Beauty and the Beasts

ONE OF this season's more unlikely bestsellers is Barry Lopez's Crow and Weasel. It's from a publisher, North Point Press, that has never done children's books and has had only a handful of hardcover bestsellers of any type. (North Point has also, sadly, decided to go out of business next year, a subject that will be considered at a later date in this column). As for Lopez, he's well regarded, but his major efforts to date -- the American Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men -- didn't burn up the lists either.

Furthermore, it's his first story for children, and it's a rather uncompromising one. The publisher calls it "a novella-length fable" and doesn't specify any age range. Lopez himself says that, "When I sat down to write, insofar as I had an audience in mind, it was not much different from the one I usually write for. The fact it has found such a strong audience with younger readers is somewhat of a surprise to me . . . The best way to say it is that this is a story that doesn't exclude children."

Crow and Weasel, strikingly illustrated by Tom Pohrt, is the story of a quest. The two title characters set out from their village, having "agreed between themselves that they wanted to travel farther north than anyone had ever gone, farther north than their people's stories went." It's an understated tale that suggests Native American stories but doesn't derive from any one of them.

For one thing, Crow and Weasel are more than just names: These characters actually are a crow and a weasel, just as their village elder, Mountain Lion, is indeed that. "The story," Lopez explains, "takes place in the time where the distinctions between people and various sorts of animals and what passes for scientific truth in Western civilization is in a state of suspension. I imagined a village of intelligent beings full of the range of what we call human relations and intelligence." It's to his credit that this is done subtly and without cuteness.

On their journey, Crow and Weasel are saved from starvation by Grizzly Bear, who tells them that he, too, had once been without food a long time. Then, one evening when he was so weak he could barely move, he saw a flock of geese fly across the face of the sun.

" 'It was only a moment,' said Grizzly Bear, 'but it was so beautiful it went straight to my heart. I got up and went on. In the last light that day I found what I was looking for. With my last strength I accepted the life of that animal. I ate and then I slept. I ate and slept again, and then I was able to go on.'

" 'Sometimes it is what is beautiful that carries you,' said Weasel weakly from his bed.

" 'Yes. It can carry you to the end. It is your relationship to what is beautiful, not the beautiful thing by itself, that carries you,' said Grizzly Bear."

If you don't like passages like that, it's safe to conclude you won't like Crow and Weasel either. But the book is also interesting for some retrospective light it shines on Lopez's earlier efforts. For one thing, this is not his first work of fiction -- although you would be hard pressed to tell that from the packaging some of the previous books received.

River Notes (1976), Desert Notes (1979) and Winter Count (1981) were all collections of brief, sometimes apparently autobiographical narratives marketed as if Lopez were a colleague of John McPhee and Peter Matthiessen -- as much naturalist as writer, a guide to the hidden places. The jacket of Winter Count says: "From New York to New Orleans to the Arizona desert, he illumines moments that all of us can share . . ."

This notion, helped along by his big nonfiction books on wolves and the Arctic, has dogged Lopez's career. A combined paperback edition of River Notes and Desert Notes, published by Avon in September, says explicitly on the spine: nonfiction. The trouble is, they're not.

"When River Notes came out 14 years ago there was a desire on the part of the publisher to make the experience that I imagined my experience, to make me a kind of character, to turn me into somebody I really wasn't," recalls the author. "When I did see what was done, I was furious. I don't want to be promoted as some kind of Crocodile Dundee. But he said, 'These are marketing considerations.' "

One of Lopez's problems with such an approach is that it serves to make the teller of the tale a mere reporter, much less interested in ideas of art than the writer of fiction. "I'm as concerned about the fate of language in stories," he says, "as I am with the fate of the landscape."

Translating Rauschenberg

AT FIRST glance, it seems rather a switch that Mary Lynn Kotz's new book should be one of those hefty, multi-illustrated Abrams tomes, in this case on artist Robert Rauschenberg. Appropriately enough for a Washington writer, her three earlier titles were all connected to the political life: a 1977 biography of the founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, George Wiley (written with her husband, Nick Kotz); a 1973 assist on former White House chief usher J.B. West's memoir; and another co-writing credit in 1979 on the autobiography of the late Marvella Bayh, wife of the Indiana senator.

