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On the surface, California author Ruth Galm’s debut novel Into the Valley is a sidelong, Didion-esque glance into a 30-something woman’s unaccountable unraveling.

Beneath the surface, it is skillfully whispered social commentary.

Caught between the counterculture of late 1960s San Francisco and her mother’s conservative past, B. (as the main character calls herself) is inflicted with a strange malaise, one she calls “the carsickness,” which can only be soothed by cashing counterfeit checks. In desperation, B. drives aimlessly through the Central Valley, hoping that “its bareness would reveal something, provide an answer she had failed to acquire.”

The premise of Into the Valley does more than provide a pleasing nostalgia. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you wrote a physical check?) Galm’s B. finds comfort in bank lobbies, “the right angles of the teller windows, the teller’s movements like a soothingport de bras.” These precise, clean moments give her a “cool expansive feeling” and are set against the repeated mention of dirty fingernails and unwashed hair—the physical manifestations of B.’s mental deterioration. Galm, without ever directly saying so, is asking us if we, too, don’t feel dirtied by the present, inflicted with a nameless unease and an urgent desire to escape: “She wanted only to get away, to start over, to undo something that seemed to bind her. She wanted only to find a calm quiet place to breathe.”

Into the Valley is highly visual, suspenseful and appropriately grim, set in a landscape where spent sunflowers look “like a mass of defeated people.” Even if B. is traveling with no destination, Galm’s prose knows exactly where it’s going. Crisp and clear, it touches down lightly, like a small stone bounding down a scree slope. Showy, but without extraneous scenes or details, Into the Valley is a solid, muscular piece of writing.

Galm brings us back to the ’60s to show us how dystopian our present age is. The novel succeeds not by being a flashback to “the good old days,” but by being a hard-eyed look into the mirror of today: the impersonal nature of technology, our estrangement from the natural world, and the psychic consequences these things produce—even if we don’t realize it.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Into the Valley

By Ruth Galm

Soho Press

272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

You’re hiking alone along a steep switchback trail in Washington’s Olympic Mountains, when suddenly, you turn a corner and see a massive mountain goat, its black eyes trained upon you.

A few years ago, a goat attacked and killed a man in this very park, and, at the thought, a trickle of sweat wends its way from your hairline to your collar. The goat is still looking at you. Then you remember that mountain goats aren’t native to these mountains, meaning that both it and you are relative newcomers here. But does that—should that—knowledge do anything to diminish the wildness of this encounter?

Congress has the power to designate wilderness areas, but every wilderness-lover has his or her own definition of “wild.” A few purists would see the non-native goat as a deal-breaker, but increasingly, many people do not base their definition of wilderness on whether a particular landscape is “pristine,” or occupied by non-native species. Instead, they see wilderness simply as places that humans aren’t currently managing, whether it’s a remote mountain range or just an overlooked patch of pine trees by the railroad tracks. And this is true both of passionate, old-style wilderness-lovers and of pragmatic, technophile greenies, as clearly evidenced by two new books.

Ecologists have known for generations that no place, no matter how remote, is absolutely free of human fingerprints. We tend to notice the obvious signs: the traces of an old road, or perhaps—as Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark describes in his new book, Satellites in the High Country—a bright blue cooler washed up on a beach in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But increasingly, our warming climate is changing ecosystems humans have never visited. Either we accept a certain amount of human influence, or we’ll run out of wilderness altogether. “Forget untouched,” Mark writes. “What matters now is whether a place is uncontrolled.”

Mark carves out a fine distinction between inadvertent influence caused by factors like climate change, and intentional control. He offers a heartfelt ode to the continued importance of nonintervention in wilderness areas, even if doing so leads to unrecognizably changed landscapes. We should resist the temptation to help, he says, no matter the consequences. “The pika may perish,” he writes. “The Arctic fox might slip into the great void of extinction. Places we’ve known and loved … may become unrecognizable to us.”

British journalist Fred Pearce takes a surprisingly similar stance in The New Wild, although rather than despairing at the resulting changes, he sees them as exciting. We live, he believes, during a dynamic time in our planet’s history. He delights in tweaking the noses of those who despise so-called “invasive species.” For him, that doesn’t restore wildness, but rather reduces it in a futile attempt to freeze nature in time. His “new wild” is a mash-up of natives and exotics that vigorously adapt to climate change, pollution and incoming species without our assistance. Conservationists should embrace such landscapes, from abandoned industrial sites covered in plants that thrive on metallic soils, to second-growth tropical rainforest. We should be, he argues, “supporting the new, rather than always spending time and money in a doomed attempt to preserve the old.”

