Monday, November 01, 2010

Homework

By Bryan Gruley

Thirty-five years ago, I had a professor who told my English class that the greatest line ever written in American literature resided in a short story by J.D. Salinger. I saw the professor last week for the first time since I graduated from Notre Dame.

Bill Krier did not remember the Salinger line. But he reminded me of what makes a great teacher, and how important that can be to his students, whether they’re 18 years old or 52.

I met him on campus in his book-filled office. He looked the same but for the hair going white and the paunch asserting itself. He spoke with the same wry humor and well-chosen words I remembered from his classes.

I reminded him that the first story he taught was Updike’s “Should Wizard Hit Mommy?”, about a father and his daughter and the moral obligations attached to the telling of stories. Professor Krier shook his head and chuckled.

He told me he’s teaching film classes now, and in minutes we were debating the classic western Shane, and why Clint Eastwood’s remake, Pale Rider, was a pale imitation (Krier: Michael Moriarty played too weak a character in the role Van Heflin played in Shane).

Thirty years disappeared.

Professor Krier said he’s also teaching noir movies, and after he described to me the concept of the “loose woman” (not what you think), I thought of a character in one of my books and mentioned that I had written two novels. The professor’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said. “What genre?” I told him mystery. “Wow,” He said. “Do you know Steve Hamilton?”

I think he was asking whether I knew Steve’s books. Of course I do, but I’m also lucky to know Steve himself. Which my old professor thought was terribly cool. And which I, in turn, thought was surprising as hell. Here was a guy who taught me Updike and Fitzgerald, Borges and O’Connor. How could a guy who taught The Portrait of a Lady like mysteries?

“I love mysteries,” he said.

And I am an idiot.

I’m a newbie at this crime fiction thing, and while I’ve read and enjoyed mysteries and thrillers my whole life, I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado. Still it irks me that mysteries are so frequently disqualified out of hand from being considered “literary.” Maybe it stems from that rejection letter that said my first book was “too nuanced” to be a genre mystery. Say what?

Maybe I should get over it. But it felt pretty good to hear the guy who taught me not just about stories but about the morality of telling stories that he loved mysteries.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, because so much good crime fiction is imbued with the values of moral story telling: Good and bad, punishment and redemption, and the gray spaces between that confound us as writers--and our characters—as together we make our decisions toward an end.

I wound up attending one of Professor Krier’s film classes, and was catapulted back in time watching him banter with his students about whether the hero, Shane, actually slept with the wife of the rancher (Krier: no way. Students: Possibly). The kids were having as much fun as Krier.

The next day, I visited with a junior who wanted career advice. By coincidence, she had been in that film class I attended. “Professor Krier,” she told me, “is the best professor I’ve had since I came to Notre Dame.”

“Yep,” I said.

By the way, that Salinger line came from “The Laughing Man,” maybe my favorite short story ever. It’s about a group of boys in New York City in the 1940s and their mentor, a young man they call The Chief. He tells them stories, and he makes a heartbreaking choice about how to tell them. You’ll have to read the story to understand, but here’s the line:

For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.

19 comments:

Dana King said...

It's obviously an eye of the beholder thing, but to me the greatest line ever written in English came from the mind of James Thurber:

"Shut up," he explained.

Kathy Holmes said...

What a great story - so inspiring - loved it! And I do love Film Noir - I should seek out more books like that.

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