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Root Cause: James W Crissman

September 21, 2011

When Bruce Dinkle takes up the cause of eating only local food, his zeal badly exceeds his judgement. After alienating his family by enforcing a strict locavore and urban agriculturist lifestyle, he abandons them by bicycle on a quixotic quest to learn where food comes from. He quickly becomes enmeshed in a small Michigan farming community where he goes to work for a large crop farmer, meets a sagacious veterinarian, and falls for a randy goat lady, all part of a sprawling cast of characters who enliven this often hilarious, mix of food, family, sex, and a little violence down on the farm. Think Michael Pollan meets James Herriot and Carl Hiaasen.

James W. Crissman is a veterinary pathologist and former large animal veterinarian. He is the author of a 1998 Pudding House Publications chapbook, Jailbait in Holy Water, and has won numerous prizes for his poetry. His short story, Wallhangers, won the 2007 Dirt Rag literature contest. Root Cause: the story of a food fight fugitive is his first novel. Jim and his veterinarian wife Jill live on a small farm in central Michigan where they’ve grown three children and much of their food for more than twenty years.

“We know there is tragedy and drama in obsession, but sometimes we forget that there can be something wonderfully comic in it, too. James Crissman reminds us of this with Bruce Dinkle, the richly weird protagonist of ROOT CAUSE, who sacrifices everything from family to dignity in his effort to find the right way to live. He is Don Quixote for our time — silly, misguided, and just maybe absolutely necessary.”

Keith Taylor, Creative Writing Coordinator, University of Michigan and author of If the World Becomes so Bright.

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There is much to like about Root Cause: its characters are reasonably well-drawn, the premise is interesting, and it’s full of black humour which is quite delicious at times. But all these things are overshadowed — not to a great degree, but enough to be significant — by problems which could easily have been fixed with a rigorous edit.

There were a few typos and punctuation errors: Mr. Crissman is over-fond of commas; and he is prone to overwriting and to writing complex sentences with long words when simpler and shorter would be better. Many of the pages that I read were given over entirely to exposition, and to telling the reader what was happening and how the characters felt, rather than showing us the nuances that makes reading so much more rewarding.

The story didn’t actually get going until page seventeen, which is far too late: and by that time I’d already been lectured at several times as Mr. Crissman banged his point home and then repeated himself, just to be sure we got it. Scenes which should have been sharp and pacey (for example, pages twenty six to twenty nine, if anyone’s counting) felt rushed and flat, and were unsatisfying as a result.

These points are not minor but they could be addressed by a ruthless rewrite. It would vastly improve this book which, despite all the flaws I’ve listed, has great potential. I came so close to recommending it but decided not to because there are so many issues with it: but I’m convinced that beneath all the clutter there’s a good novel here, from a clever writer who is bound to get better. I read thirty pages out of this book’s three hundred and eight. Mr. Crissman mighth like to read Alice Monroe and Carol Shields so that he can see what to aim for: and I look forward to watching his talent develop in the years to come.

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  1. September 29, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Hi Jane, (BTW, I know of writers who would insist on a comma after Hi — way too fussy for me.)

    I know it’s poor form to defend oneself, but propriety has seldom stopped me. My true-believer main character did like to pound his points, but those aren’t necessarily my points. He’s a jerk, no doubt, but he makes a good deal of sense. The theme of the novel is a good deal more subtle, I think. More like your mother’s advice: everything in moderation. In any case, my goal was to examine where our food comes form in a novel that entertained on every page. Glad you liked my dark humor. It’s almost the only kind I have left these days.

    I do have one character, the wise old vet (I called him sagacious in the back cover copy — too big a word?) who likes to use big words for their comical value. All readers I’ve talked to have loved that character, but he hasn’t been introduced by page 30. Nor has Wanda the goat lady, Miguel the farmhand, Ray the farmer, or a host of other fun characters.

    I think of “over written” prose as laden with unnecessary modifiers. I think I use them sparingly, but do pick more precise words, especially verbs, that obviate the need for modification. Some are big. Jane, can you give me an example of an over-written sentence? — perhaps with a suggested re-write? No other critics have leveled that one at me.

