High Tide in Tucson
Barbara Kingsolver's essays are like conversations across a metaphoric fence, the fence that always divides a reader from a favorite novelist. In her novels, Kingsolver has the advantage of inventing characters and stories you can love or hate, but who are just so; you would not think of arguing with them. In this wide-ranging collection of essays, however, she is speaking of, and for, herself and revealing the kinds of details, stories and opinions that make you want to talk back like a neighbor.
It's an illusion, of course: there are moments when Kingsolver reminds you that she's the writer, you're the reader, and there's no fence. One essay begins this way: "Maybe this has happened to you: You are curled up on the sofa, with an afghan maybe, and the person you love is there too. You are female, because, I'm sorry, but I have the typewriter and you have to be what I say."
This particular essay is based on a "Last Page" for Smithsonian (June 1990), which I, one of the magazine's editors at the time, encouraged her to write — for which the author thanks me in the book's preface. Having been her editor, I confess, was a pleasure. Being her reader now is no less so. Much of Kingsolver's writing is transparent; it flows by with as little turbulence as a clear stream. But there is nothing artless about it, and the literary mind at work becomes visible now and then in the sudden splash of a figure of speech.
Describing her attitude toward housework, for example, she remarks, "Cleanliness is next to godliness only if you're God's Wife." And reflecting on her mother's generation, whose domesticity was far more developed than her own, she writes: "If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you're going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control. Nobody will know their way around it as well as you do. It needs to be that way. The gift of a microwave is an insult, if it suggests you could be replaced by the twist of a knob and a loud ding."
Sometimes Kingsolver's language breaks the surface of the stream like a leaping fish, in a long and graceful arc of analogy or simile. "I have been gone from Kentucky a long time," she writes. "Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: taken out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss." And in describing her own passion for the "curious risk" of writing fiction, she gives the language claws and teeth: "The part of my soul that is driven to make stories is a fierce thing, like a ferret: long, sleek, incapable of sleep, it digs and bites through all I know of the world."
There is a kind of ferocity in her descriptions of nature that makes them unforgettable, as when she writes of the sudden storms that break the intense heat and drought of the Arizona desert where she lives: "We revel in our misery only because we know the end, when it comes, is so good. One day there will be a crackling, clean, creosote smell in the air and the ground will be charged and the hair on your arms will stand on end and then BOOM, you are thrillingly drenched. All the desert toads crawl out of their burrows, swell out their throats, and scream for sex while the puddles last. The ocotillos leaf out before your eyes, like a nature show on fast forward. There is so little time before the water sizzles back to thin air again. So little time to live a whole life in the desert. This is elemental mortality, the root of all passion."
And, in a sense, this is what all of Kingsolver's writing is really about; whether she is writing about her 2-year-old daughter's acts of defiance, about buying a love fetish in a West African street market, or about the wild pigs that chew up her desert garden at night, she is searching, always, after "the root of all passion."
For Kingsolver, this is always found in relationships, whether in the ecologies of a desert, or a single-parent family, or a community of different cultures. Her writing is both personal and political; yet, with a novelist's eye for the complexity of things, she avoids the traps of self-indulgence and polemics. Throughout these essays there is an undercurrent of humor, which sometimes becomes the stream itself. "Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess," her account of a brief stint as a keyboard player in a band of best-selling authors, including Stephen King (rhythm guitar) and Amy Tan (vocals), is a classic footnote to our literary history.
In an essay on the art of fiction writing, Kingsolver offers this comic insight into the roots of her own irresistible passion for storytelling: "When I got old enough to use public transportation by myself, my sport was to entertain other passengers with melodramatic personal histories that occurred to me on the spot. I was a nineteen-year-old cello virtuoso running away from my dreadful seventy-year-old husband; or I had a brain tumor, and was determined to see every state in the union by Greyhound in the remaining two months of my life; or I was a French anthropologist working with a team that had just uncovered the real cradle of human origins in a surprising but as-yet-undisclosable location. Oh how my fellow passengers' eyes would light up. People two rows ahead of me would put down their paperbacks, sling an elbow over the back of the seat, and ride all the rest of the way to Indianapolis backward, asking questions."
This book of essays is a work of non-fiction, but reading Kingsolver is still a wild ride.
Reviewer Paul Trachtman writes from his home in rural New Mexico.