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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

Torrey House

365 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Sid Dulaney leaves his cheating girlfriend behind in Massachusetts and returns home to Tucson, Ariz., in Sunland, Oregon writer Don Waters’ hilarious first novel.

Sid had worked as an itinerant teacher, but finds himself jobless in Tucson, where he spends his time looking after his beloved grandmother, Nana. He starts crossing the border to buy 88-year-old Nana’s medications more cheaply in Mexico. When Nana’s fellow residents at the Paseo del Sol retirement community ask him to do the same for them, he becomes a prescription drug-runner for grateful senior citizens.

“At first,” Sid explains, “I had trouble accepting the little amounts people could pay me for delivering drugs. My problem was that I liked these old folks too much. I liked their unending kindness, their teary eyes and their crazy fashion sensibilities. … Very few people had the time to sit down, prepare a pot of tea, and talk to you, and care about you, truly care, but these people did.”

Despite the savings on prescriptions, Nana’s finances dwindle, so Sid turns to increasingly desperate measures to keep her at Paseo del Sol. He learns he’s being followed by the henchman of a Mexican drug lord, who wants kickbacks, and begins to romance a beautiful social worker at Paseo del Sol—their relationship kicking off to a hysterical start at an adults-only “Animal Amore” tour of the zoo. These elements come to a comic boil as Sid, determined to make one last score, agrees to transport a migrant over the border. His charge, however, turns out to belong to a different species than expected.

In taut, inventive prose, Waters—winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award—captures the rhythms of life along the border. A newspaper reporter is described as “a typical borderlander, all tendon and grit”; the public art in a Mexican town reveals “a culture replete with mythos,” while a votive candle shrine brings out “the usual suspects: Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Sid also takes time to appreciate the desert landscape: “It was an amazing, clear, moon-rippled night. It hurt my chest and head thinking on it, about us, our placement in the grand order. Everything was just stars and dust.”

Sunland is one part farce and one part soulful examination of love, friendship, mortality and desert living.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Sunland

By Don Waters

University of Nevada

208 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature

Most people who think of Portland, Ore., today picture charismatic bridges spanning the sparkling Willamette River, cozy coffeehouses and brewpubs on rain-slick streets, and passionate environmentalists bicycling to farmers markets.

But behind the scenes, Portland in the 1990s teemed with crack-dealers and users willing to sacrifice home and family for a night’s partying. And if you were African American, according to author Mitchell S. Jackson, life could be a specific sort of hell fraught with racial profiling and a lack of educational and employment opportunities—unless you were very, very good at basketball.

“Let them quit screaming your name,” he writes of young black athletes in his debut autobiographical novel, The Residue Years, “and worse-case you just might rob a bank (who gets away with that?), just might hatch a (hand to God this happened) flawed murder-for-insurance plot. But maybe it’s just here. In my city. Not yours.”

The Residue Years portrays Jackson’s childhood streets as darkened by poverty, abuse and addiction. Grace, newly clean after losing a corporate job to the allure of crack, finds a sympathetic employer and resolves to do better by her four sons. Champ is the oldest, the collegiate boy. Throughout the novel, Jackson lets the young man and his mother take turns telling their stories, giving readers multiple perspectives on a family dynamic now threatened by Grace’s litigious ex-husband, who hopes to retain custody of their younger sons, and by Champ’s attempts to keep his kin safe … by selling crack.

“You’d be surprised at how many chase heartache,” says one of his customers. “Need it to feel whole.” In adamant, provocative prose, Jackson examines that theme throughout the book, creating unexpected sympathy even for Champ’s mother as she surrenders everything once again to pursue her addiction.

The Residue Years will alter your view of Portland. Despite the Rose City’s impressive gentrification and its mostly genial residents, a desperate population still sleeps on the streets, willing to sacrifice any small gain for a new high. Rather than letting us sidestep their gaunt faces, their sleeping bags, their ragged cardboard signs, Jackson demands that we look at their motivations and ponder such profound scarcity in the midst of bounty.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Residue Years

By Mitchell S. Jackson

Bloomsbury USA

352 pages, $26 (hardcover) or $17 (paperback)

Published in Literature

Welcome to Oakpine, a fictional small town on Wyoming’s eastern plains where four high school pals reunite in 1999, after 30 years spent leading very separate lives.

In his latest novel, Return to Oakpine, award-winning author Ron Carlson tells a moving but quiet tale about a group of regular guys who don’t say much to each other as they try to figure out where their lives have gone to so far—and where they’re headed now.

