Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of those wonderful, lyrical books that you pick up meaning to just read a few pages at a shot and in a remarkably short time realize you've read the entire thing.  Granted, it is a small book -- the edition I read was perhaps 145 pages in length -- but it's also extremely well-written.  It flows

The premise of the book struck me as rather odd before I began reading.  Five people are crossing an old Inca-built bridge in the Spanish colony of Peru, the bridge fails, and they fall to their death.  A monk, Brother Juniper, decides to explore their lives.  He's convinced there must be a reason, that there should be a way to calculate scientifically why God decides some people live while others die.  He wants to work out a mathematical formula that will both explain God's will and prove God's existence.  He refuses to believe it was simply bad luck, chance, random coincidence that put those five people on the bridge when it broke.   

The narrator, the omniscient author's voice, then notes that although the monk invested tremendous amounts of time, accumulated hundreds of pages of notes, and eventually wrote an enormous book describing the victims' lives, he didn't get it right.  There were things about all five that were known only to themselves, and, of course, to the omniscient author telling us their stories. 

Wilder naturally invests more pages of narration for some characters than others.  The eccentric elderly female aristocrat has a lot more back story to explore than the adolescent orphan girl who had been raised in a convent, for example.  In the end, though, they all walk out on to the bridge and die.  What they have in common is something that can't be reduced to a rational calculus -- their humanity, and the love and memories of those who survive them.  We may never truly know what another person is thinking or believing, but we can all love. 

The book does have some structural flaws.  The chronology (continuity?) seems off in places, but that's a minor quibble.  Overall, this is a lovely book:  beautifully written with layers of meaning and with absolutely no wasted words.   

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer in 1928.  Next up?  Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, a book and an author I'd never heard of until I began reading the prize winners.  I have a sinking, vaguely apprehensive feeling that it's not going to be nearly as good as Wilder's work.


  1. I've heard about him for many years of course. But don't recall reading any of his works. I don't have the time to read every damn book on this rock and I tend to stick to nonfiction.

    Of course I don't know if he wrote fiction or nonfiction. And don't give me that spin about fiction being, whatever they say about it, slips my mind at the moment.

    Some of it becomes true, some of it doesn't, it's all a crap shoot. That's life on this planet, a crap shoot.

    I left another comment in the post below also. Defend fat people if you like but I've seen too many of them that simply lived to eat and never contributed anything to society at large.

    And then want you to help save them because they spent all their money on food. Go ahead if you like, I don't feel like it when they don't give a crap if 30 thousand women and children die a day of starvation as long as they have something to eat, that's just really self centered.

    The fat gene ran in my family also, that doesn't mean that all of us allowed it to control us.

    I used to eat like a pig, but I also worked hard at manual jobs and worked it off and always stayed trim.

    Will staying trim kill me? Something is damn sure going to kill me. But I can still ace the tests at the hospital.

    Sure, they save a lot of fat people, doctors are scientists, they have an interest in those things, they'll try to save anyone.

    And one day they will weed out the fat gene and other factors that cause monkeys to get fat.

    Then the only excuse the only reason a monkey will have for getting fat is because they eat too much.

    You ever ask a fat monkey to share some of its meal with a starving monkey?

    I cooked a friendship dinner at a church on Fridays for a hundred monkeys for two years, believe me, the fat monkeys didn't care about anyone but themselves and came back for seconds and thirds, as if it was owed to them.

    Fucking bottom feeders.

  2. Wilder wrote fiction. He's probably best remembered today for the play "Our Town." I alternate between fiction and nonfiction -- right now I'm reading "Why Evolution is True," a really thorough explanation of evolutionary theory and its supporting evidence that was published recently. It's a fascinating book with all sorts of intriguing biological facts I hadn't stumbled across before.

    I cut most people quite a bit of slack -- I figure I don't know their history (mental, physical, financial, whatever) or what might or might not have put them where they are now so most of the time I'm not going to get judgemental or tell someone else how to lead his or her life. And life is far too short to waste time or energy on hating anyone.

  3. Hi, Nan,

    Julia Peterkin's daughter lives a few miles from my house, which is also close to where the story is set: the Waccamaw Neck in Georgetown County, SC.

    It will be very different from the Wilder, no doubt about that. Not as good? I don't think you'll wish you'd never heard of it. Peterkin's Wikipedia page makes me believe we would have liked her. She was a bit ahead of her time, it would seem.

    She (JP) was also very active in collecting life histories for the Federal Writers' Project in the 30's.

    I enjoy your blog, and wish you lots more happy reading.

    'Sandy Lapper'

  4. its going on my book list right now! Thanks for the great review

  5. I just read this, having signed up for LegalMist's Pulitzer reading project. Wonderful little book.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.