    I do use more commas than most. I think many writers, eg., Jim Harrison, use too few. I get disoriented reading long sentences without them. That said, on one pass through the manuscript I made a special point of breaking up long sentences and long paragraphs. But words are just too much fun not to use a whole lot of them.

    You said page 17, the page before Bruce left home on his bike, was too late to start the story. The text only started on page 9. So 8 pages is too much to set up his reasons for going? I’ve read a lot of short stories much longer than that where almost nothing happens. And some of my favorite writers go pages without dialogue. I put dialogue on page 1. But now I sound defensive. Should I have put him on the road on page 1 and restricted his reasons for going to internal monologue?

    Finally, thanks, Jane, for all the work you put into your reviews.

    Best Regards,

    Jim

  2. Jane Smith
    September 30, 2011 at 10:02 am

    I know it’s poor form to defend oneself, but propriety has seldom stopped me.

    Me neither. Ha!

    My true-believer main character did like to pound his points, but those aren’t necessarily my points.

    That’s no defence. This is your book and if your readers feel lectured, as did I, then they’re going to feel patronised and won’t connect with your book. You have to find a way to convey this about your character without the lecturing; and if I remember correctly it wasn’t the character who lectured. The lecturing was part of the main narrative, not the characterisation or dialogue.

    I think of “over written” prose as laden with unnecessary modifiers. I think I use them sparingly, but do pick more precise words, especially verbs, that obviate the need for modification.

    There you go again. “Obviate”. (I couldn’t resist that. Ha!)

    Jane, can you give me an example of an over-written sentence? — perhaps with a suggested re-write? No other critics have leveled that one at me.

    “Overwritten” means that your text is too complex for the job you’re asking it to do. You use words which are too long, and you use too many of them, and this means that your readers have to keep on stepping back from reading and enjoying your book and focus instead on deciphering your meaning. Each time they do that they lose a little bit of their engagement with your text and you’ll eventually drive them away from it completely.

    I’ll show you what I mean by using a bit of your back cover copy. I’m not going to rewrite it: that’s your job. And incidentally, editors won’t rewrite for you either. They’ll highlight the problems they find, and suggest ways you might improve them: but they won’t write a new version for you and if they do, then you know you’ve got a bad editor.

    “When Bruce Dinkle takes up the cause of eating only local food,”

    I’m with you so far. Sounds interesting. Only that name, Dinkle, sounds vaguely ridiculous and I wonder why you decided to label your main character as ridiculous.

    “his zeal badly exceeds his judgement.”

    I have to stop and decipher this. What do you mean? I get it after I’ve thought about it for a second but I shouldn’t have to stop: every single word in your BCC should draw me into the book and entice me. Instead, I (as reader) now have a niggling worry that your book is going to be a harder read than I’d like.

    “After alienating his family by enforcing a strict locavore”

    What does “locavore” mean? It’s not a word I recognise at first and although I can work out what it means when I put it in context, it stops the flow of my reading and again distances me from your text when what you’re meant to be doing here is pulling me closer in.

    “and urban agriculturist lifestyle,”

    What’s an “urban agriculturist lifestyle” when it’s at home? You can find a simpler, more immediate way of saying this without losing any meaning and you’ll gain in rhythm too. By now I assume that your book is going to be full of jargon, and I’m losing interest.

    “he abandons them by bicycle”

    How can you abandon anything by bicycle? I understand what you mean but if you really look at this clause it doesn’t actually make sense and again, that introduces an unnecessary pause into the reading. You can abandon something and ride away from it on a bicycle. But you can’t “abandon by bicycle”.

    “on a quixotic quest to learn where food comes from.”

    Quixotic should be capitalised, I think (I’ve not checked) as it has its roots in a proper name. Ignoring that, though, it’s a word that a lot of people don’t know and it adds another one of those hesitations into your text. Although I do like the alliteration.

    You said page 17, the page before Bruce left home on his bike, was too late to start the story. The text only started on page 9. So 8 pages is too much to set up his reasons for going?

    Hell, yes.

