I started reading two novels this weekend. I'd not meant to begin the second so soon, but after several attempts to engage with the first, I gave up.
Outwardly, the two were similar: mass paperback international thrillers published in 2010 by New York houses. The first involved a quest for the tomb of Alexander the Great—the subject of at least three other novels I've enjoyed. The second promised a search for an ancient lost religious artifact.
Despite my interest in the first book's topic, the prose quickly reminded me a trying to drive a washboard road. (If you drive only on pavement, it's a poorly maintained gravel road that's developed a series of closely spaced ridges—like an old-fashioned washboard.)
I'd encountered such a road a few weeks ago when trying to visit a waterfall in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. The online guide said the three and one-half mile drive from the blacktop to the trailhead was well maintained. But I suspect that description was placed by a company that sold replacement tires and performed wheel alignments.
Our view as the road snaked up the side of the mountain was gorgeous, but I was so concerned about not damaging the car, I couldn't enjoy it. If Zapata Falls hadn't come so highly recommended, I'd have turned around after the first half mile.
I remembered that road as I tried to read the Alexander story. Page after page I was distracted by the kind of elements I've told people for years at writers conferences to edit out of their drafts. The author did okay with narrative summary, but his dialogue was piled high with telling. And his characters seldom said anything. Given the choice, they'd grin or laugh their words—or, in a more serious moment, demand or insist them.
If you can write this way and get published by a New York house, why bother to polish your prose? Or so I wondered for a few more pages—until I had to put the book down. I just couldn't get into the story. The writer's technique—if I could call it that—kept calling attention to itself and pulling me out of the story.
So I picked up the other novel—and quickly found myself seventy-five pages in, enjoying the characters, the setting, and the action. It reminded me of driving the previous weekend to La Veta, Colorado, to catch a ride on the Rio Grande Scenic Railway. Smooth pavement, no steep grades, the curves and intersections well marked. Just as it should be.
The weekend after Labor Day, we're considering a return trip. And this weekend, I got another story by the same writer. I think I'll enjoy it.