Tribute to James D. Doss

My favorite author, James D. Doss, died last year. He influenced me as writer of what I call mystical mysteries, where the ordinary and the spiritual meet, though I do not attempt to write like Doss. No one else could.

I’m about to read his final book, Old Gray Wolf. In the second to last one Charlie was thinking, and not thinking, about marrying Patsy. Sarah was hoping he wouldn’t. Officer Alicia Martin was taking an intersted look at Scott Parris—who didn’t seem to notice. With Daisy being the oldest living member of the Southern Ute tribe, Sarah in college and also trained, somewhat, as Daisy’s shaman’s apprentice—will Sarah inherit all the spirits in the canyon, and the pitukupf?  I’m curious how much of this Doss resolved in this last book. I wonder if there were more books in his mind when he left this world.

What I love about Doss’s books:

  1. Characters. Complex and eccentric, they surprise the reader. I love the ongoing characters and the unique, colorful people introduced in each of the seventeen books. My favorite one-book character is six year old Butter Flye in The Night Visitor. Doss wrote child characters with unsentimental realism and humor. Butter is tough and strange and yet likeable, and I have never laughed louder or longer reading any book, let alone a mystery, than I did when I read the encounter between Daisy and Butter in the back seat of a truck. Sarah as child was mystical and kind of serious, and just as real.
  2. Spirituality. The visionary experiences that Daisy and Sarah have are beautifully written. I feel as if I’ve taken the shaman’s journey with them. This spirit world is integrated seamlessly into an earthy reality and humor that says Doss understood this aspect of Indian culture. The sacred and the funny are not opposite or incompatible. He mixed Catholic mysticism into the books as well, with beauty and sensitivity, another Southwest truth. Many people adhere to both Native religions and Catholicism at the same time. My favorite character for expressing that is Nahum Yacitii, the old shepherd who apparently ascended to heaven in a windstorm.
  3. Beautiful language. I read a Doss book and I am in the place. When he takes us for walk in the canyon with Daisy, I hear every step, smell the place, and feel the air. Even the description of the nervous jerky second hand of a ticking clock could be marvel of observation. (I leave you to find this treasure, also in The Night Visitor.)
  4. Mastery of the Omniscient Narrator. Most writers can’t pull this off, but Doss could show us the thoughts of every character in a scene without causing the slightest confusion or disorientation in the reader, often to humorous effect. He could even use the point of view of an animal—a bird, or prairie dog—as the only witness to an event, and make it work.
  5. The masculine company. Charlie often fails to understand the women around him, but he does it so sincerely I like him for it. The friendship and repartee between Charlie and Scott give me a sense of hanging out with the guys in a way a woman doesn’t often get a chance to in real life.
  6. The cowboy tall-tale quality of certain scenes, and the tall tales Charlie tells just for the fun of it.

A blessed journey to you, James D. Doss. The West is little less wild without you. I’m putting off opening that final book, knowing it’s the last, and yet I can’t wait. If your spirit is inclined to drop by and inspire a fellow New Mexican whose books also cross between the worlds, I would be honored, and no doubt highly entertained.

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