In my own fiction, I’ve recently been making a concerted effort to remove absolutely everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. I’ve been looking at my short stories like a race car. Pull out the radio, the air conditioning, the cruise control, the power windows, everything. Get rid of everything that doesn’t contribute to speed.
This isn’t to say I’m writing minimalist stories. Nor am I capable of writing page-turners and thrillers. But I just want everything to contribute to progressing the story.
Having said all that, it’s amazing to see what a true master can do. Because in the hands of Larry Brown, even the most mundane activities become engrossing. In A Miracle of Catfish, there are dozens of instances where some small action really doesn’t have to be there. But he makes it work. For example, at one point, Cortez drives by the hardware store to see if they have a garbage can. “They did, and he put on his blinker to turn right and pulled into the parking lot. He parked and got out and put the keys in his pocket.”
There are so many examples like this that it’s almost impossible to recount them all. Warming up a slice of ham for dinner, microwaving a bowl of chilli in the lunchroom, cleaning a firearm, looking through the phonebook for a number, and so forth. All of these instances could easily be removed and not hurt the plot of the novel. Everyone who has ever taken a writing workshop remembers the person who writes a story about a character turning off the alarm, making coffee, brushing their teeth, shaving, putting on a suit, driving to town, parking the car, turning off the radio, getting on the elevator, and then walking into a hostage situation. And everyone knows the creative writing teacher instructs to remove all that stuff and just get to the story.
But Brown writes them in such a way, that they are enjoyable windowpanes into the daily lives of the characters. And in the case of Cortez Sharp, his life is largely a mundane existence consisting of simple chores. But Larry Brown renders them in such a beautiful way that they are as intriguing as the activities of royalty or the exploits of celebrity. Who know that slicing a piece of ham could be so finely described?