May 11, 2010

The Single Greatest Characterization You’ll Ever Read

From Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:

He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed on hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slug low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.

He smoked, but did not inhale, cigars; he rarely drank anything stronger than beer. He never philandered nor strayed from his wife nor had second thoughts about his marriage. He never swore in the presence of ladies nor raised his voice with children. His hair was fine and chestnut brown and recurrently barbered but it had receded so badly since his twenties that he feared eventual baldness and therefore rubbed his temples with onions and myrtleberry oil in order to stimulate growth. He scisssored his two-inch sun-lightened beard according to the fashion then associated with physicians. His eyes were blue except for iris pyramids of green, as on the back of a dollar bill, and his eyebrows shaded them so deeply he scarcely ever squinted or shied his eyes from a glare. His nose was unlike his mother’s or brother’s, not long and preponderant, no proboscis, but upturned a little and puttied, a puckish, low-born nose, the ruin, he thought, of his otherwise gallantly handsome countenance.

Four of his molars were crowned with gold and they gleamed, sometimes, when he smiled. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his middle left finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen. He’d had a boil excised from his groin and it left a white star of skin. A getaway horse had jerked from him and fractured his ankle in the saddle stirrup so that his foot mended a little crooked and registered barometric changes. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.

He was a Democrat. He was left-handed. He had a high, thin, sinew of a voice, a contralto that could twang annoyingly like a catgut guitar whenever he was excited. He owned five suits, which was rare then, and colorful, brocaded vests and cravats. He wore a thirty-two-inch belt and a fourteen-and-a-half-inch collar. He favored red wools socks. He rubbed his teeth with his finger after meals. He was persistently vexed by insomnia and therefore experimented with a vast number of soporifics which did little besides increasing his fascination with pharmacological remedies.

He could neither multiply nor divide without error and much of his science was superstition. He could list the many begotten of Abraham and the sixty-six books of the King James Bible; he could recite psalms and poems in a stentorian voice with suitable histrionics; he could sing religious hymns so convincingly that he worked for a month as a choirmaster; he was marvelously informed about current events. And yet he thought incense was made from the bones of saints, that leather continued to grow if not dyed, that if he concentrated hard enough his body’s electrical currents could stun lake frogs as he bathed.

He could intimidate like King Henry the Eighth; he could be reckless and serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next. If he made an entrance, heads turned in his direction; if her strode down the aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified; his enemies would not have been much surprised if he produced horned owls from beer bottles or made candles out of his fingers.

He considered himself a Southern loyalist and a guerilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to, but he would brood about his slanders and slights, his callow need for attention, his overweening vaingloriousness, and he was excessively genteel and polite in order to disguise what he thought was vulgar, primitive, and depraved in his origins.

Sicknesses made him smell blood each morning, he visited rooms at night, he sometimes heard children in the fruit cellar, he waded into prairie wheat and stared at the horizon.

What I'm Reading Today: I've been savoring Steve Almond's Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life for a while now.

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