The Same River Twice

Looking for a small, manageable paperback to read on a commute to Great Neck and back, I picked up a vintage paperback of Ross Macdonald's The Drowning Pool, a novel I'd read 25 years ago. I didn't exactly remember the plot clearly, but my recollection of my fling with Macdonald was that most of his plots dealt with the sins of the grandfathers being visited upon the third generation after.

The Drowning Pool sort of meets that description, but I was startled by two elements I don't remember from my first reading: the intensely poetic description of the physical world and how hollow some of hero Lew Archer's machismo sounded. (The Drowning Pool, published in 1950, was probably serialized in the pulps; in later Macdonald novels, Archer eschewed the tough-guy stance for a more nuanced psychological/observational one.)

Holy cow, I thought, how could I have missed that the first time I read it? The answer is, of course, that 25 years ago I wasn't the me I am now. I had fewer experiences and I read more for plot than all of the other elements that comprise good fiction.

The same thing is true of music. I'm not talking about how different conductors can change your view of a great work—in his final years, I would go see Leonard Bernstein every time he cam eto New York, not because I knew he would be great, but because I knew he would challenge my understanding of the works he performed. Sometimes I thought he was wrong, but even then he made me experience the piece in a new way.

What impresses me about this hobby of ours—of listening to the same recordings over and over—is the same thing that impressed me upon re-reading The Drowning Pool: I'm not the same me now and the work I'm experiencing isn't the same thing it was when I last listened to it.

Take my first recording of Mahler's 1st, for example. I still listen to that Munch/BSO recording, but I now hear it so differently. It sounds very much like a young man's symphony now. Same recording; different me.

Growing up in Virginia, one generation away from the farm, country music was everything I wanted to escape from. Bluegrass was even worse, since my grandfather played bluegrass with his disreputable buddies. How I now wish I'd hung out with those chewing 'baccy stained old men—that high lonesome sound has become a part of my life and I wish I had a genuine connection to those old rebels who created and nurtured it.

When I was a child, I had a very limited sonic world. The simple act of living and listening has expanded it. At 18, I never could have appreciated Kora player Tomani Diabati, now I can't imagine a world where he doesn't matter to me. Heck, at 18, I didn't even appreciate Led Zeppelin because of Robert Plant's screech—took me decades to get over that one. It'll probably take me decades to live that confession down. (It was Jeff Buckley who convinced me to give LZ another chance. Thanks, Jeff—sweet dreams.)

I have to admit that it encourages me that all I have to do to have a completely different record collection is to live and learn. How do you like them odds?

KBK's picture

It's like that, isn't it?I've been collecting classical music for all of my 'hifi' existence. I don't really care for it and I almost never play any of it (Mozart and Bach are the exceptions, Beethoven is definitely an acquired taste)..but I DO have about 500-700 classical albums, all done by the 'right' composers, and recorded by the right people. Ie, the ones that people say are the more involving performances. Yah never know, someday I might appreciate them more than I do now.

Jeff Wong's picture

Just a quick note on The Drowning Pool. It was the 2nd Lew Archer novel & debuted as such. Macdonald played with the Oedipal theme 2 years earlier under his real name, Kenneth Millar, with The Three Roads (his only novel in 3rd person), and would more fully develop the "sins of the fathers" theme in 1959 with The Galton Case. I'm always impressed by his use of repetitive themes or imagery to foreshadow or reinforce events in a book. Sometimes there will be a couple dozen thematic repetitions sprinkled throughout a single novel. Macdonald felt Archer was so thin, if he stood sideways you wouldn't see him. It was the other characters he wanted you to remember, but, I always felt it is Lew Archer's unique voice that endures--how he sees the world in metaphor and simile, his compassion and sensitivity, his documentation of the California landscape at the time--these are the things that resonate long after I've forgotten about the mother, or wayward son. I'll take

Jeff Wong's picture

him soft-boiled any day. In a 1953 lecture in Michigan, Macdonald referred to his alternative to the hardboiled novel as "the American colorful". So, he was aware early on that his books didn't exactly fit the hardboiled school. In a letter to James Sandoe, Chandler was critical of Macdonald describing a car as "acned with rust" and felt "spotted" would've been better. Personally, I thought "acned" was more interesting, but, it might've been that Chandler was thinking along the same lines, but, was thinking in British terms, i.e., spot = pimple. Your observation of the tough guy stance not ringing quite true is a good one. By the mid to late 1950s the Archer novels come more into their own and owe less to the mold established by Hammett & Chandler; in these later books you get a sense of there being less imitation and the books ring truer to an individual voice.

RankStranger's picture

I'm with your KBK. I have a lot of classical music, especially on vinyl (op shops are full of barely-played, great recordings for a couple of dollars each). I dip into it sometimes and I love some of it but mostly I love knowing it's there for when I'm ready for it.

Alan in Victoria's picture

You guys keep hundreds of classical records on hand, because you think one day a switch will flip somewhere and you will suddenly like classical music? Bizarre.

remove stretch marks's picture

Your observation of the tough guy stance not ringing quite true is a good one.Scretch Marks Remover

nunh's picture

I love re-reading classics and re-listening to my younger favorites for much of the same reasons. I like to dig deeper and enjoy what I have learded in/ about life thusfar...Nice blog entry - now I have a couple of new (old) books to read as well as a couple of albums to purchase :)

baby boomer's picture

I don't know if it is right place to write here. But I am a baby boomer and m looking for more baby boomers to connect.I want all the baby boomers of the world under one root, under one society.I hope you will appreciate and join the cause.

Jan Scranton's picture

I was just looking for one of his novels since I read them all about 20 odd years ago. Not finding any I looked for Nicolas Freeling. What happened to Van Der Valk? As you get on, it is a bit disappointing to have your favoites fall out of currency. Even from the used bookstores. ALways enjoy your work Wes. Give Freeling a chance. Amazon