Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Makes a Great Story?

In fiction as in life, the best stories are about a quest for one of two things:  wisdom or redemption.  We are held either by the innocent who goes out into the big, bad world, and we worry for his soul.  It's the same in Great Expectations as in The Devil Wears Prada.  Will their benefactor (always questionable, be he an ex-con or a fashion editor) ultimately destroy the youngster, or will he or she learn to survive independently?

The other compelling character, made even more so as a reader ages, is a middle-aged protaganist who seems irretrievably cynical or who is just broken down by life. This theme captures our attention with a sequence of events engendering hope rather than worry.  In spite of all the mistakes he's made, can he find happiness?

By now all of you have heard of Crazy Heart, as it won multiple Oscars for its score and for Jeff Bridges' performance.  The movie has been on my list since I read the reviews, and as I love the music, I'll get to it.  Last week I was traveling and bought the novel, written by Thomas Cobb and published in 1987, in the Charlotte airport, and it was so delicious I forced myself to put it down halfway through my flight so I would have something to look forward to on the red-eye back from Miami five days later.  This was only a partial solution, as I was distracted from the turbulence over Atlanta but wept through the last twenty pages.

Bad Blake is a great talent but a deeply flawed man.  He's known as a fading talent with good musical instincts, and after drinking away most of his earnings and still mourning the departure of his young wife and son twenty years earlier, he's a decent musician but mostly a drunk.  A good woman with a sweet young son of her own runs across his path, and he is changed.

Like all good stories, the pleasure is in the details.  One smells the bowling alleys he plays and gets a profoundly bleak sense of what it feels like to be in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  (Quite a lot like a logging town in Northern Ontario, by my frame of reference.)  He plays and feels alive, at least when the back up band sent his way is good, and then he drinks and goes back to his hotel room with D-list groupies, and then he drinks some more.  His drug of choice is Jack Daniels, and the more he swills the more he remembers details of his early years with dirt-poor daddy and an unrelenting Southern Baptist mother. 

He is a fifty-six year old man with not many miles left in him.  He dwells on the past, even when he lets in a dear and faithful friend who tells him to talk to his estranged son: "Stop kicking your own butt for what's past.  You're doing the right thing now," says the friend. "Don't let what you can't help f*#k it up."  Good notion. But like most of us, Bad's issue isn't regret, but learning to live life in a way where there is less of it.

Bad Blake will capture you, like he does the women who love him, and not let you go.  There are a few books that have held me for many years after I've read them, but I know this will be one of them.

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