Two of the characters have never left Oakpine: Craig, a second-generation hardware-store owner, and Frank, proprietor of the Antlers bar and a novice microbrewer. Two are returning: Mason, a disillusioned Denver lawyer, and Jimmy, an accomplished New York City writer with AIDS who’s come home to die. In a subtle, bittersweet farewell to Jimmy, the friends decide to reconstitute Life on Earth, their not-so-hot high school garage band, in order to enter a Battle of the Bands in nearby Gillette. The teenagers who still live inside their middle-aged bodies are deftly mirrored in Larry, Craig’s 17-year-old son.

In Oakpine, big events like divorce and death are dealt with matter-of-factly. High school football, power tools, beer and adolescent love mingle with busted-up marriages, frightening diseases and unresolved issues, painting an uncannily accurate portrait of “just folks” muddling through bewildering times. As one of the friends ruefully remarks, “You go along knowing, but when you do know, it still is a surprise.”

Instead of the ruined anti-hero loners who often star in Carlson’s stories, these men are immediately recognizable, making Return to Oakpine perhaps his most universally appealing novel. As always in Carlson’s work, landscape plays a pivotal role: “Over everything in the West, the sky was purple at the horizon, blowing up to gray. It was a comic book version of a storm ... .”

The book isn’t perfect—the women at times verge on stereotypes, and Larry is slightly too perfect for a high school senior—Carlson employs his elegantly spare prose to tell a complete and satisfying tale in less than 300 pages.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Return to Oakpine: A Novel

By Ron Carlson

Viking

272 pages, $18.90

Published in Literature

Ex-Red Sox pitcher Pete Hurley comes to Bozeman, Mont., to start a new life after a series of tragic mishaps that left him publicly shamed in Massachusetts.

"Just as I was about to get over the incident that ended my baseball career," he explains, "a drunken accident left this young girl paralyzed, and I was in the news again."

He moves to Montana to live near his sister, Danielle, the only surviving member of his immediate family, and to learn how to build a house.

The gradual cracking of Pete’s limited awareness is the primary thrust of High and Inside, Russell Rowland’s new novel. Pete, who narrates the story, thinks he suffers from bad luck, but his friends know better, and the reader realizes it as well in the first chapter, when Danielle tells him, "Please try not to drink too much while you’re here."

But Pete can’t stay out of trouble. On his first day in Bozeman, he goes to a sports bar with his brother-in-law, Barry, guzzles beer and gets into a brawl with Clint, an aggressive, alcoholic behemoth. Unfortunately, Clint is also the president of the local chapter of an engineering group, and after the confrontation, Clint is determined to create permit problems for Pete’s house-building project.

Each chapter opens with a quote from a fictional source, either a baseball blog or a new-agey home-building guide called Your House, Your Self. These epigraphs help reveal the details and repercussions of the infamous pitch that ended both Hurley’s baseball career and that of the promising batter he hit. But High and Inside is less about baseball than it is about how fame turned Pete into someone who may never have had to pay his own bar bill or go home alone, yet could never hide from the enemies he recklessly made.

For a novel that evokes wide-open spaces—both in baseball and Montana—High and Inside is a largely interior book, focused on the relationships that Pete must analyze, repair or relinquish entirely as he gradually comes to acknowledge his alcoholism.

Perhaps the most touching relationship is that between Pete and his three-legged female dog, Dave, whom he loves but cannot care for properly as his drinking intensifies.

High and Inside is a contemplative look at what happens to one of the boys of summer when autumn comes at last.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

High and Inside

By Russell Rowland

Bangtail

230 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature

Local author Harold Gershowitz has written a book with Jewish characters before. His first title, Remember This Dream, told a story of Polish Jews who immigrated to America. Now he’s back with his second book, Heirs of Eden, a political and historical romance.

Heirs of Eden is set in 1949 in Washington, D.C., and follows the love story of Noah, the son of Orthodox Jewish grocery-store owners, and Alexandra, a Christian from a family of Palestinian refugees. Noah spots Alexandra after his bar mitzvah; Alexandra’s family crossed paths with Noah’s family, leading to a friendly invite to the bar mitzvah.

A deep love unfolds between Noah and Alexandra that goes beyond religion, culture and origins; the prologue calls it a “lovers of peace” story. Of course, since the story is set right after the Israeli War of Independence, conflict is undeniable, as the two families struggle, and their children enter what in many ways is a forbidden romance.

Their bond is tested during their early adulthood, when Noah attends Stanford University and meets Karen, a Jewish girl who tries to change Noah’s perspective on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; and Alexandra returns to Palestine and meets Ali, a passionate political activist who is willing to take matters into his own hands.

