I don’t even know if this is legal. But here I go anyway. I’m reading Philip Roth’s new book Nemesis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), about a polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in the 1940’s. And I’m learning to write. Specifically, in my new work The Growing Season, I am trying to describe my characters in such a way that there is no doubt who they are, how they think, what they wear. In Nemesis, Roth describes Bucky Cantor with perfect command of language and cadence. By the end of the passage I feel as though I know Bucky – as though he’s the neighbor boy down the street I had a crush on in high school. This is how I want to write. This is how I want you to know my characters Wanda, Cora, Rose and Helen. And this is how I want to know the characters you’re writing.
I could just say, “turn to page eleven”, but you wouldn’t. So I’m going to stretch copyright laws a bit give you the passage right here:
…He stood slightly under five feet five inches tall, and though he was a superior athlete and strong competitor, his height, combined with his poor vision, had prevented him from playing college-level football, baseball, or basketball and restricted his intercollegiate sports activity to throwing the javelin and lifting weights. Atop his compact body was a good-sized head formed of emphatically slanting and sloping components: wide pronounced cheekbones, a steep forehead, an angular jaw, and a long straight nose with a prominent bridge that lent his profile the sharpness of a silhouette engraved on a coin. His full lips were as well defined as his muscles, and his complexion was tawny year-round. Since adolescence he had worn his hair in a military-style crewcut. You particularly noticed his ears with that haircut, not because they were unduly large, which they were not, not necessarily because they were joined so closely to his head, but because, seen from the side, they were shaped much like the ace of spades in a pack of cards, or the wings on the winged feet of mythology…
Not ten pages later Roth describes the demise of a basement rat so completely I wanted to put the book down and wash my hands. I’m not just reading this book – I’m drinking it, absorbing it. If only I could write with such ease and fluidity. Philip Roth does not waste one single word. Sigh…must keep writing…must keep reading…must keep learning.