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On March 26, 2016, Jim Harrison died at his home in Patagonia, Ariz., a final poem left unfinished on his desk.

Some writers leave too soon; others, like Harrison, depart when they’re good and ready. He had lived hard, first in Michigan and later in Montana, where his prodigious appetites combined with his love of hunting and fishing to create a persona both urbane and rugged—a sort of backwoods bon vivant. His face, rough-hewn and canny, was that of a man who had lived several lifetimes. “He was active and creative to the end, but it was time to go: No one was less-suited to assisted living,” his friend, the novelist Thomas McGuane, wrote in The New Yorker.

Although Harrison’s oeuvre encompassed screenplays, poetry, essays and food reviews—including an ode to a 37-course French lunch—he’s most renowned for his novellas. Harrison has been synonymous with the form since his 1979 masterpiece Legends of the Fall, a continent-spanning reflection on betrayal and revenge that paints a kill-or-be-killed portrait of the West. By comparison, Harrison’s last collection of novellas, The Ancient Minstrel, published just weeks before his death, has a narrower scope: It’s mostly preoccupied with pigs.

That Harrison would turn to pigs is fitting, given his own porcine qualities. This is not intended as an insult, for there’s much to admire about both pigs and Harrison: their happy hedonism, their keen intelligence, their enviable ability to be “utterly indulgent at the table.” The book’s first, and titular, novella finds Harrison—or rather his rueful, fictionalized stand-in—settled down at a Montana farm to write “a magnum version of A Thousand Acres,” sneak drinks behind the back of his sharp-eyed wife, and “fulfill his childhood dream of owning his own pig.” The gauzy plot wanders through memory and meditation, with occasional flashes of animal husbandry; it’s a pleasant and disorienting reading experience, akin to getting drunk in a field on an idle summer day. The sharpest characters are the pigs. One piglet, Marjorie, “collapsed against his body as if they were lovers. … She fluttered her eyes at him and he couldn’t help but wink.”

Anthropomorphic though Marjorie may be, pigs differ from humans in one important way: So far as we know, they can’t conceptualize their own death. Decline and demise, on the other hand, stalk Minstrel’s third and final novella, The Case of the Howling Buddhas. Although Buddhas is nominally about a Zen-like cult operating in Michigan, its real subject is Det. Sunderson, a recurring Harrison anti-hero, who, in this case, both encourages and laments the advances of a 15-year-old girl. When he’s not preoccupied with Barbara, Sunderson attempts to cope with his own mortality and decrepitude; he’s single, plagued with prostate discomfort, and, if his tryst is discovered, ticketed for incarceration. “The poignant fear was that if he went to prison at 66 years of age, he likely wouldn’t get out until age 76,” Harrison writes, “and by then, he’d probably be too weak to fish and wade swift rivers.” Lust in Harrison’s books is usually a joyous, worshipful affair; in Buddhas, however, Sunderson comes off as creepy and weak. The author’s predilection for pairing nubile Lolitas with dirty old men has never been his most appealing quality, but there’s no satisfaction in watching the noose close around the pedophile.

The best of Minstrel’s three novellas is the second, Eggs, which stars a lissome, brainy and precocious heroine named Catherine. (She’s cast from the same mold as Sarah, the star of Harrison’s 2009 novella The Farmer’s Daughter; Harrison has a knack for identifying successful archetypes.) Catherine’s saga resembles the globetrotting arc of Legends of the Fall: She spends her formative years in London during World War II with her grandparents, who live out the Blitz “in a state of relentless fear”; later, she returns to Montana to run a family farm, yearning for “the old Montana of her childhood before so many rich people moved west.” She prefers the company of chickens to men—more domestic animals!—but yearns for a baby. Her flock of hens, and their profligate egg-laying, reminds her of her childlessness. Like Harrison’s best work, Eggs effortlessly bridges decades; its delight lies in watching Catherine find, lose and find herself again in the comfort of her land. “It seemed to her that her life was accelerating in a direction she had chosen,” Harrison writes, “but at a speed she couldn’t quite emotionally encompass.”

