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     So let me begin looking at nonfiction with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: A Memoir.  For concrete and economical storytelling, his work is a good model.3   The book opens:
    Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. "Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."
    The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
    By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet through empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff's edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.
    For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn't help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle. (3-4)
One particular strength of this narrative is its economical characterization.  First, it tells a great deal about Toby and his mother, and their situation, without resorting to abstractions.  Their car boiled over “again”: in the story’s first five words we already know something about these two people (and their Nash Rambler) that no combination of adjectives— poor, unpropitious, troublesome, meager—would convey as well.  Although Toby’s mother speaks only six words directly, she is revealed, by what she says and what she does, as a vulnerable and caring woman in an out-of-control world where the guardrails are insufficient.  Her broken-down circumstances might suggest an ineffectual or careless woman, yet she “asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident,” which shows otherwise.  The brief “arm around my shoulder. . . . looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair” dramatizes economically.  The boy Toby is revealed as well, in a way that no abstractions—observant, intelligent, scheming, needy or greedy, conscientious yet weak—would capture as well.  (Wolff’s honesty here, revealing himself in unflattering terms as he will throughout, signals a trustworthy account, as well.)
     Notice, too, Wolff’s diction.  For all its elaborate description, this is a deceptively plain style that does not draw attention to itself—some medium length, but mostly short sentences, informal and non-elevated diction, straightforward voice.  He writes simple, declarative sentences.  His language is concrete, rich in active verbs or verb-based modifiers: “boiled . . . crossed. . . . waiting . . . to cool . . . bawling . . . shot . . . shimmying.”  Weathers’ and Winchester’s The New Strategy of Style refers to “texture” and “level” of diction: level being the “level of formality,” and texture the “vividness and intensity” of vocabulary (128, 135).  Wolff writes densely textured prose at an informal level.  Meticulous word-choice packs meaning into this prose: the strong connotation of “bawling” characterizes the airhorn (and the driver connected to it), and also sets mood beyond what is necessary to describe the horn.  I think of this as “word soup”—the word “bawling” comes up in one spoonful of soup, but its flavor extends further and blends into the general mix.  The same happens with the trailer “shimmying wildly” and other words that combine connotatively to flavor this soup with vulnerability: “lay on its back . . . pitifully small . . . feathering,” and the sound of the horn that disappears into wind “that sighed in the trees all around us.”  This is economical description, elaborate yet succinct.4  It carries strong pathos, all the more effective for being understated.
     3 Wolff is known primarily for his short stories, fiction.  His “Bullet in the Brain,” published in The New Yorker and anthologized in his The Night in Question, is one of the dozen best short stories I’ve read in two decades; the title story is also excellent.  His storytelling skills translate well to nonfiction.
     4  It may be unnecessary to speculate on the why-and-wherefore of this economy, but another of its values has to do with the pace of our time.  In Henry James’s day readers spent long contemplative evenings in the library with a gas-lamp, and willingly savored lengthier text; today’s readers haven’t the same luxury of time; their reading time competes with the TV, with Email and other E-seductions, and with expanded domestic demands.  Prose that can not deliver succinctly, will not deliver at all; it will go un-read.
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