I was eighteen in 1974 when I picked up my now-wife, Cathy, for our first date. It was the era of 8-track tape players in cars, and I had a Craig in my Plymouth Duster. The tape I played that night, as I drove to the Avalon Theater, was Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. Its best known tracks were “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock.” I was particularly fond of the latter, and am to this day. Cathy doesn’t remember any of this, but trust me, it’s true. I told her as much today when we were driving to an AMC theater to see the Elton John biopic, Rocketman. “How do you remember that?” she wanted to know. “I just do,” I said.
When it comes to writing, the small details count. A Craig car stereo, an Elton John 8-track, a Plymouth Duster, “Crocodile Rock,” the Avalon Theater. I’ve named the details as specifically as I can. Each one of them takes me back to that March night—a Friday—and a freshly washed car, and a girl with brown hair and blue eyes, wearing Love’s Baby Soft perfume.
Time steals memory from us as we age, and for that reason alone the precise naming of details, whether in fiction or in nonfiction, becomes an important task of subversion. By naming the particulars, we resist the erosion of time. We also exert the individual life, whether we’re referring to characters in a piece of fiction, people in a piece of nonfiction, or to ourselves. With the specific details, we say, “We were here, and while we were, we mattered.”
We are, each one of us, glorious, made luminous by the particulars of our lives. Our characters should be likewise illuminated, the human life made manifest through its concrete details. Why else do we write if not to dramatize the dimensions of our living—its contradictions, its mysteries, as well as its certainties. How else do we portray the texture of life if not through its details?
I’m currently reading Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, Henry Himself. The title character is approaching his 75th birthday. His marriage to Emily has required its share of accommodations and compromises. Early in the novel, he takes her to dinner for Valentine’s Day:
For Valentine’s Day, he chose an old favorite, The Tin Angel. Perched atop Mount Washington, cantilevered out over the precipice, it offered a postcard view of the Point and a prix fixe menu featuring filet mignon and chocolate mousse.
There isn’t an ounce of the general in these two sentences. Everything is specific, from the name of the restaurant, to the Pittsburgh geography, to the menu items. As a consequence, we have no choice but to pay attention, and, when Henry and Emily step into the scene, we are easily immersed in their lives. O’Nan can take us wherever he chooses, and we’ll gladly follow.
Forty-five years ago, I took Cathy Hensley to the Avalon Theater. The movie was American Graffiti. Afterwards, we went to Mr. Drumstick in the IGA Plaza on State Street. We had Cokes, and at some point, Doug Johnstone and Jerry Brian came in and sat with us awhile, just shooting the breeze. Then Cathy and I went to Veterans’ Point at Red Hills State Park. We sat there in the dark and talked and talked until Cathy, for whatever reason, reached over and honked my horn. When she pulled her arm away, I caught it with my hand and brought her close and kissed her. Then it was time to drive her home. How many times had a similar scene played itself out with teenage couples across the globe? The particular details of that night, though, still make me feel that we were extraordinary.
Today, as the credits rolled after Rocketman, Cathy and I got up from our seats, legs and backs stiff from having sat there so long. No longer teenagers, we grabbed the handrail and made our way down the steps. The soundtrack was playing the Elton John and Kiki Dee duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” and as we hit level ground and began our way down the broad aisle to the exit, we began to sing. We were holding hands, and I started to twirl her. Even though we couldn’t quite manage the coordination, the desire and the intent were there. I write it now so in the years to come, someone might know there was a Sunday afternoon in June in Grove City, Ohio, when the music played and for a brief, joyful moment we denied the insistence of time.