The speed of life has now swept Jim Harrison away in its current; may we all face our ends so gracefully. Harrison is too introspective to avoid obsessing about death, but his joie de vivre is too great to permit him to wallow in it. In The Ancient Minstrel, melancholy is swiftly banished by gastronomy. “It didn’t work to try to write about sex, doom, death, time and the cosmos,” he opines, “when you were thinking about a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Ancient Minstrel

By Jim Harrison


272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

The Mexican-American border has inspired its own literary genre, unleashing a flood of poetry, reportage, nature writing, crime fiction, novels, essays and even coffee-table photo books. Together, words and pictures paint a sharp portrait of a landscape caught between delicate light and terrifying darkness.

Two recent books bring unique perspectives to this invisible slash across cultures, and to the dreams of the people who yearn to be on the other side of it.

Jason de León’s The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail is a disturbing book about an immense human tragedy. But somehow, it’s the pigs I can’t get out of my head—not just the pigs, actually, but the horrible reality of what they represent. De León buys a pig and hires someone to kill it. Shot in the head, the animal struggles mightily as the author rubs its belly, mumbling, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” The dead pig is then dressed in underwear, jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes, and dumped beneath a mesquite. The researchers step back to record, with scientific precision, exactly what happens to it over the next two weeks.

The pig represents the body of an undocumented immigrant, de León writes, part of an experiment to understand what happens to those who die and disappear in the Sonoran Desert. He repeats this violent process four more times and writes a scientific paper about it. The conclusion is stark and inevitable: The desert eats poor people. As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, de León is conducting a long-term study using the tools and methods of anthropology to understand undocumented migration between Mexico and the U.S.

A couple hundred thousand or more migrants are apprehended each year at the border. But some of those who cross into the U.S. perish in the desert thanks to “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy in which the Border Patrol clamped down on major immigration corridors to force would-be crossers into parched and dangerous lands, deputizing nature as a tool of law enforcement and sidestepping any responsibility for what happens to people out there.

Between October 2010 and September 2014, the bodies of almost 3,000 dead migrants were recovered in Southern Arizona alone. Hundreds remain unidentified. Countless others vanish entirely, consumed and scattered by animals and the elements. Those who succeed are frequently scarred—physically as well as psychologically—by the experience. Most have been subjected to rape, robbery and other unimaginable forms of cruelty, violence and suffering on the journey—all in order to take dangerous, crappy jobs no one in this country wants.

De León uses science to expose this federal policy for what it is, “a killing-machine that simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.” It has created a hugely profitable “border industrial complex” where everyone involved—lobbyists, contractors, law enforcement, private prisons, smugglers and vendors of “crossing supplies”—makes money, with the notable exception of the immigrants themselves.

A very different border tale unfolds in Linda Valdez’s thoughtful, important new memoir Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders. She has written a love story about immigration, and it is a well-crafted antidote to de León’s border-induced despair.

Valdez was an asthmatic 11-year-old middle-class German-Irish girl from Ohio’s Rust Belt when her mother brought her to Tucson seeking a desert cure. After a bumpy transition to adulthood, Valdez became a newspaper reporter. A chance trip to Mexico after a boyfriend’s suicide resulted in a storybook romance when she met the man of her dreams, Sixto Valdez.

They could not have come from more different backgrounds. He grew up in a house made of cactus ribs, mud and corrugated tin in Sinaloa. He was kind, decent, a rock-solid partner. But as a poor Mexican man, he couldn’t get a visa. So one day in 1988, he simply popped through a hole in the fence and safely reached the other side. It was, of course, a very different border in those days than the one so painfully documented in de León’s book.

Later, after Sixto finally received his papers, the couple returned to Sinaloa to visit his family. Valdez describes a luminous day at the beach: “Right now, in the water, in the sun, there was only this moment—and it would remain warm and joyful years later, even in the dark of winter, even when getting along was hard work instead of child’s play.

“We sparkled in the water. Sea jewels.”

The book describes Sixto’s crossing, their marriage, their families, the challenges of dealing with immigration bureaucracy and how they created a happy bicultural life together on both sides of the border. Sixto eventually earned a master’s degree and became a teacher.

Valdez, now an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written a humane cross-cultural odyssey of love, family, commitment and devotion that revels in the tenacity of the human spirit.

