Sliceoflife Writing

The Last Cowboy, Jane Kramer's study of Henry Blanton's life, stands as a classic of creative nonfiction. Through this profile of one modern cowboy, Kramer provides us insights into the lives of many cowboys of today's American West. She gives us in her extended profile a good many glimpses of Henry Blanton, like the one that follows. Glimpses like this accumulate over many pages to give us the man in all his dimensions.

Henry valued his authority. He hurried through breakfast so that he could always greet his men with the day's orders looking relaxed and confident. He liked to sit on the wagon, waiting, with his scratch pad in his hand and a pencil behind his ear, and he made it a point to be properly dressed for the morning's work in his black boots, a pair of clean black jeans, and his old black hat and jacket. Henry liked wearing black. The Virginian, he had heard, wore black and so had Gary Cooper in the movie High Noon, and now Henry wore it with a kind of innocent pride, as if the color carried respect and a hero's stern, elegant qualities. Once, Betsy discovered him in the bathroom mirror dressed in his black gear, his eyes narrowed and his right hand poised over an imaginary holster.

In The Pine Barrens, John McPhee describes how he went up to a house in the midst of New Jersey's Pine Barrens to ask for water and met one of Hog Wallow's residents, Frederick Chambers Brown. "I called out to ask if anyone was home, and a voice called back, 'Come in. Come in. Come on the hell in.'"

I walked through a vestibule that had a dirt floor, stepped up into a kitchen, and went into another room that had several overstuffed chairs in it and a porcelain-topped table, where Fred Brown was seated, eating a pork chop. He was dressed in a white sleeveless shirt, ankle-top shoes, and undershorts. He gave me a cheerful greeting and, without asking why I had come or what I wanted, picked up a pair of khaki trousers that had been tossed onto one of the overstuffed chairs and asked me to sit down. He set the trousers on another chair, and he apologized for being in the middle of his breakfast, explaining that he seldom drank much but the night before he had had a few drinks and this had caused his day to start slowly. "I don't know what's the matter with me, but there's got to be something the matter with me, because drink don't agree with me anymore," he said. He had a raw onion in one hand, and while he talked he shaved slices from the onion and ate them between bites of the chop____

Almost like a cinematographer, McPhee walks with his cinema vérité camera on his shoulder through the vestibule, the kitchen, and into another room where the camera pans across the overstuffed chairs, one strewn with a pair of trousers, and finally reveals the source of the originally shouted invitation to come on the hell in—Fred Chambers

Brown in his undershorts. While Fred redistributes the trousers, he gives a friendly greeting and invites the unexpected visitor to sit down.

A fiction writer could not have written a better line than what Fred Brown says about drink no longer agreeing with him. Would a fiction writer have made up such a scene—a man in his undershorts happily slicing and eating onions in between bites of a pork chop? Yes, some fiction writer might, but this scene appeals to us because we know it's not made up. John McPhee, whom we have learned to trust, simply reports what the man says and each of his actions, as simple as they might be. This is realism because it is real. The fiction writer would have to work hard to create the same feeling of realism; McPhee is observing and reporting the real. His creativity comes in with his selection of the details to be brought before the camera from all the many he had in his mind and notebook, the sequence with which he brings them on stage, the selection of which captured conversational bits to report, and the word choices he makes.

It's worth noting here how simple and straightforward McPhee's words are and how simple and clear his sentences. No fancy footwork, no attempt to show what a clever writer he is and what a "power vocabulary" he commands. We have here, instead, a careful professional thinking only about the scene at hand and the clarity with which he can transmit that through words alone.

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