“Emotions Doesn’t Change Facts” — Joseph Hansen

Friday, December 5, 2014

Zach Mann has just written to let me know that my article on Joseph Hansen in now available on-line at the Los Angeles Review of Books. A print version appeared several weeks ago, but I am delighted that this is now more easily accessible. I also want to thank Zach Mann for his editorial assistance in writing the article. He’s a pleasure to work with and any writer would benefit from his feedback.


The article had to fit within certain length considerations, however, and one of my favorite sections had to be sacrificed. For those who are still learning about Hansen’s writing, this omitted section might help explain why I am such a passionate advocate.

(A supplementary portion of the article:)

One of Hansen’s finest skills as a writer is his capacity to integrate the small details in the progress of a narrative into the larger picture of his investigations. In The Man Everybody Was Afraid Of, an alcoholic landscape painter named Tyree Smith attempts to convince Brandstetter that his version of events is more than a clever plan to cadge a few free drinks. After a conversation at a restaurant at which he is seen talking to Brandstetter by the character who eventually proves to be the murderer of the town’s sheriff, Brandstetter drives the aging artist out to his trailer at the edge of town.
The bartender had been right. The trailer was an eyesore. Dented aluminum, spattered with dried mud, a square of rain-stained cardboard where a window bad been, it hung on a weedy point of land above jagged black rocks the tide was backing away from. Three respectable-looking campers kept their distance, sheltering at the edge of the trees. There was a long telephone booth. From wooden poles with tin meter boxes limp wires fed electricity to the campers and trailer. Smith had passed out. Dave opened the old man’s door, undid the safety strap, and hauled him to his feet. 99
Then, twenty pages later, Brandstetter gets a phone call in his motel room. At first, Brandstetter doesn’t recognize the caller’s voice: “Is this Tyree Smith?” Brandstetter inquires, but the caller does not identify himself or where he’s calling from, instead focusing on letting his own pent-up internal monologue boil over.
“I could have told you who killed the son of a bitch,” Smith said. “All you had to do was ask me.”
“You told me,” Dave said. “Mrs. Orton – remember?”
Something banged the phone at Smith’s end. A glass? Bottle, more likely. “You don’t want to pay” Smith belched – “too much attention to my dramatic improv—“
He backed off and tried the word again. “Improvisations.”
“You mean she didn’t threaten him?”
“Way I told you,” Smith said. “But, face it—she couldn’t step on an ant.” The banging happened again. He must have dropped the receiver. It swung on its wire against the glass of the lonely booth under the eucalyptus trees. Then Smith had it again. “My car’s missing. You come here.”
Hansen deftly handles the syncopation of details in a deceptively simple scene; Hansen’s skill at enabling the reader to experience Brandstetter’s shift from initial confusion to chronotopic clarity is nothing short of understated mastery. “The banging happened again.” The image of the phone booth, all but forgotten by this point, bounds forth from the peripheral imagination and seizes the stage of the sentence being read. As archaic as phone booths have become in the second decade of this century, the image of a phone banging on the side of the isolated booth will retain the poetic shimmering of thumping synechdoche for Tyree Smith’s faltering grip on his life.

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