These books show us two opposing realities of the border: Where Valdez celebrates life, de León’s work is mired in death. He graphically bears witness that not everyone makes it, and that even for those who do, the fairy-tale ending all too often is a desert mirage.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

By Jason de León

University of California Press

384 pages, $29.95

Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders

By Linda Valdez

Texas Christian University Press

192 pages, $22.95

Published in Literature

It’s hard to believe that more than 25 years have passed since Western writer and fierce conservationist Edward Abbey died, on March 14, 1989. Several recent books take a clear look at his legacy, and though all three emphasize the continued relevance of Abbey’s environmental ideas, none of them shy away from acknowledging his difficult views on other topics—particularly women and minorities.

All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, by essayist David Gessner, is an effective combination of travelogue, biography and memoir. The author examines the work of these two influential writers in an attempt to imagine what they might have to say to Westerners today, when fracking, fire and climate change increasingly pose risks to the landscapes they loved.

Gessner drives from his own home in North Carolina to places that were formative to both authors’ lives—from Home, Penn., where Abbey was raised, and Arches National Park, where he worked a season as a ranger, to Stegner’s childhood home in Canada and his father’s grave in Utah. Gessner concludes that Stegner’s realism and concern for sharing resources are even more important today, while Abbey’s influence continues to endure: “Because Abbey is no longer just a writer whose books you read; he is a literary cult figure who has followers.” Abbey’s monkey-wrenching philosophy still inspires environmental activists, and Gessner suggests that if the author were alive today, he’d likely be in jail for ecoterrorism.

Sean Prentiss’ debut, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, is the most personal of the three books. Although all of them seek to decipher the man and the icon, Prentiss’ memoir looks to Abbey’s life and writings for posthumous advice—not just on how to save the environment, but on how to find a life that is wild and meaningful.

Prentiss begins the book in a personal slump, stuck in a town and a job that don’t suit him, and he spends the next two years visiting locations where Abbey lived, from Hoboken, N.J., to Moab, Utah. Prentiss doesn’t shield us from Abbey’s controversial opinions on immigration, but contends that Abbey was chiefly concerned with population growth, and today might take a more global perspective on the issue. Like Gessner, he interviews several of Abbey’s friends, including Doug Peacock, the inspiration for George Washington Hayduke, and Ken Sleight, the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith. He questions them as to whether Abbey was an alcoholic. They say no, but the doctors Prentiss interviews conclude that the writer’s drinking likely hastened his death, given his symptoms. The book culminates with Prentiss’ quest to find Abbey’s hidden desert grave, and his success provides one of the book’s most poignant passages. When they find it, the friend who accompanies him says, “This is the grave of someone’s daddy. It’s almost too powerful to bear.” Prentiss depicts an author and personality of “conflicting absolutes” and ultimately decides that Abbey would urge him to move back to the mountains—to a place that feels like home.

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century, an anthology of pieces by a variety of essayists, conservationists and friends, also considers Abbey’s writing and life, and the way his ideas intersect with contemporary issues like terrorism and immigration. John A. Murray’s recollection of storytelling with Hunter S. Thompson in a bar in Aspen, and Charles Bowden’s essay on immigration are perhaps the most vivid essays, but many of them reveal Abbey’s most intimate moments by letting us in on the details of his death and burial, or showing us aspects of the man not disclosed in his writing. In “Abbey’s Secret,” the author talks to Mark Klett, the photographer who accompanied Abbey on an assignment for Condé Nast Traveler. Klett reveals an Abbey who was more reserved than his authorial persona would indicate: “In Grand Gulch, Klett got to know this more moderate, three-dimensional man behind the brash rhetoric and the Cactus Ed caricature.”

In an age when climate change is growing ever more severe while corporate interests gain increasing power, Abbey’s activist spirit and his vision of a land untouched by development remain vital. These books prove that, for all the writer’s human flaws, his legacy will endure.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West

By David Gessner

W.W. Norton and Company

368 pages, $16.95

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave

By Sean Prentiss

University of New Mexico

240 pages, $21.95

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century

Edited by John A. Murray

University of New Mexico

232 pages, $39.95

Published in Literature

“A helluva place to lose a cow,” Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce allegedly quipped about the Southern Utah scarp of hoodoos that still bears his name. Well beyond cattle, smart people with maps and survival gear have vanished into the folds of the Colorado Plateau’s convoluted topography.

