Writing non-fiction can be a lonely business. Generally, readers see only the finished product. They have no way of knowing what it was like to find the evidence and make something of it. Yes, there are footnotes, but they usually don’t bring to mind the excitement of finding lost words on old musty paper. The reader has most likely never been to that particular archive room, asked for that particular cardboard box, and lifted out that particular folder that holds within it the answer to a burning question that has plagued the writer for a long time.
This brings me, belatedly, to the exception to that rule.
Susan Orlean was kind enough to send me an Advance Reader’s Edition of her new book, Rin-Tin-Tin: The Life and the Legend. When it came, I read it through in one sitting, something I rarely do these days. I was impressed by the way she wove the narratives of the characters in the Rin-Tin-Tins’ lives, cultural history, and her personal reactions together, tying them into the themes of abandonment/obsession and the drive toward immortality. For instance, she takes her readers with her to a creepy part of Los Angeles, where, in a storage unit, using a flashlight, she finds Bert Leonard’s papers. (Bert Leonard was the producer of The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin.) She tells what it was like to be in that lonely part of town, but at the same time she lets us know how important those records are to the story she is telling and that story’s implications. To go seemingly effortlessly from a description of a personal experience, with all its singular sensory details – the light in the room, the slight feeling of fear – to the abstraction of the experience’s meaning is something most of us writers dream of doing. It is not easy, but she makes it look easy.
When I was first working on my own book about Rin-Tin-Tin (the first one, who died in 1932), stoked by my experiences in the Rin-Tin-Tin Collection, I mentioned to my writer friends that I would like to write the book as a researcher detective – it would tell the story of my reactions to what I found and how the “real” story of Rin-Tin-Tin slowly came together for me. They all nixed the idea. They were right — when I tried to do it, I kept driving my mind into cul de sacs and coming up against a brick wall. So I wrote the story relatively straight, as a historian, but sneaked in little observations about my own German shepherd, Louis.
My excitement at reading Susan’s book came a good deal from her ability to involve the reader in the excitement of her discoveries. But it was, for me, far more. It’s the first time I’ve read what someone else has written about the documents I myself have used. What a trip – and privilege – it was, like looking over her shoulder, knowing exactly what she was looking at, then finding out what she thought about it. Sometimes I felt like an intellectual voyeur. When I read what she says about the manuscript Lee Duncan, Rin-Tin-Tin’s owner and trainer, wrote a year or so after Rin-Tin-Tin’s death, I remembered, like her, picking up those folders numbered 31 to 33 from the sturdy cardboard box (Box Eight) in the sunny room of the temporary archive (a warehouse) in Riverside. In those folders is a manuscript of more than 100 typewritten pages called Mr Duncan’s Notes. It’s a find, recording what Duncan felt about being placed in an orphanage, losing his first pet, joining the 135th Aero Squadron in World War I, finding Rin-Tin-Tin in France after a battle, and taking him on his incredible movie career. I photographed every one of the pages. One was torn at the edges. There were a couple of marginal notes. I remember coming out of the archive into the archive’s parking lot, empty except for a car or two and the one truck, getting into my impossibly hot car, and eating a banana that had ripened three days worth after several hours in the inland California heat – all the time thinking of the immense importance of that manuscript. (Had I not read Susan’s description of the parking lot and its tacky asphalt, I would not have written the sentence above.)
Often Susan and I chose the same quotations from the documents, which is not so surprising when you realize those are the quotations that matter. After reading what Duncan says about the puppies (Rin-Tin-Tin had a sister), “They had crept right into a lonesome place in my life and had become part of me,” how could you not quote him? Often we both went off on the same tangents (like the position of German shepherds in the culture of the 1910s and 1920s), also not so surprising. I suspect that we both rejected tangents because they were just too – tangential. When our tangents were different, it was often because we had different objectives. In discussing World War I, I concentrated more on the difference between aviators (above it all) and soldiers (on the ground in the muddy trenches) to point up why Duncan chose to present himself as a lieutenant and flyer when he was not. Susan also discusses this, but the centerpiece of her chapter about World War I is her moving description of the visit she made to the cemetery in St. Mihiel where American soldiers from the battle are buried. It fits her general theme of death and immortality. Now I want to go visit the cemetery myself, knowing I will react to it differently but also see it through her eyes. Her experience would shadow and enrich mine, in somewhat the same way van Gogh’s paintings of cypresses forever influence how I see those twisted, agonized-looking trees.