Monday, August 22, 2011
Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson
A couple of years ago I wrote that it takes a brave man to create a novel that parallels and paraphrases the greats like Shakespeare and Dante. But Johnson takes it on handily: everybody in this new addition to his Sheriff Longmire series reads Dante—a paperback copy makes its way through backpacks and winter whiteouts to mountain peaks and cabin hideouts. It makes me want to go back and wrassle with The Inferno some more. FBI agents, Indians, cops, murderers and gang-bangers--everyone finds something in Dante to quote and apply to their own situation. It helps, I suppose, to have created a long-running character called Virgil, but Johnson also gave us a Beatrice. Perhaps Johnson is letting us in on his grand scheme when he created such memorable characters in the first place.
There is a Homer, too. Homer doesn’t have a starring role, but comes back in with a refrain now and again—a friendly voice with words of warning for Sheriff Longmire who was tasked with turning over a group of misanthropes to a team of FBI taking them to jail sentences far from Wyoming. The turnover goes wrong, a winter storm closes the mountain pass, the convicts escape, and hostages are taken. Hell, it turns out, is not hot, but cold, just as Dante tells us.
Johnson has created characters in this series that make one so glad that we have a west so very different from our eastern shores. Lawmen, Indians, horses, wild animals—Johnson makes trekking big mountains palpable, and we wish, really wish, that we could actually meet people with such depths of compassion and friendly openness as we meet in his books. In this way, he reminds me of Maeve Binchy, who is one of the greats for translating everyday life into conversation. Both Binchy and Johnson write fiction that hints at romance, simply because we know it cannot be true, or real, but we wish it were so. Would it sound silly if I said he makes me proud to be American? Proud, not in the political sense, but in the sense that he has created people and a place and a history that I am glad I can claim is at least partly mine, if only because I am American, too. And I can go to Wyoming whenever I want.
I listened to this audiobook with great pleasure. Narrated by George Guidall, it seems a perfect vehicle for his voice. The reading is a perfect pairing of great writing and great reading.
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