Dreamers and adventurers have long been drawn to the region, for various reasons. Spanish explorer Garcia López de Cárdenas first peered into the Grand Canyon while chasing the Seven Cities of Gold; early trappers like Antoine Robidoux sought wealth of the furry kind; and Brigham Young spied his God’s Promised Land. In 1869, John Wesley Powell came through, but three crew members left before the expedition’s end, only to be killed by Mormons, or perhaps Paiutes—nobody knows for sure. To this day, spellbound wanderers seek out these canyons; some never leave, ultimately adding their bones to those already enriching the barren ground.

Among the more famous missing are Glen and Bessie Hyde, Jazz Age honeymooners who hoped to cash in by becoming the first couple to float through the Grand Canyon. (Brad Dimock deftly speculated about their end in Sunk Without a Sound.) A few other mysteries were ultimately solved: Twenty-five years after he flipped his boat in the Grand Canyon’s 24.5-Mile Rapid at age 80, Colorado River legend Bert Loper’s remains showed up on a beach at Cardenas Creek.

The latest in this literature of the Colorado Plateau as Bermuda Triangle is The Disappearances by Scott Thybony, former Grand Canyon river guide and archaeologist. “The ratio between wild and tame has shifted,” he writes, “but some of us still find ways of getting into trouble.”

Interspersed with boots-on-the-ground research that took Thybony from Texas to southern Utah, the book probes the fate of three of those who got into trouble during the 1930s: Lucile Garrett, a woodcutter’s daughter from Oklahoma, who fled west with the fugitive who murdered her father and lived with the killer in an isolated canyon along the San Juan River; Dan Thrapp, a 21-year-old paleontologist on leave from the American Museum of Natural History, who disappeared on his search for undiscovered cliff dwellings in Dark Canyon near Blanding, Utah—“Indian Legends Lured Lost Man,” one Salt Lake Tribune headline shouted; and the iconic Everett Ruess, a footloose, romantic artist from California who vanished in the Escalante region in 1934. His final tracks led into Davis Gulch, where only his pack burros, a bridle and graffiti spelling out NEMO were found. Some sleuths think that cattle-rustlers or Indians murdered the youth and hid the body (W.L. Rusho, The Mystery of Everett Ruess; David Roberts, Finding Everett Ruess), but others surmise he staged his own disappearance to live incognito on the reservation with a Navajo wife.

“In a country where canyons lie sunk within canyons and tiers of cliffs stack one on top of another, the mysteries come layered,” Thybony writes, and the three stories he traces take some unexpected turns. According to his findings, Ruess fell into a rock crevice while exploring near an alcove campsite, and his decomposing body washed down Davis Gulch with the monsoons. Thybony investigates the “murders and even the madness” his protagonists suffered as a way to grasp “the wonder and dread they had experienced in a place so different from any they had known before.”

Dark tales intrigue this writer, who also has long suspected that Ambrose Bierce, supposedly shot in Pancho Villa’s revolution, took his own life somewhere in the Grand Canyon.

Although that theory remains unproven, the riddle of one modern-day disappearance was recently solved. In 2010, a man wounded a Utah state park ranger at a trailhead near Moab and then fled into the sandstone void. Police combed the area, to no avail. But in late December 2015, a local college student and his teenage brother—sons of a Moab police detective who’d participated in the 2010 search—found Lance Leeroy Arellano’s bones and pistol in a cave near town, and thereby earned a $30,000 reward.

Plenty of other canyon country mysteries still remain to rivet our imagination. Our need for the unknown is just one more reason to preserve what Thybony calls “big reaches of distance lying close to the human heart.” Weaned on Hollywood fare, we need our Western folk heroes—like Hayduke or the Lone Ranger—to keep riding forever, into the sunset.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder, and Mystery in the American West

By Scott Thybony

University of Utah

288 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Photographs in the new book To See Them Run offer a glimpse into the Great Plains culture around coyote coursing—a sport that involves athletic hounds trained to run down coyotes.

The book, along with images by Scott Squire, includes vignettes of the collection’s main characters by writer Eric Eliason.

