marilyn Abildskov, no slouches themselves.

This session is well timed to the release Tuesday of Weil’s short story collection “The Age of Perpetual Light.” More accolades surely will follow.

But then, Faulkner and Hemingway were acclaimed aplenty and do little for me. I think it’s all in the sentences. Faulkner’s run all over the place, clear as Mississippi backwater. Good lord. Hemingway’s prose might be squeegee clean, but to what end? Drunks lurching from Paris to Pamplona, his masterpiece as much thinly disguised tell-all as literary breakthrough?

If Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” would be better named “On the Trail,” following “On the Road,” “The Sun Also Rises” strikes me as “On the Bottle.” I found it nearly plotless, the characters entirely lost, and ending impotently in musings about what might have been. BFD.

In high school, Weil recognized literary richness that eluded me in my 50s and loved the novel. By then he’d already written a Western at 11 and was well on his way to his first 10,000 hours of writing stories and plays.

He wanted to be a filmmaker and still wonders sometimes, as we all do, what if he’d taken that path instead of this. He writes now as the director, from above nudging his characters this way and that. Sometimes they take their cues, sometimes not.

And he aims for no less than greatness. This he shares in the gut with Hemingway. Both knew early they belonged in the majors. The talent is there, obvious, and comes with certain burdens. As Weil puts it, the goal posts move.

Like Hemingway, he’d like to sell well, too, of course, with stories his thoroughly unliterary brother would love. Great literature comes first, though, whatever else may follow. Grisham and King can settle, and good for them.

Weil lets his words run loose compared to Hemingway’s tight leash, though he worked and worked to make each count in the novel.

When I remember, I go back and imagine how I’d rewrite his passages in my own clipped way, arid as a playa, unwitting disciple of a giant I don’t even like. I find plenty to trim, but then see I’d be wringing the life out of the story, desiccating the gift from Weil’s muse. It needs its water.

His sentences roll with something of the same deep vibration of Flannery O’Conner’s, I think, although maybe that’s from just finishing “The Violent Bear It Away.” I feel a steamer underfoot vs. a sailing dinghy skittering across the swells. There’s more to the story than just the story. But I don’t see it so much as sense it, haunted.

And I’m sure the secret lies in the sentences. If I could just pull myself away from this bright tale long enough to find it.

CORRECTION: Last week I misidentified Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, as a co-founder.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 477-4299.


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