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Oregon’s Best Writer, Part II

July 14th, 2009 by Alison · No Comments · entertainment, health & well being, work

Who read Moby Dick in the fourth grade, has a great-grandmother who starved to death in post-Bolshevik Russia, believes you should retire at night tired from honest work, and notes that many corporations exhibit sociopathic behavior?

That would be Robert Leo Heilman, the author from rural Oregon I interviewed recently on the phone. I see him as Oregon’s best writer, the one who doesn’t just have mastery of the English language but whose real-life storytelling fulfills that highest capacity of art: the power to transform us.

For example,  I’d dare to say that his award-winning book Overstory: Zero: Real Life In Timber Country made me a wiser person. Many books in my life have entertained me, and a number have educated me with good information. But not many were deeply true enough to impart some wisdom and actually expand me. (I write about a few of the others in Books I Love).

Mr. Heilman on family relationships: I have lots of extended family. I notice that having lots of family forces certain disciplines on us, and these disciplines are generally good. We have to share, and go out of our way for other family members. It’s a ‘conspiracy of caring’ and conspirators have to go above and beyond the normal efforts for the sake of family. How do you then extend that caring out to society at large?

Mr. Heilman on laboring, college and reading: I like physical work, I like working with my hands.  I’ve always believed a person should go to bed tired at the end of the day. I like accomplishing something I can see. And they won’t hire you for other work without a college degree. I got married at 18; my wife was then 16. College was just never an option for me . . . . I’ve read thousands of books, though. I guess you’d call me an autodidact.

Mr. Heilman gave me permission to print the following excerpt from his in-progress essay With A Human Face. The second-to-last paragraph is an example of how his writing fulfills that capacity of art to transform us.

On the last of my nights out on that ramp the big kid stepped through the door and surveyed the crowd with an amused expression. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

We glanced at each other, our sullen indifferent masks torn for a moment and then, our expressions more opaque than ever, turned to look at him standing there above us, blocking the doorway.

“I sure hope you’re hungry,” he went on, his mouth twisting into a grin, “because if you ain’t hungry tonight you ain’t workin’.”

And what were we to say? It was self-evident that we were all desperate for work. Did he even want us to reply? The routine was broken, our roles somehow changed, our unspoken need now out there in the naked industrial light for God and everybody to see. Was this some sort of trick, a challenge perhaps, or was he merely toying with us like a child pulling the wings from a fly? What did it mean?

No one responded.

A brief look of mixed panic and doubt crossed his face for moment, as though he feared that some perverse secret longing had been revealed. Somewhere in his soul, somehow, he must have felt a pang of shame. And then his face hardened to match ours.

“Are you hungry?” he asked again-a demand this time and not a question, “Everybody who’s hungry raise your hands. Come on, raise ‘em up! I want to see who’s really hungry here tonight.”

No one moved. A few turned to their neighbors and softly translated his words into Spanish.

The punk deserved a beating.

But we were no longer simply men. We were our families also. We were the need of our wives and children who did not witness our shame, but who waited at home counting on us to provide what this young bully’s nod could either allow us or withhold-a chance to earn our daily bread. We’d come, night after night, to try and salvage a little of the pride we’d already lost. We had only the thinnest illusion of pride, and now even this small luxury must be surrendered if those we loved were to survive.

One-by-one we all averted our eyes and raised our hands like docile schoolchildren asking our teacher’s permission to go to the restroom. He smiled then, pleased with himself, chose a half-dozen laborers from among us and walked back through the door without another word.

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