The sport, writes Eliason, is “an uncommercialized and never-before-studied vernacular tradition.” Although coyote hunting is widespread across the country, coursing, a subset of hunting, is relatively uncommon.

Many states allow coursing and offer bounties—in Utah, it’s $50—for each coyote carcass. Coyote-hunting contests are held in several Western states, including New Mexico, Idaho and Montana. In 2014, California became the first state to ban coyote-killing contests, which sometimes includes coursing.

Opponents of coursing say the practice perpetuates unnecessary cruelty and wildlife abuse and isn’t effective in population control. Yet proponents of the sport say it helps tamp down coyote populations and protect livestock. Available science is spotty and backs up neither in a convincing way, as High Country News reported in a February 2016 story on Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In To See Them Run, no photo shows the end of the hunt, when the greyhounds catch their prey, side-stepping the controversy entirely. In the end, that’s what is most unsettling about Eliason’s book, which keeps the gore of an otherwise bloody sport out of view.

The book provides a unique perspective on the culture to a familiar reader, but for the reader who comes to Eliason’s collection to better understand the sport, it will leave them wanting.

This review originally occurred in High Country News.

To See Them Run: Great Plains Coyote Coursing

By Eric A. Eliason

University Press of Mississippi

112 pages, $40

Published in Literature

Some environmentalists and scientists have begun calling our current epoch the “Anthropocene”—to acknowledge the massive changes humans have induced in global ecosystems. But biologist and author Edward O. Wilson has proposed an alternative name: “Eremocene,” or the “Age of Loneliness,” a name that alludes to the fact that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, one for which humans are primarily responsible.

The impending loss of so many of our fellow creatures means that humanity faces what can best be described as a kind of “species loneliness.” Regardless of what we call this new epoch, there are witnesses emerging—writers attuned to their environment—who are keenly aware of the implications of species loss, and who vow to document past beings and savor the life that remains.

In Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats: Extinct Mammals and the Archaeology of the Ice Age Great Basin, zooarchaeologist Donald Grayson surveys North America’s last mass extinction. In all, the last ice age wiped out 37 genera, and Grayson pays particular attention to 20—mostly megafauna—that once populated what’s known today as the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and parts of five adjoining states. He compiles incisive obituaries for each bygone species, including mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats and the largest flying bird ever recorded, the giant teratorn, which “weighed about 150 pounds, and had a wingspan of about 23 feet,” analogous to “a Cessna 152 light aircraft.”

Grayson compresses and addresses centuries of ignorance surrounding extinction by offering a series of hard-boiled clarifications. His is a temperate voice, wary of global theories of extinction. He is more interested in advocating for a compendium of individual species’ histories. Because it is “difficult to extract definitive answers from the fossil record,” an extinction narrative must instead be singular and idiosyncratic to each unique species.

While the fossil record preserves the story of extinct species, one can turn to a field guide to apprehend extant species.

For more than a century, North American naturalists have been compiling field guides to aid citizen scientists in identifying the native flora and fauna of particular regions. In the case of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos are both guides and anthologists; this is a Sonoran Desert tour led by a park ranger with an MFA. But The Sonoran Desertis not just a field guide, but also an anthology of prose and poetry about the Arizona Upland. As in earlier “literary field guides” such as Califauna and Califlora (Heyday 2007, 2012), each species’ passage is accompanied by an essay or poem, an illustration, and a spirited description of its morphology, habitat and life history.

These 63 literary stewards of the Sonoran Desert were mostly recruited during the National GeographicBioBlitz in Saguaro National Park in 2011, an event where citizen scientists teamed up with professionals to develop a 24-hour species inventory. The resulting anthology is varied—a blend of witness and imagination, intention and happy accident, anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. In a single-sentence piece about the broad-billed hummingbird, Arizona’s first poet laureate, Alberto Alvaro Ríos, writes: “Hummingbirds are quarter notes which have left the nest of the flute.” Elsewhere, Alison Hawthorne Deming observes, “The saguaros all hum together like Tibetan or Gregorian monks / one green chord that people hear when they drive.”

Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats and The Sonoran Desertare both significant literary offerings. For those who dread the prospect of an Age of Loneliness, these books provide excellent company, bringing to life the precious biota of the American West—both the species that have long since vanished, and those that still survive, at least for now.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats: Extinct Mammals and the Archaeology of the Ice Age Great Basin

By Donald K. Grayson

University of Utah

320 pages, $24.95

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide

Edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos

University of Arizona

216 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

Don’t be fooled by the length of Robert Garner McBrearty’s debut novella—at a mere 132 pages, The Western Lonesome Society includes enough intrigue to fill books twice its size. Characters battle mental illness, kidnappings and Comanches to find their way home after wandering across the wild and lonely American Southwest.

Full of lost souls, this absurdist Western thriller (perhaps the only one of its kind) is a trip through the human subconscious, alternating between three increasingly peculiar storylines. Anchoring it all is Jim O’Brien, a professor obsessed with committing his family history to paper. Two of his ancestors were abducted by Native Americans during a raid on their Texas cabin in 1870; Jim finds connection in the fact that he was also kidnapped as a child. All the characters, especially Jim, grope for purpose. But the professor’s vapid journal entries—“Spent night at Mesa Verde … Saw big wild turkey. Had fun playing football with boys”—suggest that he realizes the futility of his quest for greater meaning. And somehow, that is freeing: absurdism in miniature.

Chapters alternate between the kidnapped brothers’ adventures in the 19th century, the “Old West” part of the plotline; Jim’s own tale; and a third short story involving an escaped mental patient who moonlights as a stripper. In less-capable hands, the literary device known asmise en abyme—images within images, or stories within stories—can quickly become incomprehensible, but McBrearty cut his teeth crafting short stories for the North American Review and StoryQuarterly, among other publications. His taut narratives are composed with precision and spare imagery. (Don’t expect any grand descriptions of the Texas frontier; the closest contender is a riff on the seedy strip-club-lined underbelly of Austin.) That said, this is the kind of book that will attract fierce loyalists, but leave others scratching their heads. So,caveat lector: Though entertaining, the narrative requires intense concentration.

As the book accelerates to its conclusion, the stories—vignettes, really—become more bizarre, forcing the reader to decide what is real, and what are the ramblings of a delusional professor.

“We’ve all been taken—taken from our true home and it’s only a matter of getting back there!” Jim exclaims to his imaginary therapist. As long as the reader willingly suspends any expectation of realism, The Western Lonesome Society is a fascinating, hallucinatory trip down memory lane.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Western Lonesome Society

By Robert Garner McBrearty


132 pages, $14.95

Published in Literature

“My god that you could walk through such a landscape. My god that such a landscape existed anywhere but in your dreams. And yet here it was.”

California-based novelist Christian Kiefer creates a gorgeous, desolate tableau in which his characters are bewitched by natural beauty, even as they’re betrayed by human actions—especially their own.

Wildlife-rescuer Bill Reed and his unofficial Idaho sanctuary are in peril as The Animals begins, when the district game warden threatens to close the place down, citing federal environmental rules and regulations. Meanwhile, Bill’s nightmarish past catches up with him when Rick, who was once his closest friend, is released from a long stretch in prison. The two were inseparable during their bleak childhoods in Battle Mountain, Nev., enduring family tragedies and alcoholic parents. Together, they later escaped to Reno, only to get lost in dead-end jobs, drugs and trouble with the law. Now Rick has returned in search of the money they netted in a long-ago burglary. Or perhaps it’s really vengeance he wants; the threat of violence hovers over the novel like a pall.

What solace there is comes by way of Bill’s animals, all of them once wild, but most now recovering from various traumas in cages or enclosures, yet still pulsing with life. Bill has fled his gambling addiction and subsequent debt, and is seeking redemption in a solitary life in the woods. “A geography of snowed-over silence. Elk would come down through the trees on their way to the meadows in the south, their calls echoing up from those blank white plains.”

Kiefer’s narrative voice recalls that of Faulkner, complete with a blind bear named “Majer.” The bear’s presence haunts the reader; from the beginning, we fear for Majer’s life. Bill’s harsh and precarious world is increasingly endangered, and as the novel unfolds, our fears are realized in unpredictable ways and with unforeseen consequences.

