While recovering from surgery in early 1975, I became intoxicated by the idea that a well-wrought essay extolling the river's wild beauty would convert all but the most mule-headed reader into a dam opponent -- that prose-style, in other words, could go forth and change policy. (And perhaps, on some symbolic level, I was hoping that my master's in English could hold its own against my law degree.) I thought of Berton Roueché.
A New Yorker writer from the 1940s to the early 1990s, Roueché was famous for his elegant, clever mysteries. I don't mean the four suspense novels he wrote but the dozens of reportorial essays on baffling symptoms and elusive diseases and the epidemiologists who sorted them all out. These pieces, which The New Yorker published under the rubric Annals of Medicine, won him several prizes, including a Raven from the Mystery Writers of America. I can't speak to their science, though I'm told it's impeccable, but as narratives they retain every cc. of their slightly morbid strength. (They were gathered periodically in such books as Eleven Blue Men and The Incurable Wound, and eventually in a pair of omnibus collections, The Medical Detectives and The Medical Detectives Volume II.)
Roueché also reported on small towns and wild America, and it was that side of him that appealed to me most. He flourished in an era when The New Yorker's contents were governed less by hot buttons or headlines than by the eclectic tastes of its superb writers. Its pages were thick with Genet and Rebecca West, Cheever and Stafford, Perelman and White, Liebling and Mitchell, and you might pick up an issue almost wholly given over to Capote or Salinger. Roueché never took up that kind of space. His forte was the miniature, not the mural: the longest continuous work he published was his second novel, The Last Enemy, a sylph of a book at 224 pages. But he appeared regularly in the magazine, where he had few equals at the Conradian feat of making you see and feel a landscape.
Or a riverscape. A Missourian by birth, Roueché had canoed the streams that later became the Ozark National Riverway, and then had commemorated the experience in an elegiac piece, "A Day on the River," which contains this kinetic description of rapid-running: "There was a spume of white water up ahead. Then, with a thump, we were in it. The boat shot forward like a sled on ice. We slicked over a sunken log. We skinned past a seething snag. We slapped and shuddered down a corrugation of bowling-ball boulders. And emerged in a long, placid, sun-swept pool."
I was familiar with those rivers, I loved that essay and that passage, and I wrote Roueché out of the blue, appealing to his roots in Missouri and proposing that he meet me there and lend the river his voice. He replied almost at once: "The story you suggest interests me very much ... I intend to talk to the New Yorker's editor when I am next in town ... I am hopeful that he will approve."
The great prospect was confirmed in a follow-up note 10 days later: the legendary William Shawn had given his O.K. The canoe-trip was a go as soon as I was feeling up to it.
Roueché turned out to be an affable, unassuming man in his sixties, with a nostalgic gusto for country cooking and a prodigious capacity for taking notes, complete with quick sketches of scenes he wanted to remember. And our spring day on the water was flawless -- sunny and fresh, with a rakish current and herons and kingfishers posing on branches overhead. There was one mishap. Roueché and his guide tipped over; writer and notebook got drenched. Not only did he take this in stride; later, back home at his typewriter on Long Island, he played it up as a self-joshing vignette.
I made sure we stopped at Green's Cave. Roueché seemed impressed -- but left it out of the piece he wrote. At first I was astonished. But we'd visited two other caves, and a writer has to make choices. On the other hand, seeing the river for the first time, Roueché homed in on things I took for granted, like the bucolic scene, viewed from a cliff-top, that gave his story its climax:
"The river, winding in from behind a point of woods on the right, was wide and slow and a shining bottle green. Across the river, beyond a brushy island and the brushy farther shore, stretched a rolling pasture with a scatter of grazing cattle, and beyond the pasture was a long hedgerow, and beyond the hedgerow were a tiny house and a barn and sheds, and then another pasture rising in the dimming distance to a lift of wooded ridge. I ... looked out across the wide green river and the wider, greener fields. It was the loveliest countryside I had ever seen in America -- the loveliest and the most serenely peaceful and fulfilling. I wondered if I would ever see it again. I wondered ... how long it would be here for anyone to see. I knew ... that when or if they built the dam this would all be lake -- the whole of this fruitful valley, from halfway down the cliff almost to the beginning of the ridge on the far horizon."
(If there's a secret to Roueché's energetic style, by the way, I believe it's his penchant for conveying action with verblike nouns and nounlike verbs: a "scatter" of cattle, a "corrugation" of boulders, a canoe that "slicked" over a log.)
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 4/14/98