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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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Thursday, February 4

Back to Burke

I’ve written about James Lee Burke several times, usually praising him for his style, so much like Faulkner’s, so much tinged with the cadences of the South or Southwest, so reliant on sensory detail, so infused with historical and Biblical allusions. Well, here I go again.

Two examples of his descriptive ability along with the cadence and religious tone so characteristic of his writing:

“He thought he could see petroglyphs cut in the layered rock above his head, and he was convinced he was traversing an alluvial flume that probably had irrigated verdant fields when an agrarian society had lived in harmony with the animals and a knife blade hammered out of primitive iron drew no blood from them or the people who had been sent to dwell east of Eden.” (p. 323, Rain Gods)

“Weren’t all our destinies already written on scrolls that we unwound and discovered in incremental fashion? Perhaps the past and the present and the future were already written on the wind, not in transient fashion but whispered to us with unerring accuracy if we could only bother to listen.” (p. 390, Rain Gods)

In terms of his style linguistically, he tends to backload his sentences with strings of subordinate elements in parallel structures. A writer can use introductory elements (front position, or fronting, or front-weight—any number of terms used to describe it) but if they get too weighty, too long, the reader tends to lose the direction the sentence is taking, making for a kind of suspense that’s waiting for the subject to appear. Burke is much more likely to use back- or end-weighting. And, man, can he go on and on. And very often he’ll string together a series of absolute phrases that loosely and adverbially attach themselves to the sentence. For those who don’t know or could care less about what an absolute is, let me explain in simpler terms: Adjectives, 3’s (“-ing” verbals), and 4’s (past participial verbals) can take their own subjects and then slide around in the sentence from front to middle to rear. They function a little like appositives, adding information to the sentence without complicating things unduly. For example:
A simple main clause (The city was beautiful) followed by the four absolute phrases, the fourth of which carries with it the complexity of the two subordinate clauses. That’s backloading at its best.

Here’s an example of backloading with appositives:
In case you don't follow my meaning, the eight appositives are all pointing to "recreation"--archway, diner, building, theater, golf course, marquee, bonnet, and car bodies. See? Simple.

Had enough? Nah! Here are three shorter examples of back-end absolutes. You don’t even need the patterns to see them:

“Hugo Cistranos was sitting on a canvas chair on the beach in his Speedos, the waves capping and sliding in a yellow froth up on the sand.” (p. 379, Rain Gods)

“It was that of a small, puffy, round man in striped underwear, his childlike hand clenching a thick water glass, his pale legs knotted with clumps of varicose veins, his face a white balloon with eyes and a mouth painted on it.” (p. 491, Rain Gods)

“Inside the wall, the lawn was a deep, cool green in the shadows, the sod soggy from soak hoses, the citrus trees heavy with fruit, the balconies on the upper stories of the house scrolled with Spanish-style ironwork.” (pp. 494-95, Rain Gods)

Here's an example of backloading with 3-phrases (-ing verbals) that point from the end of the sentence back to the subject. Normally, a 3 describing the subject will come either at the beginning of the sentence or right after the subject, but here we have four of them, and that many words acting as introduction would be too much. So, stick 'em at the back, as Burke does.
And now two patterns that are just fun to examine. Not quite Faulkner-complex, but complex enough.
I hope some of you who may be reading this aren't scratching your heads and wondering how or why I'd spend time looking at sentence structure. It's one of the ways I can understand good writers and what makes them tick. It's not just their characters or plots that intrigue me. It's the way they talk to me. If you've never looked at writing this way, I hope you'll do so in the future.
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