A song full of exultant power

I finished “Angle of Repose” last night.  What a truly marvelous book. Beautiful, upsetting, honest, and all wrapped in a story that feels as real as water.  But the passage I reread three times before going to bed is this one.  It is of a diesel truck climbing up into the mountains, and the effort it makes is meant to describe the arc of a life.

Then I heard a diesel coming on the freeway, taking a full-tilt run at the hill.  In my mind I could see it charging up that empty highway like Malory’s Blatant Beast, its engine snorting and bellowing, its lights glaring off into dark trees and picking up the curve of white lines, a blue cone of flame riding six inches above its exhaust stack, its song full of exultant power.  I listened to it and felt the little hairs on the back of my neck, tickling me where my head met the pillow.

Then the inevitable. The song of power weakened by an almost imperceptible amount, and no sooner had that sound of effort come into it than the tone changed, went down a full third, as the driver shifted. Still powerful, still resistless, the thing came bellowing on, and then its tone dropped again, and almost immediately a third time. Something was out of it already; confidence was out of it. I could imagine the driver, a midget up in the dim cab, intent over his web of gears, three sticks of them, watching the speedometer and the steepening road and the cone of fire above his stack, and tilting his ear to the moment when the triumphant howl of his beast began to waver or shrink. Then the foot, the hand, and for a few seconds, a half minute, the confident song of power again, but lower, deeper, less excited and more determined.  Down again where the grade stiffened past Grass Valley, and then down, down, down, three different tones, and finally there it was at the dutiful bass growl that would take it all the way over the range, and even that receding, losing itself among the pines.


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