Both Pearce, the technology-loving pragmatic environmentalist, and Mark, the traditional wilderness lover, agree: Even in a world of overwhelming human influence, we shouldn’t intrude on every landscape with our well-intentioned sprays and shovels, poisoning weeds and relocating species. Both writers argue for keeping some places uncontrolled, unmanaged—wild, in perhaps the simplest sense of the word—as an arena for undirected evolution, as a traditional conservation practice, and as a good way to practice humility and retain essential mystery in the world.

Both base their arguments for nonintervention in part on the notion that as the world changes, it is nature—not human beings—that will figure out how to adapt. By killing non-natives, planting disease-resistant trees or shooting invasive barred owls to save spotted ones, they say, we may inadvertently prevent the species-level evolution and ecosystem-level re-sorting that help create more resilient natural landscapes.

Pearce uses science to bolster his case, picking apart the surprisingly thin evidence that non-natives cause lasting harm, except in a few cases (like the brown tree snake, which has destroyed most of Guam’s native birds). Mark’s arguments have a more ethical, spiritual and emotional flavor. Wilderness and wildness, he declares, are very good for the human soul. He says little about non-natives, but notes that he considers those introduced Olympic mountain goats to be indisputably wild, in part because as fierce, “feral” beasts, they are capable of killing us.

The two writers’ arguments for letting nature take care of itself are compelling and make interesting back-to-back reading. But there’s one aspect of both books that will alienate many readers: Both authors accept extinction as inevitable, to a certain extent. And many environmentalists will find it hard to accept that an abstract notion of resilient wildness is more important than, say, the survival of the Arctic fox. As Mark says, hewing to a policy of nonintervention as ecosystems change and species wink out “will require an emotional fortitude to which we are unaccustomed, an almost Buddhist sort of nonattachment.” We should rather restrict our emotional engagement to immediate and instinctive experiences in the wilderness itself, whether that be awe, reverence, or—in the case of coming face-to-face a mountain goat—naked fear.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man

By Jason Mark

Island Press

320 pages, $28

The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation

By Fred Pearce

Beacon Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

Every day in Tombstone, Ariz., actors re-create the famous gunfight of October 1881, when the Earp brothers—Virgil, Morgan and the legendary Wyatt—along with their friend, Doc Holliday, confronted a gang of local troublemakers known as the “Cow Boys,” in a shootout that wounded several and left three dead. The battle lasted a mere 30 seconds, though in modern cinematic slow-motion, it goes on forever.

In Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell goes beyond the bloody melodrama, turning painstaking historical research into an absorbing 600-page novel that seeks to understand these men and the context in which they lived and fought. Russell writes of the participants, “Whether you live another five minutes or another 50 years, those awful 30 seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.”

Russell ended her terrific 2011 novel, Doc, before Holliday’s brief stint in Tombstone, largely because she felt the O.K. Corral overshadowed the rest of a remarkable life. But now Russell carries forward Doc’s story, as he is increasingly incapacitated by tuberculosis and seldom able to practice his chosen profession, dentistry. As Russell tells it, in fact, Doc first comes to Tombstone in 1880 as a special favor, in order to tend Wyatt Earp’s toothache. Russell vividly depicts Holliday’s suffering, both physical and mental: A man whose reputation as an outlaw gunslinger becomes increasingly ridiculous as his strength wanes.

Holliday was the main focus of Doc, but dozens of distinctive characters populate Epitaph, a story that Russell tells with omniscient aplomb. One standout character is Josephine Marcus, the daughter of a San Francisco Jewish baker; she ran away as a teenager to become an actress. She winds up living with Johnny Behan, eventual sheriff of Cochise County, a man determined to further his political career by any means necessary, including exploiting the violence plaguing Tombstone. Behan discreetly allies himself with the Cow Boys, thereby rousing Wyatt Earp’s ire and eventually estranging Marcus, who becomes Earp’s lover.

Epitaph shows how a single bloody skirmish in the streets—a rare occurrence historically—becomes the mythic model of daily life in Western frontier towns. Russell ably evokes this epic myth, which continues to fuel our imagination, but what she really excels at is immersing readers in the reality of life in the early 1880s—the clashing tempers and political factions of people striving for power, fortune or at least a toehold in life amid the day-to-day grit of a rugged desert outpost.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

By Mary Doria Russell


592 pages, $27.99

Published in Literature

In “Mountains Without Numbers,” the first short story in Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest collection, The Water Museum, a middle-age woman pages through her high school yearbook before heading into work.

