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Read West, Young Man! (Fiction)

August 7, 2015

My wife and I recently went on a trip through Montana, Arizona, and southern California. The following are some books I read or thought about while either on the trip or in preparation for it:

Image is on loan from NPR. 
Short Stories

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (2015)

Saw this book on a table at Missoula’s Fact & Fiction, picked it up, and read it on a flight from San Diego to Dallas and then Dallas to Washington. The epigraph that triggers this short story collection is Mark Twain’s humorous claim that “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired,” and Urrea maintains this tragic sense of comedy throughout the book’s thirteen stories.

He unfolds the American West and Mexican North like a road map, traveling his characters’ veins and synapses as if they were highways. The constants in every story are that neither the Western setting nor the roles of its players are set in stone. The land was a sea. The land is fertile. The land is a highway. The land gives way to drought. The people live. They prosper. They go into debt. They move. They survive. They die. Customs and borders are porous, and the West that we have known is not the West that will always be.

Possibly the best all-around book I’ve read this year.

American Masculine by Shann Ray (2011)

This collection of short stories was published by Graywolf Press four years ago as the winner of The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Prize. The blurbs on the book jacket and elsewhere compare Ray’s handling of the Western genre with Cormac McCarthy’s texts, and the collection’s early stories, especially “The Great Divide,” are evident of McCarthy’s literary shadow. However, the stories also echo the styles of Sherman Alexie’s and Dennis Johnson, specifically Alexie’s early short stories and Johnson’s Train Dreams (2011). 

But I’m not sure either Alexie or Johnson have written anything so heart wrenching in its pleas for redemptive healing as the tales told of the family in “Three from Montana” and “When We Rise.” If you have a sibling, a love for snowfall or basketball, a fondness for open spaces and dark highways, then these two stories will make a nest inside you.

Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy (2010)

Like American Masculine, this collection was also published by Graywolf Press. However, unlike Ray’s collection these stories (at least for me) lack a particular energy that forces the reader from one story to the next. But I don’t think this trait is a particular fault in Hagy’s writing. Her West just isn’t the West of either Ray or Urrea. As she writes towards the end of “Lost Boys”: “this is the voice of a humble person” (127).


The Carrion Birds by Urban Waite (2013)

When I thought my final grad project would be on depictions of drug violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, I picked up Waite’s second novel. His first paragraph description of the desert at night contains all of the Cormac McCarthy buzzwords, but reading Waite is probably more akin to picking up John Brandon’s Arkansas (2009). The McCarthy shadow is present due to the crime noir genre, but Waite, like Brandon, slowly crawls out from it, words in hand, looking at a desert all his own. The protagonist, Ray, is reluctant. His past haunts him. Then it hounds him. The results are a bloody trail across the sweeping desert and dirty streets of a town that went bankrupt a long time ago drilling for oil.

Orange you glad it's not a banana?
Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita by Karen Tei Yamashita (1997)

Yamashita begins south of the border between the United States and Mexico with an angelic housekeeper, a child named Sol, and an orange. The scene is both contemporary and mythic. Then she bestows the orange with transformative powers, rendering the thread running through the orange’s pulpy center the border, which, in turn, renders the border portable. Order and stillness give way to chaos and movement, and Yamashita’s head-hopping journey that transcends the region’s genres and melts down its cultural customs into a prophetic soup.

Moreover, she is an inspiring writer because she will attempt anything. She is a fearless writer because her zaniness is ripe with political bite. She is a writer every bit as unique and powerful as Urrea in her ability to disperse the notion of a gravitational U.S., and she does so with her own quirky sense of devilish humor. 

The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (1992, 1994, 1998)

Yeah, I should probably mention Blood Meridian (1985) too, but reading the Border Trilogy (along with McCarthy’s first Western novel) changes how one sees not only the West but the shape and delineation of time. Of course, to see how McCarthy crafts the Earth as a spiritual vessel through which all life passes with impermanence requires reading at least two of the trilogy’s installments. My personal favorite is the second novel of the three, The Crossing. Billy Parham’s journeys to and from Mexico are a journey into weeping and wisdom. The beauty of the trilogy’s last book, Cities of the Plain, is how in the meeting of the earlier protagonists, John Grady Cole and Parham, so much is left unsaid. In a manner of speaking, the first two books allow the reader to approach the third novel as an omnipotent but helpless god. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a journey in pages quite like this one. Truly.

The Devil in Texas by Aristeo Brito (translated in 1990)

Reading Brito’s novel, which was written decades prior to being translated into English in 1990, opened up the amount of pre-Columbian mythology that survives in McCarthy’s novels. The reason for that is how Brito depicts a small town in Texas as a place with a missing limb, having been hefted from Mexico by the nation’s defeat to the United States in the Mexican-American War. The residue of this missing limb rises from the cooked soil via the long lost voices of its Native and Spanish speakers. The novel spans almost eighty years in just over 200 pages, which is a rather remarkable feat. Filled with both spirits and history, the novel exemplifies the difficulty of separating the magic from the real when attempting to depict the border’s lived experiences.

Pedro Pàramo by Juan Rulfo (1955)

Rulfo, a Mexican writer, is oft credited for inventing magical realism in form if not in label. Both Brito and McCarthy craft burned landscapes according to the dry beauty of Rulfo’s Mexico. His ghosts of the Mexican Revolution are McCarthy’s witnesses in The Crossing. To read the American West is to eventually enter into the Mexican North, which is to find one’s self at the feet of Rulfo’s sandy sea and the past entire.

Nonfiction books to possibly follow sometime next week. Bryan Harvey tweets with some frequency @LawnChairBoys


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