Stories by Barry Lopez
Trinity University Press
Barry Lopez has been in the writing biz for years, first published in 1976, National Book Award, Pushcart, PEN, Guggenheim Fellowship. Outside consists of six short --- very short stories --- about birds and people wandering the desert or the mountains and people living in small towns and countryside ... but lost. This edition is gorgeous: fine large print for those of us whose eyes are on the blink so to speak, with several dark but finely executed engravings by Barry Moser. It's the leisurely volume that all of us writers wish we had the time and the funding to produce, and it gives due credit to Lopez and his career and his affection for the open spaces of the land, and of peoples' minds.

There is a six page introduction by James Perrin Warren called "The Storyteller," explaining the art of native narrative that Lopez represents, how his stories "avoid the role of the romantic, isolated artist,"

    His contact with indigenous storytellers reinforces his sense of the writer as serving the cultural memory of the community, reminding us how to live a decent life.

The last ten pages of Outside are given over to a Lopez biography, notes on "Outside," and a six page "Afterword" by Lopez on what he is trying to do when he is writing, how Outside emerged from earlier works of his and his relationship with the publisher Jim Anderson and various places his works had appeared and how his Of Wolves and Men was written to fulfill his agreement with Anderson and then he finished River Notes but then Jim died unexpectedly and before he died had said he shouldn't publish Of Wolves and Men "he didn't have the expertise to publish the book the way he thought it should be done" and by then Lopez had finished Winter Count and that in writing fiction "I've been sensitive to the peculiar authority that a presentation of fact has in our culture,"

    of how detailed, plausible descriptions of remote geographies, for example, can create an aura of authenticity. I want that aura.

Then he goes on to tell us that not all of his stories "fit neatly inside the frame-work I've just suggested," and he tells of some of his other titles, Arctic Dreams, Crossing Open Ground, Crow and Weasel and tells us

    As I see it, the same handful of questions I possessed about the meaning of human life when I was a young writer have remained with me. These concerns, about personal identity, for example, or the ethereal dimensions of reality, are now, I hope, simply more nuanced, more informed.

I have to confess that I get a little uneasy when writers start writing about writing. I think of the greats of American short stories and I can't recall any of them telling us anything about what they were writing or what they were hoping to write when they wrote what they wrote. They just went out and did it. You do it, it gets published, you hope, for in truth this writing business is tough, and those who have tried it for years find that there are few who care how and why and for whom you did it, what was going on in your mind.

The six brief native stories here are competent, if not a little distrait. There are some lines that might make the average reader uneasy, send her off the page, trying to figure what was wrong. Most readers will want to get in the spirit, knowing that here is a folkish tale-teller, and so his words might have that kind of imprecision we expect of say, an Inuit, telling a hunting tale, or a native American, lost in the woods or in the desert. But still: "When he was a boy there was nothing about him to remember. He looked like anything else --- like the trees...." Or: "You lay back your head and closed the steely eyes and from deep within your belly came the roar of a cataract, like the howling of wolves..." Or: "I believe we will dance together someday. Before then will I have to have been a trout..." Or: "When I awoke it was late. I went back to my truck and drove home. On the way I was wondering if I felt strong enough to eat a salmon." Or, "... the prostrate sky ... My flesh spills the shrieking heat."

I know, I know ... it's the attempt of a writer to capture the immediacy of the story, the very now. For some of us though, Outside is the work of a competent writer who makes some leaps of aesthetic logic ... some that hit, some that miss ... and we are left with the feeling that what Lopez needs is a strong editor, one who would cut out the symbols and parallellisms that don't work, get him to where he needs to go to get his message out, messages about people separated from people, people alone but part of the mountains and the deserts and the birds and the animals and how they can (no matter how inchoately) all somehow get together.

What I would suggest is simple: that Lopez take some time off from publishing lovely books like this one (with stupendous engravings!) and study some of the masters of nature writing, who, when you get right down to it, are doing the same as he is, but with an agreed-on (agreement between reader and writer, really) polish and ease. For instance, over the years, I've found some writers on the desert who have managed to combine the two crafts --- one that satisfies our need of order and also our need for a sense of nature's own space out there. I think of Ellen Meloy and her lovely The Last Cheater's Waltz: Beauty and Violence in The Desert Southwest or Gary Paul Nabhan's The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in O'odham Country. Most of all, I think with such pleasure of the several fine books of Craig Childs, like Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land.

They were looking at the desert through the eyes of studied experience, their own panorama of that vast area of the American southwest we call "desert" which --- we now know --- is far more. My take on Lopez is that what he has done is set out to repeat the tales of the wilderness in a way not so different from all those stories we grew up with told in dialect, an attempt to put you in the head of one who was born, grew up in, lived and died far from what we think of as civilization; a story delivered in his or her patois which --- in turn --- became very much a part of the story.

Thus, Lopez has chosen a very difficult route, one that even Mark Twain was never able to bring off fully. And though Lopez' ministrations are admirable, his talent is considerable, he is not able to bring this feel of the country --- and the country of his stories --- to life.

The more's the pity.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH