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Which Man’s Water?


Why Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It is a better book than F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby


There are three great endings to American novels (I got this long ago from someone who knows who he is—though in all my readings since then I’ve never come across anything to challenge it): The Great Gatsby, A River Runs Through It, and On the Road. The final graph or graphs of this trio far outmatch the competition. Each, written as prose poetry in form and cadence, serves not only to thematically recapitulate all that has come before it in the book, but to expand, with a flourish, as the book’s final gesture.

(Already a caveat: the final line of A River—yes, that famous final line—is hideous and unnecessary. When I read it, I always stop before the last graph. Others, from Tennyson to Dubus, occasionally experience this same problem. It’s akin to failing to stop your cast at 10 to let the fly float down to the water—you’ve got to let it ride.)

The two books, Gatsby and River, are similar. Both are novellas, actually long short stories, and not novels. Unlike the novel, they are concerned with a single narrow time span, tightly-wrought narrative arc, one culminating event. The tone never shifts, nor does the style, or voice, of narration. They are not expansive in plot, but projecting. One could say they are inductive fiction, as opposed to deductive. I.e., short stories.

Both are set in the United States and deal with archetypal American characters: the mountain man or frontiersman of the West, the entrepreneur or rich playboy of the East. Self-made, aspiring and ambitious, and young. In both, tragedy is the inevitability of the story. Both tragedies are centered around money, greed, and the addiction to unhealthy loves.

The stories are set approximately 15 years apart, in the interwar years, when America was on the verge of discovering its modern (its current) self. Both begin similarly, with a reminiscence of fatherly advice, and even start out with the same trot: “In our family…”, “In my younger…”. Maclean had, of course, read Gatsby, and one suspects he took it as a template for his own short book.

One general marker of how good a book is, is how much the reader desires it to continue after it has finished. This desire manifests not only as a wish for more story from the author but more from the imaginative reader himself. The reader wants to go on creating (and will, for years afterward: dreaming up new scenes and language for the characters and their emotional struggles). A River accomplishes this. For nearly all of the scenes in the book, you do not want them to end. They diffuse. They linger. The way they are strung up one after the other without any seams (no chapter breaks, no spatial breaks of any kind) is a lesson in taut aesthetics.

In Gatsby, this is not exactly the case. Entire scenes could be thrown away, or left alone, without much fuss. One could argue for “jazz age” verisimilitude or colorful scenery, but for the book as story they are normal to useless. The trip into Manhattan, for example. What’s that about?

Maclean has also improved on Fitzgerald in terms of narrative voice. The story is told both as remembrance and present action, like Gatsby, but in Maclean at the same time, so that he takes you into and out of a scene without any fanfare, or apology (similar, in effect, to some of Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things They Carried). We, as reader, are always both looking back and in the scene in real time. I’ve read few things as reminiscent of oral storytelling. It is almost a minor flaw of the book: over-reticence. Like listening to an aging raconteur get sleepy around the campfire (No! Keep going! We want to hear that part!). Coupled with the aforementioned lingering desire for more (which is good) there is a seeming lack of ambition for the book as a whole (not so good). It’s not trying to be anything greater than a simple story told very very well. In this aspect Fitzgerald (who was some fifty years younger when writing) has what one wishes Maclean did. A River doesn’t reach. There are plenty of profound themes, but no attempt to transcend the normal, brief discussion of them, to draw up something larger. The book could have been an absolute, undeniable masterpiece. Instead, it is one of the best written stories ever published. One suspects it could have been more.

Maclean was 70 when he wrote it, the distillation of age and years of teaching having a lot to do with this dearth of aspiration, but also with the book’s successes. It is immensely enjoyable to read. As for Fitzgerald, Gatsby has gotten more of the fanfare, though Tender is the Night is a better book. Tender is also a novel, like On the Road (whose final graph you should read to your kids at night) is a novel.

All are great continental stories. For my taste, I’ll take the western mountain canyons over settled eastern sounds any day. Any dusk.

That's Maclean on the right.

That’s Maclean on the right.


From → Readings

One Comment
  1. Grant permalink

    Um, when a final line of a book is so “hideous and unnecessary” that you can’t finish the book, going to the extreme of stopping before the final paragraph, how can you rank it as superior to a book that has arguably the best ending to any book ever written? Because Gatsby has one scene you deem as unnecessary? Or because you like a rural setting better that a cosmopolitan one? I don’t think you can ignore the final paragraphs. It’s like asking someone what he thinks is the best album ever made. “Oh, this one… er, except for that last track. Hoorible. I can’t even play that song. But it’s the best album… ” Gotta consider every track, bub. Or, best short story? Of course, this one. Except for that ending. Don’t even read that, it’s so bad. But it’s the best story ever written…. 🙂

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