Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 147: Frank Norris, Hunting Human Game (#165)

Frank Norris, "Hunting Human Game" (1897) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

If you look up Norris in the encyclopedia of "What Most People Think," you'll find him in the constellation of naturalist, realists, Darwinists: Dreiser, Zola, London, Crane. These were the guys (no coincidence they were all guys) writing about how terrible the world was and how people were base animals; if they were around in the 1990s instead of the 1890s, they would be writing "gritty" comics; and if they were alive now, they would either be writing Scandinavian crime thrillers or "grimdark" fantasy.

So it's no surprise that Frank Norris's early journalistic work took in the highlights of human nature, from the Boer War to today's piece about Australia's first serial killer, Frank Butler. Butler lured men out to the mountains to mine, then killed and robbed them. Curiously, this piece of Norris's takes place in the middle of the hunt: the Australian and San Franciscan cops know Butler is coming on a ship and they are waiting for him to show up.

It opens very much like we'd expect a Norris piece to open: without much in the way of adverbs or even adjectives. So we hear that
[In the mountains] Butler shot him in the back of the head and buried the body in such a way that a stream of trickling water would help in its decomposition.
And when Norris is hanging out with the cops, we hear in plain language of the condition of this stake-out:
The room is a little room, whose front windows give out upon the bay and the Golden Gate.
But then the piece takes a slightly weird turn, which isn't that unexpected if you've read Norris's other stuff. Take The Octopus: sure, it's a hard-headed, realist take on the battles between railroads and farmers. But there's also a character there who has strange prophetic powers and whose murdered love seems to return in the form of that murdered love's child.

So here we get notes about the impending arrest of Frank Butler, whose boat hasn't even come in yet, which is just now "rolling and lifting on the swell of the Pacific, drawing nearer to these men with every puff of the snoring trades." Notice above that the "trickling stream" didn't end the sentence--the fact of human decomposition did. But here we have "snoring trades" as the last words, and suddenly we're in a poetic world.

Which is particularly funny because Norris had earlier noted that this stakeout wasn't at all like what you'd read about in books. The men weren't somber, but jovial; the room wasn't protected from onlookers, but wide open to visits from journalists; etc. And then at the end, when Norris imagines how this story will end, he falls back into the explicitly textual:
The scene cannot be otherwise than dramatic—melodramatic even. I want to hear that exclamation “Here she is” that some one is bound to utter.
Which is, I think, where any thoughts about "realism" usually lead us--back into the tropes and themes of fiction.

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