Lovers of wilderness and of words will find both pleasure and sorrow in the rich, lyrical sentences of The Animals. “Were a fox to step out from behind the trees and speak in human words, or a raven to descend wearing a suit coat and a top hat, you would not have been surprised. Worlds overlapping.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Animals: A Novel

By Christian Kiefer


320 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories is the first collection of short fiction from Denver-based writer Manuel Ramos, often called the “Godfather of Chicano Noir.”

The stories’ settings range from El Paso to rural Colorado and the megalopolis of Los Angeles, and from the Mexican Revolution to the 1950s and the present. The mostly Chicano characters include lawyers, veterans and a prostitute, with a guest appearance by Jack Kerouac. Written between 1986 and 2014, the stories reflect the stylistic development of Ramos, author of the Edgar Award-nominatedThe Ballad of Rocky Ruiz, among other acclaimed crime novels.

Standouts include the eponymous “The Skull of Pancho Villa,” in which the skull, nicknamed “Panchito,” that supposedly belonged to the “Robin Hood of Mexico,” is stolen in an act of revenge. In “Bad Haircut Day,” an ambitious but heretofore ethical Denver attorney finds himself covering up a murder. A wheelchair-bound former baseball player thwarts a burglar in “Sentimental Value.”

Almost without exception, these stories involve crime, law enforcement and desperation. Ramos is a master at creating atmosphere, especially a 1940s private-eye feel, moodily cinematic in black and white and more than 50 gritty shades of gray. You can almost hear Bogie growl at the end of “No Hablo Inglés”: “When it snows, my shoulder aches, and I smell copal and marigolds.” And what could be more “Guy Noir” in flavor than the first sentence of “When the Air Conditioner Quit”: “When the air conditioner quit, Torres shot it.”

Most of the stories reflect a cynical humor. From “White Devils and Cockroaches”: “Gonzalez made a living representing crazies, weirdos, misfits, losers and plain folks who got taken. … Each morning he reminded himself he was not a burned out liberal who took up space on legal aid’s payroll. … He was an ace attorney for the underdog.”

This collection is uneven, but that’s not surprising in a literary retrospective that represents a considerable body of work from its beginning through its coming of age as Ramos becomes a master storyteller. He tells the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, their lives often complicated by prejudice, just doing the best they can in los Estados Unidos.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories

By Manuel Ramos

Arte Público

208 pages, $17.95

Published in Literature

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is not intended for readers with delicate sensibilities.

Jon Krakauer’s newest book investigates, in great detail, several rapes perpetrated between 2008 and 2012 by members of the University of Montana. In Missoula, the “Griz” are hometown heroes—and those who cast aspersions on the celebrated players’ reputations had better be prepared to face the consequences.

The rapists and their victims receive equal treatment here, along with prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges and detectives. Krakauer allows all of them to speak for themselves; no one emerges untainted. The “justice” in Krakauer’s title remains elusive at best and is tarnished throughout, due to clumsy cops, politicized prosecutors and a widespread lack of empathy for the few women willing to confront their attackers—always a minority among rape victims.

Rape, says one prosecutor, “is the only crime in which the victim is presumed to be lying.” A defense attorney exemplifies that attitude in his address to the jury on behalf of his client, the team’s star quarterback. “Why would he even think of committing such a reckless act, given his high profile in the community, his sterling reputation, and everything he stood to lose?”

Krakauer fans may be somewhat frustrated by this latest work—not by the investigative reporter’s uniformly excellent research, but by the dearth of compelling, admirable characters, flawed but enthralling, who generally populate the writer’s best-selling nonfiction, such as Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air.

There are no heroes here, but one villain rises above—or sinks below—the rest of the muck: a female prosecutor who is reluctant to prosecute rape without a guarantee of winning, and who, upon leaving public office, immediately begins defending rapists. Kirsten Pabst, having established that the accused is an upstanding young man, “devoted the rest of her opening statement to vilifying his accuser,” Krakauer writes. Such, we learn, is standard defense-attorney procedure; the pursuit of justice has little, if any, role.

Readers will finish this book with plenty of information but little confidence that the courts punish the guilty. “In Missoula, Grizzly football exists in a realm apart,” Krakauer concludes, and the players and their lawyers “expect, and often receive, special dispensation.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

By Jon Krakauer


416 pages, $16.95 (paperback edition)

Published in Literature