Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Character sketch in reverse

A book of essays on sports by David Halberstam includes a piece he wrote in 2002 about getting an interview with Ted Williams, legendary as a hitter, fighter pilot in WW2 and fisherman, and for a loud, profane, over-the-top personality.

To capture Williams' character, you might craft the piece around it, for example, using description, word choice, tone and all those tools to give the whole piece the feel of being of Williams; or you might devote a couple of strong grafs near the top to a character sketch and let Williams' dialogue and actions flesh it out.

But in this piece, Halberstam does something fantastic: By careful use of the language and of sentence construction, he creates a formal, reserved, almost high-society world that Williams then crashes into without grace or finesse. Williams is the bull; the story is Halberstam's china shop. It's characterization in reverse.

An example:

My appointment with Mr. Theodore Williams of the Islamorada, Fla., Williams family had been agreed on well in advance, though we had not yet talked to each other. That is normal in matters of this gravity, and our earlier arrangements had been conducted through intermediaries.
My representative had been Mr. Robert M. Knight of Bloomington, Ind., who, in addition to being my occasional appointments secretary, is coach to the Indiana University basketball team. Mr. Knight, on occasion, has had troubles with members of the press himself, and was almost as celebrated as Mr. Williams in this regard. ....
I arrived well in advance at the motel where Mr. Williams would call on me, and I was told he would come by at eight the next morning to summon me to our meeting. The motel itself was not exactly memorable. Simpler America, vintage 1950s southern Florida, I would say, if architecture were my specialty, which it is not. But I do remember that the cost of it for the night was roughly what the cost of orange juice is at a hotel in the city in which I live, New York.
At exactly 8 o'clock in the morning there was an extremely loud knock on my door. I answered it, and there was Mr. Williams, and he looked me over critically and then announced, ''You look just like your goddamn pictures.''

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