As the conflicts in the Middle East lead to issues within their families, Noah and Alexandra go on with their lives, yet they hold on to memories of each other. They learn more about their forbidden relationship in indirect ways thanks to the situations in which they find themselves.

For those who are interested in the histories of Middle Eastern conflict, Israel and Palestine, this is at times a profound, although quite lengthy, story. At the same time, Heirs of Eden will bring up many subjects for debate—subjects that stories such as this one hope are resolved and put aside. In any case, the story is inspiring and proves that love transcends political strife.

Heirs of Eden

By Harold Gershowitz

CreateSpace

538 pages, $17.99

Published in Literature

It’s unthinkable that kids in America would ever be allowed to play “slaves and masters,” writes Walter Echo-Hawk, but we don’t see anything wrong with Junior strapping on the trusty ol’ cap-shooters for a game of “cowboys and Indians.”

Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee tribal member and lawyer who has toiled for 35 years in federal Indian law, has written a provocative book that examines the tragic and continuing effects of colonial conquest and its resulting “settler” mindset. He does this without ever scolding his readers and succeeds in pointing a way toward eventual healing.

In the Light of Justice shines its light onto often-overlooked issues, explaining that what many whites think of as history—a bygone era of treaty-making, frontier warfare and taming the West—is, to most Indian people, actually current events.

S. James Anaya, a human-rights investigator for the United Nations, agrees. In his foreword to the book, Anaya writes that, during a tour of Indian Country in the wake of the U.S. endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (President Obama announced he would signed it in 2010 after opposition by the George W. Bush administration), he was struck “by … the deep, still open wounds” left by Manifest Destiny.

It’s disturbing, Echo-Hawk notes, that former colonists who rebelled for the sake of freedom treated, and continue to treat, indigenous people in the manner of 500 years of Western European colonialism. The doctrines of conquest and discovery have not only unjustly destroyed indigenous economies and societies; they have harmed the land as well, by treating it solely as a resource to be exploited. And yet those doctrines are still cited by federal courts today.

Echo-Hawk devotes a chapter to the need for what he calls an American land ethic, something, he writes, that Aldo Leopold suggested as early as 1948. Without a new way to engage with the landscape, “the American people cannot fully mature from a nation of immigrants and settlers recovering from a rapacious frontier history of Manifest Destiny and stride toward a more just culture … and resolve to become more ‘native’ to place.”

In 10 focused chapters, Echo-Hawk maps the way from the dark legacy of conquest to the light of justice. The “clothes of the conqueror,” he concludes, do not well fit the American ideals of liberty and justice.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In The Light Of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

By Walter R. Echo-Hawk

Fulcrum

352 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

We all remember our first job—perhaps an entry-level gig in fast food or retail.

However, John Kevin Scariano had a very different experience: His first job was at a sewage-treatment plant in Chicago. He’s written about that experience in his new book, Marsh Township Sanitary District.

The book begins in 1975. Scariano—now a resident of Albuquerque, NM, who works at the University of New Mexico's School of Medicine—at the time was a high school graduate looking for work, so his father phoned a friend, a superintendent with the Marsh Township Sanitary District. The book’s back cover has a quote that sets things up nicely: “Because I was unable to participate in World War II, as it had ended three decades before, my father decided the next-best experience in which I could fully attain manhood would be to spend two summers working in a sewage-treatment plant south of Chicago.”

The details that Scariano shares are, in many ways, deplorable. Topics covered include a lack of safety (Scariano ended up getting an infection due to the fact that he was working with fecal matter) and the blunt, hardcore talk of his co-workers on subjects such as their war-time experiences, race issues, and their sexual fantasies involving Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Scariano notes that he saw himself as much more intelligent than his co-workers; he sometimes corrected them or threw scientific tidbits into conversations—so it’s no surprise they saw him as a snobby, know-it-all brat.

The book also discusses the fact that Mafia bosses were involved with the sanitary district; Scariano goes into great detail as he points out how involved they were. The FBI even makes an appearance.

While Scariano is spending time in crap—literally (one of his jobs was to analyze samples of fecal-matter density)—many of his friends were attending summer programs, traveling in Europe, or enjoying the typical summer experience. His father is not sympathetic in any way, while his mother does show some sympathy by having cold beers ready for him when he gets home. Scariano spends a lot of time contemplating why he wasn’t as fortunate as his friends.