Frankie, as the locals call her, owns the only diner left in her washed-up uranium town. “The sky feels like it’s on fire as she drives into town,” the Pulitzer Prize finalist writes. “Her morning clients are always there before she is. Waiting for her. Feels like the last six people in the West.” When she can, she keeps her back to the butte where, for decades, the most daring high school seniors had scaled the cliffs to paint their graduation date. The dates, the stories—all serve as memento mori, painful reminders of better times. “Is a town dead,” she wonders, “when the old men die, or when the children leave?”

The stories in The Water Museum stretch from South Dakota to California—from divorced Ivy League professors to illegal immigrants—but all of them share a peculiar loneliness. And though in many cases, that isolation is buttressed by a stark Western landscape, it is rooted in the insecurities and restless minds of the stories’ protagonists. A Chicano graffiti artist slips into reverie after finding strands of long blonde hair stuck to the windshield of a scrapyard vehicle. An Oglala Sioux encounters a white man passed out on the hood of a Volvo on a country road in Wyoming. A widower struggles to follow his minister’s advice and “bend like a reed in the wind,” even as he finds himself deeply agitated by the influx of immigrants in his community. All of these characters are cut off from the world, lost in their own psychic territory, stumbling in their search for a way back home.

Throughout the collection, Urrea uses both Chicano slang and a rural Midwest vernacular with unassailable authority. These pages are filled with language so electric you’ll want to re-read the sentences, relishing Urrea’s sharp eye for description. (“Dexter watched her bottom work the bright blue skirt like a couple of tractor motors under a tarp.”) But the rich language is simply a bonus; it’s the subtle revelations hidden in the stories that satisfy the reader. They reveal themselves in the barest details: “The old motor court sits across the street. And a couple of white houses and two trailers,” Urrea writes. “Frankie thinks about how each of those little places is a story.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Water Museum

By Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown and Company

272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

Few issues in the West are more controversial than water, and Les Standiford dives headfirst into the topic in his new nonfiction book, Water to the Angels, a dramatic account of the life of William Mulholland.

Standiford traces Mulholland’s rise from being an Irish immigrant ditch-digger to being the mastermind behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest civil engineering projects of the 20th century. In the process, Standiford, an accomplished novelist, displays his talent for finding and sharing compelling anecdotes that highlight the drama and adventure of Mulholland’s story.

Unlike other books written about Western water issues, such as Marc Reisner’s magisterial Cadillac Desert (1986), Standiford’s Water to the Angels passes over the complexity of the region’s water politics in order to focus on the larger-than-life person of Mulholland himself. Of course, politics and controversy flow with water wherever it goes, and Mulholland’s personal story remains inextricably linked to its context. “But controversies,” says Standiford, “have only one small part of my fascination with such tales wherein one of the most powerful men of an era undertakes a project that most consider impossible and overcomes all obstacles.”

Mulholland is clearly the hero of this story, but Standiford’s portrayal is nuanced and never overblown: The man was, after all, a mere mortal, who confronted numerous challenges in his life and made his share of enemies along the way. The mistakes he made were, on occasion, both public and catastrophic. Standiford recounts the most tragic failure of Mulholland’s career, the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds in one of the worst civil engineering disasters in U.S. history. “Devastated by the event that refashioned him from civic hero to villain in an eye-blink, Mulholland would at one point confide to a reporter, ‘I envy those who were killed.’”

Water to the Angels ultimately portrays Mulholland as a man who was responsible, intelligent, honest and tireless in his dedication to the public good. Although Mulholland doesn’t float unscathed through controversy—in fact, controversy still swirls around him today—Standiford’s story of the ditch-digger who built the monumental aqueduct will inspire anyone who has dared to dream the impossible, and then set out to make it happen.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water to the Angels

By Les Standiford


336 pages, $28.99

Published in Literature

Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider.

A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.”

That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.

“The (Native) culture on display,” she writes, “plays a bit part in a larger performance reflecting the dominant culture of the tourists themselves.” One local wryly calls the guides “Stepford Natives,” noting their perpetual cheer and willingness to go along with their customers’ cherished fantasies of a whitewashed past. Not to mention their idealized notions of the present: “Alcoholism, neglect, jealousy and violence (don’t) exist in the world of the Stepford Natives,” Bunten observes. “The veteran guides carved out larger-than-life personas. … It protected them from having to deal with never being able to live up to guests’ expectations of what it means to be Native.”

