Column: Jon Land keeps on keepin' on
By Jim Rosenberg
This past August Jon Land published his 34th novel, “Strong Rain Falling” (Forge), the fifth in his Caitlin Strong series.
The cast of characters has returned: Along with Caitlin Strong, the brash 30-something Texas Ranger, the reader is reintroduced to her lover, Cort Wesley Masters, his teenage sons Dylan and Luke, Guillermo Paz, the 7-foot ruffian with a sometimes heart of gold, and the ghost of the old man Leroy Epps. Whether “real” or a figment of Cort Wesley’s imagination, Epps manages to turn up at just the right time.
As readers of Land have come to expect, “Strong Rain Falling” is fast-paced, plot-driven, and jumps back and forth in time and place in the manner of cinematic cross-cutting. A prologue, epilogue, and 107 brief chapters are packed within 360 pages. Those readers expecting a story with as many strands as a bowl of spaghetti, unrelenting suspense, the withholding of crucial bits of information to the very last minute will not be disappointed.
While most of the convoluted story involving drug running and an ingenious plot to destroy America unfolds in Texas and Mexico, five of the first seven short chapters take place in Providence — a welcome bit of local Rhode Island flavor.
Although Land is best known for his page-turner jet propulsion plots, he is capable of quieter, more reflective descriptive writing. One example shall suffice: “The airborne route was a straight line over what to a great extent was a scrub-riddled wasteland dotted by the shells of towns along the Mexican border that had died when the water dried up and the modern world seemed to forget them. It was like an alley of emptiness and despair roasting in the sun, lifeless save for prairie dogs, mule deer, grazing pronghorn antelope, and small piglike animals called javelinas that thrived amid the brush of this semiarid desert.”
In “Strong Rain Falling” Land temporarily changes both pace and tone by creating such belly-laugh comic scenes as when Guillermo Paz audits a college philosophy class on Schopenhauer in San Antonio; the imposing seven-footer, much to the delight of the young and rebellious students, winds up berating the terrified professor for basing his shallow lecture on an entry in Wikepedia.
Land also demonstrates his talent for writing some sharp and sassy dialogue, as when an imperious bureaucrat named Jones, with shadowy connections to the Department of Homeland Security, puts this question to Caitlin: “What’s the lowest of the low when it comes to Ranger duties?”
“Dealing with you,” said Caitlin.
On Aug. 6 I sat down with Land in order to find out how he manages to keep on keepin’ on, how he is able to generate story after story, plot complication after plot complication without coming up dry. Not only has Land written 34 novels, but he has also published some non-fiction as well.
Among the many insights he shared concerning the craft of story-telling, Land told me that successful plotting requires periodic ups and downs in the action suggestive of a trigonometric sine curve.
While his stories have rapid turns in the action, keeping the reader on edge, the sine curve of his characters, their ups and downs, needs to be “softer, subtler” and to oscillate less frequently. He stressed that what is essential in the development of his characters is that each one responds to external stimuli in his or her unique way.
Land was up front about being a “commercial” novelist as opposed to a “literary” novelist; he writes to sell books. He added that while all stories involve a “quest” of some kind, commercial novels tend to involve a tangible, physical quest — catching the criminal, preventing the bomb from going off. By way of contrast, in the literary novel the hero is more likely to engage in a metaphysical quest, something less tangible — achieving heightened self-awareness, wrestling to uncover some more profound truth about how the world works. As a result literary novels tend to be slower paced, their characters more carefully and completely developed.
In commenting more specifically about how he is able to keep on coming up with new plots, new stories to engage his readers, Land told me, “It’s always on…my subconscious has worked out things that my consciousness has no idea about.”
I was particularly impressed when Land confessed that “books come with some assembly required.” He went on to say that the writer needs to recognize that he’s got a piece missing; “you stop and say, ‘I don’t have what I need.’”
“Strong Rain Falling” is a book that requires no further assembling; no pieces are missing. Jon Land has managed to combine all the parts into a compelling story that will carry his readers on a most satisfying roller-coaster adventure.