I was watching TV for a few minutes yesterday, mindlessly skipping through channels as I tried to figure out whether I needed to insert a completely new scene in this manuscript, when I stumbled across a program profiling Nick Nolte. The program caught my attention because the picture they showed was of Nolte as a relatively young man, starring in one of my all-time favorite television mini-series, based on one a book that I read and loved years ago.
Frankly, the show lost me at that point. I have no idea what they said about Nick Nolte because my mind was completely focused on Tommy Jordache. Oh yeah. Those of you old enough to know what I’m talking about know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
For those of you who don’t, I’m talking about Irwin Shaw’s RICH MAN, POOR MAN, made into one of the world’s very first mini-series in 1976. (I was a baby. I swear!)
I sat there lost in thought for a few minutes as my mind skipped from the television mini-series to the book–a rich, full novel that had picked me up and swept me away from babies and diapers and meals and laundry and all of the other mundane things that were my life at the time, and transported me into a world I’ve never forgotten. As almost always happens, the mini-series felt a little like watching the book play out from an unfamiliar angle. My vision of the characters didn’t quite match that of the producers–although I have to say they managed to get Tommy remarkably right.
Ten minutes later, I was on my knees in front of my overburdened book shelf, pulling one book after another off the shelf while I looked for my copy of Rich Man, Poor Man because I was consumed with the absolute need to read that book again. Forget all the books I’m supposed to read for all the book clubs I belong to. They can wait. That’s the one I want.
It’s been a long time since I came across a book that made me feel that way, and I want more of them. I want rich, thick, delicious stories filled with rich, varied, not-always-completely-sympathetic characters, but I need those characters to be not-always-sympathetic in a real way that you don’t find very often anymore.
Whatever happened to creating characters with Fatal Flaws? Flaws so real, so big, so overpowering that they lead the character to the brink of disaster? It seems like most of the characters around these days have just a token flaw–a minor irritant, no more realistic or compelling or dangerous to the character than a pimple on prom night.
I haven’t found my copy of Rich Man, Poor Man yet, and it’s showing up as out of print on my favorite on-line book store, but there’s a chance it’s still in a box in the garage, so I haven’t lost hope yet. [Note from 2016: I don’t think I ever found my original copy, but I did find a used copy online, bought it, and now have this great book safely tucked onto a bookshelf.] Until I do get my hands on a copy, I’ve decided that it’s time to re-read some of my other favorite books to see how the authors made the characters I remember 30 years later not only real and truly flawed, but sympathetic at the same time.
I know that writing styles have changed dramatically in the past 3 decades, but that’s okay. I’m not looking for writing style. I’m looking for something magical that transcends the writing. If I find it, you’ll be among the first to know