The 15-Minute Pulitzer
At the very least, H.L. Davis’s 1936 Pulitzer winner, Honey in the Horn, is educational. Why, in the first 100 pages we learn how to drive a team of horses through a flooded creek (this involves shooting one of them through the ear with a pistol), we learn the proper direction in which to peel bark for medicinal purposes, and we learn how to night-stalk a deer with a handful of pine kindling and a bucket. Not to mention the vocabulary . . . driddle (to dawdle), and pole-and-puncheon (evidently some type of architectural style), and eggs “fried with their eyes open.” (I think that must mean sunny side up).
At the most, I would put this novel above most of the other Pulitzers I’ve read for sheer likeableness. It’s funny and dry, bordering on satire. Clay Calvert as a main character is vulnerable yet stubbornly competent, someone we can cheer for. And there’s a list of supporting characters that make us chuckle, grimace, and worry while filling in every canyon, forest, and meadow we idle through.
And the book does a lot of idling . . . err . . . traveling. Rambling is the most generous way to put it, perhaps. It feels like the debut novel that it is in this way, but no readers who peruse the Author’s Note at the beginning can say they weren’t warned. Davis writes, “I had originally hoped to include in the book a representative of every calling that existed in the State of Oregon during the homesteading period — 1906-1908.” He goes on to say that he squelched that aspiration at some point, but still managed to cover a lot of ground, occupations, and personalities in between. To his credit as a novelist, I do think he manages to write much more than a travelogue. One writerly/novelistic touch he uses to convince me of his adroit craftsmanship is bringing his beginning back to life in his ending (dare I compare this to ‘The Wake?’ Will James Joyceians abide such an analogue?), but then, perhaps I’m reading a bit more into a few lines than is their due.
It is said that Davis became an even better writer as he aged; perhaps someday I will find out. Right now I’ve got to concentrate on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer win, the 900-plus page Gone With the Wind. Interestingly, Davis is the first and last (here’s some vocab for you) “Oregonian” to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Hopefully someday that will change so that in some way Davis’s legacy can seem less anomalous and more “lasting.” (Get it? “First to last” equals a chronological placement and also an idea of enduring quality . . . Pun intended!. . . Maybe that was going too far . . . )