Rancher Leonard Self is the type of elderly man who keeps “his shades drawn, his talk necessary, his actions to the problem at hand.” In the wake of the death of his wife, Inetta, he’s been winnowing his ranch goods, his farmhouse, his life itself, succumbing to a darkening that “was not pain but bone-deep numbness. Not nightmares but short dreamless sleep and long wakefulness. Not chaos but an empty, unbudging sameness.”
On the anniversary of Inetta’s passing, he plans to scatter her ashes off a cliff—and leap to his own death.
Len, the protagonist of Charlie Quimby’s Monument Road, is a thoroughgoing old codger who doesn’t know how to live without his wife or deal with the changes in his Western town. He doesn’t know what to make of the tattooed waitresses slinging pizza to cheerful mountain bikers. He still buys his gas with cash, mends his clothing and makes do.
The beginning of the book reads more like a series of short stories than a novel, and it isn’t until much later that the separate plot threads start tangling—some naturally, others in a more contrived manner. Monument Road may be based in Colorado, but Quimby, a Western blogger, is really writing about the modern Western experience, about the changing rural landscape and the troubled foster kids, eager real estate agents, taciturn ranch hands, quilt-makers, alcoholics, cancer victims, dramatic teens, religious zealots and snow-stranded horses that inhabit it. Few of his characters escape. Many flounder; some perish.
In Quimby’s world, it seems everyone is in danger of falling, either literally, as from cliffs, or figuratively, as into darkness. No one is allowed to burn too brightly. Those who send off sparks, who spread their wings, fall especially hard. The lucky ones get a second chance, usually years later, but even those second chances, like much of the novel itself, are subtle. Many of the most likable characters die; others wander off the page. People survive, but it’s hard to say many of them really live within the limits of their current environment.
Quimby’s prose fits his subjects perfectly. It’s clean, well-made and largely utilitarian, though the ranchland poetics flash now and again, surprising both his characters and readers. A kid learning to smoke reclines on a rock and lets “his heartbeat slow as the sky turn(s) from the daytime’s enameled blue bowl into a deep black broth filled with fairy dust.” This is a book of confessions and connections, fear, forgiveness and, ultimately, the stirrings of redemption.
It suggests that it’s far better to try to adapt than just fade into black.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
Monument Road: A Novel
By Charlie Quimby
365 pages, $16.95