Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Single Tree: a collection of stories (R.V. Schmidt) reviewed by Fran Ransley

WHAT MAKES REAL MEN TICK?

When I was a college student back in the 1960’s, my roommate and I decided, after a series of disappointing love affairs, that we were going to study men and try to figure out what made them tick. We were tired of the insipid frat boys and wimpy intellectuals. We wanted a glimpse into the minds of Real Men.

Soon my roommate came home with some “men’s magazines” from the local drugstore. No, not Playboy, we could borrow them anytime from the insipid frat boys. We weren’t interested in soft or hard porn. These were pulp fiction magazines, full of stories, visceral stuff. The covers had pictures of rugged men fighting hand-to-hand with bears, things like that. Giggling and full of curiosity, and to the tune of some borrowed good old cryin’-in-your-beer Country Western albums, Red Foley and Hank Williams I think it was, we inhaled them.

The stories in those magazines were rough, wild and gritty in the London-Hemingway style. A few of them were also tender, and so well written that I remember them to this day. Forty years later, when I sat down and read Single Tree cover-to-cover in one sitting, I was reminded of those long-ago pulp magazines.

R.V. Schmidt sure enough writes in the testosterone-powered tradition of London and Hemingway. I’d also include Jack Kerouac and James D. Houston in this, what I’ve come to describe as the “girls-spoil-the-camping-trip” genre of male bonding fiction.

Schmidt can describe a slow-motion disaster with the best of them. The fight scene in the cabin, from his title story, Single Tree, with all its minute, gorily detailed imagery, is as fine as anything Jack London ever wrote, and contrasts eloquently with the tenderness of the protagonist’s first glimpse of his newborn grandson later in the story. Schmidt’s use of foreshadowing is just right; the reader knows something is going to happen, but you’re never sure which direction it’s coming from, nor when or where to duck and run. His character study of the old prizefighter in John Edward, who mentors a young boy, gives the reader an intimate picture in just a few paragraphs, of the trajectory of a man’s life.

Schmidt’s stories are brimming with action, drama, pathos, subtle slow-talkin’ country humor, wildly hilarious self-deprecating humor such as occurs in Rio Amarillo, and just the right sprinkling of weltschmerz. He takes the twists, turns and tight switchbacks of each plot like a cowboy in a pickup truck on a desperate Saturday night beer run, negotiating a rugged mountain road, not necessarily within the speed limit or in the right lane, if there is one.

Okay, so what did my college roommate and I learn from this manly-man school of writing? Pretty simple. Have your own plan, gal—call your girlfriends and get your own party goin’, ‘cause the guys are off doin’ what a man’s gotta do.

But regardless of your gender, if you love drama, humor, crystal clear imagery and all the other aforementioned elements of good writing, make yourself a nice fire in the fireplace and a strong cup of coffee, put some Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks or Merle Haggard CD’s on your stereo, set yourself down in a comfortable chair, and get ready for a wild read!

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