    You need to start your story in the very first sentence on the very first page, because browsing readers who are looking for a book to buy aren’t going to read eight pages to work out if they like the book: you’ll be lucky if they read your first full paragraph.

    I’ve read a lot of short stories much longer than that where almost nothing happens.

    This isn’t a short story. What’s your point?

    And some of my favorite writers go pages without dialogue. I put dialogue on page 1.

    This isn’t about how other writers use dialogue, or about where you first used it: it’s about when to start the story. You started your story too late.

    Should I have put him on the road on page 1 and restricted his reasons for going to internal monologue?

    That’s up to you. My point is that there was no real meat to this story until page seventeen and that means that readers aren’t going to be able to immediately engage with it.

    Finally, thanks, Jane, for all the work you put into your reviews.

    You’re welcome, Jim. I hope I’ve helped you here, and that I’ve not been too harsh.

  3. Barbara
    March 20, 2012 at 12:30 am

    Alice Munro?

  4. dirtpoet
    March 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Jane, for some reason I only today found that you responded with so much care to my post in response to your review. I thought my email was set to notify me on all such things. Anyway, thank you. BTW, I just finished Tom McGuane’s “Driving on the Rim” and found myself a little lost and my vocabulary tested a number of times. I love my Kindle with the built-in dictionary. My larger criticism is that there wasn’t enough story for 300 pages and the end was unsatisfying. Am currently listening to Ian McEwan’s Solar and enjoying it immensely. As a pathologist who spends long hours at the microscope, recorded books are a godsend.

    On the issue of confusion, it seems to me that a lot of good writers like to spin the reader around, loose them in poetic passages. Annie Dillard and Jim Harrison both come to mind. And I find great pleasure in that as long as they bring me out the other side. It’s like a guitar solo. My professional writing is scientific; I just finished a chapter on agricultural chemicals for the 3rd edition of The Handbook of Toxicologic Pathology. There is almost no room in scientific writing for metaphor or poetic language, and the demands for precision and clarity are high. I like to think I keep that precision in my creative writing, but have a lot more fun with language and suspense — and of course there is sex in it, where there was none in my survey of fungicides (didn’t cover Monistat). It would be a shame, I think, to abandon words from our literature just because some readers would have to look them up. My more frequent beef is incorrect usage. But perhaps I misunderestimate your point.

    Oh, and according to my Webster’s 9th, quixotic (like godsend) is not capitalized — and I’m sure I checked that before publishing. But I do wonder where the line is crossed between deference and decrepit in eponymous adjectives. There may be some Freudian answer to this. And yes, Barbara, it’s Munro. Lord, forgive us our typos.

    Again, thanks for (wo)manning the gates, Jane.

  5. dirtpoet
    March 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Oh, and I can’t resist one more comment. I gave my main character, Bruce Dinkle, the last name of my elementary school principal, Larry Dinkle — a guy I actually liked a lot, but with a name all us kids thought was hilarious. For a character whose actions were often rediculous, I thought it was a pretty good name. My favorite name in the book was the Lutheran Reverend Roger Revson, a NASCAR fan who drove a muscle car and was called Rev Rev behind his back.

  6. Richard Kurzkoch
    March 23, 2012 at 10:24 am

    That’s so hilarious that I forgot to laugh.

  7. Jane Smith
    March 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Richard, I’m happy to have you here but if you can’t be polite to people, I’m going to delete your comments. Be warned.

  8. Richard Kurzkoch
    March 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Are you talking to me? So, Jane, are you saying you like the idea of a character called “Rev. Rev”?

  9. Jane Smith
    March 24, 2012 at 6:15 am

    What I’m saying, Richard, is that if you make good points logically, and with appropriate levels of courtesy and respect, then I have no problem with you commenting here no matter what you say. If, however, you sneer at people and twist your logic to suit your agenda, as you have done in your two most recent comments on this thread, then you’re not welcome to comment here again.

    I won’t warn you again, nor will I explain this to you in any greater detail. Contribute positively to the discussions here or don’t take part in them at all. Got that?

  1. November 8, 2011 at 4:35 am
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