Sense Of Place

From Mark Johnson:

I’ve been rereading Angels & Demons by Tom French. I know many gangreyers are familiar with the story, maybe the finest newspaper narrative ever. I was stopped cold by this paragraph near the beginning. I’ve never lived in Florida but I wondered if there has ever been a better summary of the state than this single paragraph:

“Even then, they were not merely crossing state lines. They were slipping over to the other side, entering the isle of eternal youth, dominion of the sun, temple of the mouse who devoured the world, paradise of glistening beaches and murmuring waves and hallucinatory sunsets and oranges dripping with ambrosia and alligators smiling jagged smiles and snowy-haired seniors who play shuffleboard as they
wait cheerfully for their collect call from God and intrepid astronauts who climb aboard gleaming spaceships, launched with a roar into a heavenly blue sky.”

I remember a features editor telling me about the importance of having a story provide a sense of place. In one paragraph Tom gives a better sense of place than I’ve ever given in an entire story or series. Cormac McCarthy is very good at this too. Any other writers you can think of who do this well?

15 thoughts on “Sense Of Place

  1. I first met Tom when he led a Poynter seminar I attended in 2009 on narrative writing. People there were talking about “Angels and Demons,” as the standard for longform narrative and I remember making a mental note to find it and read it. But I wasn’t able to find it in printable form until yesterday, when someone posted it on Longform. I printed it out at the office. It was 78 pages. Colleagues glared at me as I stood at the printer waiting. I took it home last night and read it in one sitting. I can’t really add to what others have said about this piece, but I’m still amazed that it ran in a newspaper. Would that happen today? I hope so, but I don’t know.
    -Eric Russell

  2. Thank you for posting that, Mark. Yes, this story changed my life. With its publication, Tom reached a pinnacle of drama and nuance and verisimilitude that may never again be reached in in a newspaper. Although I certainly hope it is. I hope someone who reads this message board will try something that big, even if it means risking spectacular failure.

    But I agree with the premise of your question, Eric. It’s a different time now. Once I was searching through the St. Petersburg Times archives for Tom French stories and I saw that before Angels came out he had a byline gap of more than three years. (Are you reading this, Tom? Am I correct about this?) What editor now would keep paying someone for that long, even someone with a track record as fine as Tom’s, for a single story or series? Hardly anyone would have even back then. It’s one more testament to the incredible tradition of the St. Peterburg Times, from the top on down, and I daresay it’s the best example of why so many of us over the decades have scratched and clawed our way down the Gulf Coast and sat on the doorstep at 490 First Avenue South until they let us in.

  3. He did Zoo Story in ’07. Four years of reporting, I think it took.

    The highway, overrun at dawn. A chorus of muttered curses rises from the great steel and chrome herd now jammed, bumper to bumper, in the middle of another morning’s migration along Interstate 275 toward downtown Tampa.

    Trapped inside the climate-controlled interiors of their cars, alone with their cell phones and their iPods and their satellite mapping systems, the drivers long to swerve onto the shoulder and break free. Instead they inch forward, thumping fists on steering wheels, snarling at other cars, allowing themselves a few bursts of aggression even as they stay in line.

    Just off the Sligh Avenue exit, another chorus is rising. The drivers can’t hear it. But it’s there.

    At Lowry Park Zoo, the beasts are waking.

    The Malayan tapirs are whistling, calling to one another in the early morning light. The orangutans lounge in the rope netting of their exhibit, sighing their philosophical sighs. The hammerkops are cackling, and the New Guinea singing dogs are barking, and the sloth bears are snuffling and sniffing, their long, curved claws clicking as they pad out into the sunlight.

    High above them all, Cyrus and Nadir serenade each other with another duet. The male and female siamangs – Asian gibbons, with long arms and thick black fur and big bulging throat sacs – swing from poles 30 feet above the ground as they trade the same sequence of hoots and wails that they perform every day. Mated for life, the siamangs sing to seal their bond. Their duets carry to every corner of the zoo, cutting through the recorded jungle drums beating incessantly from the PA system.

    Other songs join the soundtrack. Cries of desire and hunger, protest and exultation. A multiplicity of voices from nearly every continent, at nearly every frequency, of almost infinite variation. Hearing them all together, on a bright clear morning, is to contemplate the audacity of creation.

  4. Rick Bragg in ’91:

    The neighborhood has low rent and no trees, a leaky bucket of a place where dreams seem to run right on through. Dirty Red’s mother pries the boy’s fingers from the hem of her dress and tells him a hundredth time: “Baby, it’s okay to play.” Dirty Red knows if he goes outside children will call him names and punch and pinch him, like the day before and the day before that. To please his mother he walks outside, but instead of going to play he doubles back up the stairs and sits just outside the closed door.

    Dirty Red can’t face the neighborhood, not today. He curls up in a ball on the concrete steps and sticks a thumb in his mouth. People step over him like litter.

  5. Wow, Ben. The Bragg paragraph is very interesting. There is a powerful sense of place, but it’s strange. The sense of place comes entirely from the description of the people. There is very little in the way of photographic detail about that place, and yet I can see it in my mind. Fascinating example.

  6. Here’s a nice one from some guy named Ben. It would be interesting to know how these lines came about:

    Jackson County, Florida, 1934: Drip coffee, Purity Ice Cream, turnips, chuck roast, mustard for 15 cents a quart, 26 cents for a dozen eggs. Sun-bleached overalls, Baptists, Methodists, kerosene lamps, screen doors, mosquitoes, pine trees, knee stains, brick chimneys, K & K Grocery, and cotton, 12 cents a pound. Cotton on the roadside and cotton in the ditch and cotton in forever rows stretched across fields flat as tabletops.

    Greenwood, 9 miles north of the county seat, was a one-telephone town of 1,300 farmers and sharecroppers staked to the Florida dirt against the tide of the Great Depression.

    On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 1934, a white girl went out to water the hogs and did not come home.

    Full story here:

  7. Now that I’ve blown through “Angels and Demons,” I’m looking for another Tom French serial. I think it was called “A Cry in the Night.” It would have come out sometime before “A&D” but I remember Anne Hull once talked about it glowingly. Anyone know where to find it? Printable? Thanks.
    -Eric Russell

  8. I should note that the link above is not the first series, which ran before the trial in 1986. Not sure where that version may be online, but it is in the Best Newspaper Writing 1987 book from Poynter. My copy is falling apart because it has been read so often.

  9. I went to college at Indiana University and wrote a senior-year research project about Tom French–who’s second only to Ernie Pyle among IU newspapermen. I read everything he’d written for the Times up till then (2004), and got to chat with him on the phone for a couple of hours. He’s a great guy, and I learned so much from him and his writing. As much as I love his big, ambitious serial narratives, this story, “A Gown for Lindsay Rose,” will always be my favorite of his: The ending is heartbreaking and perfect.

  10. As someone who has followed Tom’s work since his college days, I remember reading that paragraph about Florida from A&D and thinking “Wow. Tom has made a big move. “. Till then his reporting and writing were more literal. This passage was more conceptual and interpretive. Fans of Tom will have their favorite albums. Rubber Soul or Abbey Road? My favorite is South of Heaven. I think it is harder and more important to spend a year in a public high school than to cover a lurid and high profile crime.

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