Yet there is indeed a connecting thread. In researching the White House book, Kotz was struck by how folks from ordinary backgrounds can grow up to achieve extraordinary things, like becoming president. The same is true of Wiley, who was the first black achiever in just about everything he did; and Bayh, the daughter of a farmer in Enid, Okla., whose life, as Kotz puts it, "was spent in a very gentle way telling women to take control of their own lives."

"What all of these people had in common," says Kotz, "was quite simply what had always been told to me about the American Dream: You can do anything in this country if you have talent, believe in yourself and have extraordinary energy."

Thus Rauschenberg, who grew up in modest circumstances in a Texas oil town to become one of the giants of 20th century art. At an opulent (by Washington standards, at least) book party last month, he got to issue his own opinion of Kotz. "Sometimes, she was a pest," he said laconically. "But seeing the work finished we know it was all worth it."

Just what kind of a pest was she? Responds Kotz: "How would you like it if someone were hanging around you for five years, getting you to talk about your work?" It took him about a year to become comfortable with her, she says.

Like artists of all stripes, moreover, Rauschenberg wants his work to speak for itself. "A lot of times it is not comprehensible to everybody," Kotz maintains. "There have been people all over the world who look at his cardboard work and say, 'C'mon, is that art?' But he's very serious about using cardboard as being not only a soft, pliable material with which to work, but also as a record of our lives -- the cardboard boxes, the containers that people use and toss away.

"People say, 'Is he pulling our leg?' Yes, but he's also pulling our sleeves and shaking our shoulders, saying 'Look at what's around you.' He wants to give people a new way of seeing. And for that it helps to have a translator, a guide." Decoding Woolf

THERE ARE some stories you shouldn't spoil with research. In a review of the English edition of A Passionate Apprenticeship: The Early Journals of Virginia Woolf (to be published here in February by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), Janet Barron noted that editor Mitchell Leaska "spent 10 years transcribing the journals from Woolf's tiny, convoluted handwriting before discovering that Leonard Woolf had deposited a transcript of them at Sussex University."

Such a heroic and apparently purposeless decade of labor would seem to win Leaska the 1990 Futility Award, but when the New York University professor was contacted for comment, he said it really wasn't as bad as it looked. First of all, the transcription time amounted to only 18 months.

Moreover, even if he had known the earlier transcript existed, "I would have still done it the way I did. I wouldn't have wanted to be polluted or diverted by {Leonard Woolf's} efforts . . . There's a trick of perception that says we see what we want to see, or see what we've taught to see." Or simply see what we've read.

None of which is to say that the process was enjoyable. The first journal, written in 1897 when Woolf was 15 and recovering from an episode of madness, is an intensely felt detailing of her daily life written in almost illegible script. "She felt almost compelled to fill each page each day," says Leaska. "It was the one way she could concretize an otherwise very disorganized world."

There were no simple techniques to recapturing that universe. To test the predictability of a writer, Leaska notes, scholars often use a technique called "close measure analysis" that leaves every fifth or tenth or 15th word blank.

"With Danielle Steel, you could leave every third word blank and, because the prose is so predictable, you'd guess right. With Woolf and Faulkner and Joyce, if you leave out every 15th word you can still get it wrong, because they violate expectations. Joyce may say 'Every Tom, Dick and Harriet' where you were expecting 'Harry' -- that sort of thing. One of the qualities of writing that lasts is its unpredictability. Whenever you expect a cliche to turn up, you can be sure Woolf's going to violate it and say something else."In the Margin

HARDLY ANYONE will admit to having enjoyed '70s culture the first time around. Who would care to live through it again? The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs, by Andrew Edelstein and Kevin McDonough (Dutton), offers a thorough if not particularly deep exploration of streaking, Alice Cooper, disco, "Charlie's Angels," John Travolta, blow-dryers -- nearly everything except, oddly enough, the books of the decade. One amusing remark comes from Sylvester Stallone, who offered this bit of lit-crit after he speed-wrote the script for the first Rocky in 86 hours: "I'm astounded by people who take 18 years to write something. That's how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary, and was that ever on the bestseller list? No, it was a lousy book and it made a lousy movie" . . .

Just how popular is Anne Rice? Forget about the half-million-plus copies in print of her new novel, The Witching Hour. Knopf is also marketing a boxed set of the three vampire novels that made her reputation. The books are bound in cloth, which is rare these days, and are signed by the author. Five thousand sets have been produced, which is about what the average first novel is lucky to sell. The average first novel, however, doesn't cost $100. Is the set worth such a price tag? Only an Anne Rice fan could say for sure...