I’m in the midst of reading The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner’s big, sprawling, beautiful novel, which was published in 1943, when Stegner was thirty-four years old. I’ve been reading this book for a couple of weeks now, and I’ll still be reading it a couple of weeks hence. That’s partly because I have so little time for reading, but more because I’m a terribly (or wonderfully) slow reader. Furthermore, the better the book the slower I read it. I savor each word, to hear it as I read. And when I read an especially beautiful passage, such as one of Stegner’s many descriptions of the American Western scenery in all the seasons, I enjoy the luxury of slowing down and rereading whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole scenes.
I won’t write a review of The Big Rock Candy Mountain here, because the book has already been reviewed by the best of critics and countless scholars; anything I could write would read, in comparison, like a high school book report. But I will say that The Big Rock Candy Mountain shows handsomely the hardy, lawless frontier spirit that survived into the twentieth century, after the West had supposedly been tamed. It is a book of vast opportunity, incurable dreams, and reckless adventure, worthy of the West itself.
I was a student of Wallace Stegner’s in 1968. At that time I was twenty-seven years old, and he was an elder statesman at fifty-nine. Those statistics fascinate me now, because I’m now seventy years old and still trying to learn to write. What’s more, I’m presently learning to write by reading a book that Wallace Stegner must have been writing in his late twenties and early thirties, when he was less than half the age I am now.
One thing I learned from Stegner back in 1968 is that writing should have consequence. It should be important. That seems now to go without saying, but back then on college campuses, the favorite fiction writers, the ones that many students admired and imitated, were clever, entertaining, but in the long run inconsequential writers like Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, and Terry Southern. When shallow student work of that stripe showed up in our seminar, Mr. Stegner kindly, politely pointed out that cleverness was not enough. As he pointed out, “You can’t nail a custard pie to the wall.”
Well, if I’ve caught your interest, and if you agree that a novel needs to be important to be great, then read (or reread) The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s no custard pie.
p.s. This is my second blog post honoring Wallace Stegner. An earlier tribute appeared February 16, 2011. For more thoughts about this fine teacher and great writer, see: http://johnmdaniel.blogspot.com/2011/02/remembering-wally.html