Does Scariano look back on the experience fondly, perhaps appreciating his father for toughening him up by making him take such challenging work? He offers this bit of insight regarding the job and his high school friend Bobby: “Maybe I never did learn the value of the dollar; I’ve never been very good when it comes to money. But I certainly learned the value of good friends.”

Given that the now-Dr. Scariano went on to teach at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine, obviously some of the experience must have been of value. This slim volume is an interesting read—even if the topics can at times be stomach-churning.

Marsh Township Sanitary District

By Dr. John Kevin Scariano

AuthorHouse (self-published)

125 pages, $14.95

Published in Literature

Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, once walked point as a polar-bear guard on an Arctic expedition, armed with only a homemade spear. He still loves large predators and new territory, and in his latest outing, he asks us to accompany him on “the greatest adventure” ever—the peopling of the New World.

Roughly 20,000 years ago, scouts on a ridge in Beringia got their first glimpse of the “unending wild country that encompassed two continents uninhabited by humans.” Some 5,000 years later, at the very end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed; oceans rose; and the Bering land bridge flooded. The formerly ice-barred interior of the Americas opened, allowing passage south.

“I can’t think of a richer, wilder, more-perilous time to live,” Peacock writes.

There are parallels as well as vast differences between that time and ours, Peacock says. He is curious about how Homo sapiens perceives risk and how our species might survive and adapt to climate change—dealing with our own saber-toothed foe in the bush. The “bold migrations” of the past, he concedes, are “impossible in the 21st century” as a solution. But that original migration still offers us “challenging illustrations of courage and caution.”

Blending archaeology and paleontology with memories of childhood arrowhead-hunting, and evoking a keen sense of place, Peacock explores some of the colonists’ likely waypoints: Siberia’s tiger-tracked Amba River, the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves (one held a mammoth bone spear point), a 13,000-year-old burial site on the Yellowstone (yielding “10 five-gallon buckets of artifacts”), 10,000-year-old human teeth in British Columbia, and Baja California’s 8,000-year-old shell middens.

The book suffers from some sloppy editing and repetition, but Peacock’s accounts of archaeological finds ring with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of dire wolves, lions on steroids, and leggy, short-faced bears—”monsters of the plains”—can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. “We evolved to deal with the predator,” he writes. And therein could lie the rub: “In comparison, present day ‘global warming’ seems distant, harmlessly incremental or something that happens to remote strangers.”

Still, Peacock seems confident that a species that overcame flesh-and-blood threats like dire wolves can somehow manage to confront this latter-day, more nebulous foe.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene

By Douglas Peacock

AK Press

200 pages, $15

Published in Literature

Thompson Grey abandons his Indiana farm in 1858 and joins a caravan of pioneers trekking west along the Santa Fe Trail in Gary Schanbacher’s accomplished new novel, Crossing Purgatory, a moral Western that questions what any decent human being owes another amid the harsh conditions of the American frontier.

After Thompson’s wife and sons die of diphtheria while he is away on a fruitless mission to seek an advance on his inheritance, he plunges into deep mourning, blaming himself for being absent when his family became ill.

In grief and guilt, he tramps west, a man with his “spirit out of fix,” and with no plan in mind—until he encounters a caravan led by Captain Upperdine, a shrewd businessman who guides groups of potential settlers across pioneer trails and trades with Indians, homesteaders and prospectors along the way. Upperdine sees the taciturn wanderer as an asset, a competent and honorable man who can assist his current group of travelers.

When violence strikes, Thompson feels responsible for the pregnant wife and teenage son left behind by the murdered man. The one-time farmer, in his harrowing grief, would rather drift across the prairie like a tumbleweed, but that kind of behavior is not in his nature. He painstakingly fulfills both real and self-imposed obligations, and as a natural farmer, he can’t shake his dream for his own land—a yearning that sometimes leads him to act in unexpectedly rash ways.

When the group arrives at Upperdine’s homestead north of New Mexico near the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatoire rivers, Thompson settles in to help the folks he met on the trail, as well as the family of Benito Ibarra, Upperdine’s brother-in-law. At this point, Schanbacher switches to Benito’s perspective, hinting that Thompson may not be as pure in his aims as he appears. “Is this a place of banishment or of second chances?” Benito wonders when he looks at the land they now farm together.

Through clear, lyrical prose, and convincing historical detail, Schanbacher examines the moral dilemmas facing Thompson and Benito, men trying to lead upright and useful lives in a place ruled by lawlessness and the punishing caprices of nature.

Crossing Purgatory is an especially thoughtful frontier story that will leave readers thinking about its characters long after the final page.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Crossing Purgatory

By Gary Schanbacher

Pegasus

336 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature