American West

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle--adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early '80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

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Book Club Redeemed: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve disliked, vigorously, most of the titles our book club has selected in recent months. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from this sentence on, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya,babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis that same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section that prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up with these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life. Outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc takes between April 1878 and April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves a subplot into the narrative—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the same day a sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph, will be released early 2015: Epitaph update: bad news, good news And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it.

Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.

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Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On two successive nights this week I woke suddenly, yelling out in fright. In my dreams I was moments away from becoming the victim of a horrific assault. Shaken, I turned on the light, shifting uncomfortably in sheets soaked in my sweat, and I reached for The Round House. Louise Erdrich’s profound novel haunted my dreams and moved me to tears and laughter in my waking hours.

Geraldine Coutts, an Ojibwe living on a reservation in North Dakota, doesn’t escape from her nightmare. On a gentle spring Sunday in 1988 her thirteen year old son Joe and her husband Bazil, a tribal judge, peel her fingers from the steering wheel of her car and speed her unyielding body to the hospital. The front of her shirt is covered in vomit and she reeks of gasoline. Raped and nearly burned alive, Geraldine escaped when her captor went in search of matches.

Geraldine’s physical wounds heal in time, but the spirit of this proud, vibrant woman is crushed. She tumbles into depression, refusing to leave her bedroom, barely eating, escaping her terror through the false protection of sleep. The Round House opens with this crime and it becomes the incident which ushers Joe, the novel’s narrator, out of the smooth waters of his childhood into the murky depths of maturity.

The Round House is more than a coming-of-age story. The novel has many layers, each beautifully rendered in language that is so pure it belies the complex themes. The search for Geraldine’s attacker propels the narrative and in this, it is a tense literary thriller. It is an exploration of tribal law and the protracted effort by the federal government to chip away at Native American sovereignty. Tribal political and judicial limbo is a chord that resonates throughout Erdich’s works, yet when told through the perspective of a child it becomes the character’s discovery of his legacy and not the political agenda of the author. It is a novel rich with history, mythology and adventure.

But more than these themes, this is a novel of family. The tight union of Bazil, Geraldine and Joe forms the familial core. Erdrich’s portrait of a strong woman collapsing dug so deeply under my skin – this cold reality was the source of my nightmares. But the ways a husband and a son respond to the woman they love as she falls apart, how hard they work to lift her up and save her, are heartfelt and poignant. Erdrich captures each character’s emotions and reactions in vivid and graceful detail.

The theme of family extends through the tribal community. Erdrich reveals daily life on a reservation. She shows us what we think we know: the poverty and alcoholism on the inside, the marginalization and racism from the outside. But she also conveys a sense of community that few of us will ever experience, no matter how idyllic our childhood. Within the tribe everyone belongs to everyone else – the definition of family is not limited to blood relations. The communal responsibility demonstrates a solid foundation built on shared history and beliefs.

Despite the violent crime that churns the plot, there many moments of levity and sweetness in The Round House. The novel’s comic foil is Mooshom, Joe’s ancestor and tribal elder. And I do mean elder. He’s entering his second century as salty as a sailor and with libido to spare. The many scenes Joe shares with his besties Cappy, Angus and Zack are ripe with thirteen year old boy hormones, antics and tenderness.

I can’t sing loudly enough my praises for The Round House. I also can’t believe this is the first Louise Erdrich novel I’ve read. It has been a year of celebrated-American author discoveries for me: Terry Tempest Williams, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, not to mention the astonishing debut of Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist). That they are each deeply connected to the American West is significant to me as a reader. Through their words I have developed a deeper understanding, love and compassion for my enormous and complex backyard.

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Book Review: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They passed through a highland meadow carpeted with wildflowers, acres of golden groundsel and zinnia and deep purple gentian and wild vines of blue morninglory and a vast plain of varied small blooms reaching onward like a gingham print to the farthest serried rimlands blue with haze and the adamantine ranges rising of out nothing like the backs of seabeasts in a Devonian dawn.

I read this and I marvel. How does one writer, equipped with the same words, the same semantic possibilities as any, know to string these particular words together in just this way, paragraph after paragraph, page after page? My copy of Cormac McCarthy's 1985 classic Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is mauled by dog-eared pages and inked underlines as I seek to capture and remember his revelatory images of the borderlands of the Southwest and the astonishing employ of English that feels primordial under his pen.

Once again, Cormac McCarthy tears me apart, digs at the darkest corners of despair and depravity in my mind, poking and prodding with a sharp stick as I wince and try to turn away. Yet unlike The Road, a black and white dystopian nightmare which offers redemption through the steadfast love of its principal characters, Blood Meridian is merciless Technicolor nihilism. Each character explores the vast possibilities of evil as McCarthy pulls the reader through the reeking entrails of history.

They found the lost scouts hanging head downward from the limbs of a fireblacked paloverde tree. They were skewered through the cords of their heels with sharpened shuttles of green wood and they hung gray and naked above the dead ashes of the coals where they’d been roasted until their heads had charred and the brains bubbled in the skulls and steam sang from their noseholes. Their tongues were drawn out and held with sharpened sticks thrust through them and they had been docked of their ears and their torsos were sliced open with flints until the entrails hung down their chests.

Blood Meridian is based on historical accounts of the Glanton Gang, a band of mercenaries that roamed the Texas-Mexico borderland in the mid-19th century, trading scalps for gold. Their initial objective was the pursuit of hostile Indian warriors who reigned by terror throughout the Borderlands. Eventually the crew of ex-soldiers, escaped slaves, convicts, marginalized immigrants, disenfranchised Indians and plain old thugs extended their quest for carnage to peaceful, agrarian Mexicans and Native Americans on both sides of the still-disputed border.

To read three hundred and fifty pages of unrelenting brutality, I have to give myself up to the prose, which is beautiful and original beyond compare, and to what I think the author sought to accomplish with his symphony of violence. I believe McCarthy offers the absolute opposite of the glorification of violence – he depicts horror to force the acknowledgment of it. His stories are blood-curdling pleas to recognize that we – as a nation, as a measure of humanity - are built on the back of history’s corpses. He decries the chest-thumping patriotism that is endemic to nations which claim moral superiority, generally by citing some sort of divine right. Scholar Sara Spurgeon in a critical essay of Blood Meridian (“The Sacred Hunter and the Eucharist of the Wilderness: Mythic Reconstructions in Blood Meridian”) declares the novel a “a sort of antimyth of the West.” There are no good guys in McCarthy’s depiction of the American West: there are only amoral murderers and the victims of their bloodlust. “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn.” Cunning words, spoken by a character who is the book’s Satan incarnate, its maniacal resident philosopher.

The danger of a book like this is that the reader must detach to make it through the gore. In comparison to The Road, where humility and love are present on every page and you have a sense the writer is suffering and weeping with you, the substance of Blood Meridian risks being subsumed by its intense and unrelenting style.

But without question Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is yet another McCarthy entry in the canon of Great North American Literature.

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