When Nonfiction Becomes Sui Generis

After much writing, revising, and a particularly nasty stomach ache (which may have had something to do with my recent dietary transition to more substantial viands), I went through my back issues of The New Yorker, a stack so severely vertiginous that it threatened to ransack me in the night shortly after transmuting into a carnivorous, vengeful, buckram-bound collected periodical requiring all attentions.

I discovered an exceptionally well-written profile of Lyle Lovett. The profile was written by Alec Wilkinson. At the age of 24, Wilkinson was fortunate enough to befriend the late William Maxwell. (In fact, Wilkinson wrote a memoir about this entitled My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell. Here’s an excerpt.)

I’m not much of a Lovett fan, but Wilkinson is such an incredible, omnivorous observer that I found myself completely submerged into the story. Here’s Wilkinson describing nearly every nicety within Lovett’s house:

The house is furnished sparely. In the parlor, the principal adornments are two saddles, each in a corner on a sawhorse. A plaque on the kitchen wall that says “Beware of Bull” commemorates an encounter Lovett and his uncle Calvin had two years ago with a bull in the pasture behind the house. They had delivered a check to a bulldozer operator who was digging a ditch. Walking back across the field, they discussed a pecan tree that had no leaves when it should have and whether it had to come out. The bull walked slowly toward them. Lovett had found the bull in the pasture as a day-old calf. The calf had followed him as he walked through the herd looking for its mother, and when no cow acknowledged it Lovett decided to raise it on a bottle. Once the bull turned two, Lovett stayed out of its way, since it was playful and was big enough to hurt someone without meaning to. Klein, who is sixty-nine, has worked with cattle all his life, so Lovett felt, as the bull approached, that if there was any reason to be worried Klein would tell him. “Usually, you throw a hat down on the ground or slap your leg,” Klein says, “and a bull will stop long enough for you to leave.”

I won’t dare reveal what happened to Klein, Lovett, and the bull. You’ll have to read the whole thing yourself. But this is the kind of descriptive detail segueing into gripping tale that is the mark of a top-notch writer. Wilkinson certainly picked up a lot from Maxwell. And I was so impressed by his prose that I’m going to try and track down everything the man’s ever written. Anybody interested in creative nonfiction needs to check this guy out.

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One Comment

  1. His most recent collection of profiles and essays, Mr. Apology, is pretty damn brilliant. Among the people he hangs out with there: Paul Simon and John Wayne Gacy.

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