January 27, 2010
JE: All Keith Dixon does is write some of the tensest, most delectably dark character studies out there, in sentences strung as tight as piano wire. Check out Ghostfires, his 2005 debut, a wicked southern gothic-esque crime thriller, which pits father against son, amidst a sordid web of deceit and addiction.
Keith Dixon—The book that made me a reader
We had just moved to our house in rural Pennsylvania, which would make me about nine or ten years old, when I stole my brother’s copy of Where the Red Fern Growsoff his bookshelf—I have no idea where he got it, or if he’d read it, but I do know that I’ve never forgotten it. I can even remember the tactile sense of holding it and staring at the foxed and fouled cover; the image was so haunting I was compelled to pick it up and give it a read.
(This may explain why I’m very particular about the covers of my own books, a real art director’s nightmare—I can’t shake the knowledge that the first book I ever loved might have gone unread if it had a less compelling cover. And in locating a copy of the exact cover my edition had, I was dismayed to find that the new editions have a much more vanilla cover, perhaps to make the book seem less threatening. This is extremely bad.)
I don’t remember too many details of the book—after all, it’s been nearly three decades since I read a word of it, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t remember character names or even whiff on a few elaborations—but two plot points in particular haunt me to this day, and I still marvel at the way I reacted to them. (Spoilers abound below—those of you still planning on reading the book may want to skip.)
Until then I reacted to books as if I were writing a book report about them. “What did you think about it?” one parent would ask, and my answer was always either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” In short, I had never developed a complicated feeling about a book. I was reading, but I might as well have been painting by numbers.
About midway through Fern, though, I read a scene—and again, I’m going to trust memory, here, and not research the details—in which a boy, not the main character, falls on his own ax. Gruesome—as I recall, the blade goes in his stomach. Fern is clearly a book that grapples with life and death, and the sometimes violent span that occurs between the two, but this scene in particular awoke a sense of horror in me that went far beyond an intellectual understanding that bad things sometimes happen to people. I actually felt it, this time. I remember that I put the book down, went downstairs, and sat in the dining room with my mother. When she got up and left the room, I followed her. After I’d followed her through about five rooms, she turned to me and asked, “Is something wrong?”
I answered that something was, but I didn’t know what, exactly. She suggested I go read a book or something.
Utterly at a loss, I then went back upstairs and read the rest of the book. Those who have read Fern know what it leads to—the death of the two dogs that have been the axis of the narrator’s coming of age. The message is: Now he has experienced the ultimate loss. He has witnessed the death of his youth. He is aware of the sorrow that is indivisible from living, and is no longer innocent. In other words: he’s a grownup. The corollary logic is, of course, that one can never be a complete person without engaging one’s own mortality.
I have never been very good with the idea of brute suffering—I can’t bear to watch animals suffer, something about the fact that they can’t communicate their suffering with others, and invite empathy—and this final scene was its very summit. I remember reacting to the book not with my mind but with my whole body. My skin flushed and my throat tightened up. I couldn’t reason or explain away what I had just experienced.
I went back downstairs, poleaxed into silence, and followed my mother around the house until she asked again, “Is something wrong?”
I began to cry. It just flowed right out. I looked at her and said, “Yes. Yes. But I don’t know what it is.”
It seems obvious to me, now: I had experienced that shiver of universal understanding that comes only from reading a great novel. Where the Red Fern Grows showed me, for the first time, what books can do. I’ve been trying to give that same experience to others all my adult life.