With journalistic precision, Bunten explores topics as varied as the influence of cruise lines on the Alaskan economy, the history of the Tlingit people and the ongoing effects of colonization on tribes. Despite occasionally awkward attempts at softening the narrative with lighthearted banter or extraneous personal asides, she succeeds in creating a sharply focused picture of cultural tourism today, especially in villages like Sitka, where between 10 and 20 percent of the local jobs are tourism-related. By fusing economic data with the personal experiences of Native guides—including her own—Bunten exposes the side effects of turning one’s culture into a valued commodity.

“Our clients longed for us to be further removed from modernity than themselves,” she writes. “And we complied by talking about nature, subsistence, ceremonies, and demonstrating other signs of ‘primitivism’—but we did so on our own terms.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide

By Alexis C. Bunten

University of Nebraska Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

On June 30, 2013, Arizona’s infamous Yarnell Hill Fire overran the Granite Mountain Hotshots, killing 19 firefighters as they crouched beneath their woefully inadequate aluminum shelters.

The tragedy was nearly as mysterious as it was horrific: Minutes earlier, Granite Mountain had been stationed in the secure “black,” already-burned land that couldn’t reignite. Why the hotshots abandoned safety is a question that has spawned two official reports, hundreds of articles and countless Internet-fueled conspiracy theories. Was it incompetent leadership? Hubris? Or a reasonable decision rendered disastrous by a sudden shift in the wind?

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it’s the best account yet of the Yarnell catastrophe. Dickman, a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a former firefighter, is concerned less with how Granite Mountain’s men died than with how they lived. Burning Edge offers an intimate window into the singular culture of hotshots, the men and women who defend America’s public lands with chainsaws, axes and an endless supply of prepackaged meals and chewing tobacco.

Granite Mountain’s members, most of whom are in their 20s, are a study in contradictions: Testosterone-driven in the field and tender at home, hard-drinking and yet eager to join hands and pray “in the soft glow of the dying fire.” We meet Scott Norris, a mentor to younger hotshots who bonds with his girlfriend over their mutual affinity for handguns; Grant McKee, an aspiring paramedic lured by good pay and repulsed by the team’s hazing rituals; and guilt-wracked sole survivor Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a third-year hotshot “with the crew’s longest rap sheet and foulest mouth.” The most complex character is Eric Marsh, the ambitious superintendent who moves his team away from safety and toward the fire’s path—perhaps, Dickman speculates, to impress higher-ups. To some firefighters, Marsh’s mistake was understandable; to others, it was an “egregious and unforgivable error in judgment.”

Still, no one man led the Granite Mountain Nineteen to their deaths. Burning Edge provides a deft synopsis of a century of firefighting malpractice, from the nascent Forest Service stamping out all fires to save valuable timber, to the ascent of the anti-fire mascot Smokey Bear, whose “fame rivaled that of Santa Claus.” By interfering with natural cycles, forest managers permitted brush and saplings to choke meadows, creating a “ladder of fuels” that help low-intensity conflagrations climb into treetops and become mega-fires.

Not until one-third of Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988 did America’s public-land agencies recognize the folly of knee-jerk suppression. Even today, however, firefighters extinguish 98 percent of blazes in their early stages. Though Dickman devotes a few pages to contemporary fire policy, he rarely pulls back to analyze the larger land-use trends that put hotshots in harm’s way, particularly population growth in the wildland-urban interface and landowners who fiercely decry building codes even as they demand that the federal government ride to their rescue. Climate change, which is making the West hotter, drier and more flammable, casts an omnipresent shadow over Burning Edge, but earns little explicit mention in its pages.

In the end, this is a book not about the scientists who study fire, nor the wonks who manage it, but about the grunts who face the consequences. Jesse Steed, GraniteMountain’s captain and an ex-Marine, called hotshotting “the next best thing to the military,” and the parallels are unmistakable: There’s the grueling training, the obsession with equipment, the interminable deployments, the special camaraderie. As Dickman retraces the crew’s final weeks, we eavesdrop on our protagonists in their most private moments: Kevin Woyjeck dancing in the backseat of McKee’s car, Norris slipping away from camp to steal one last shower with his girlfriend, and so on. Knowing the fate that awaits these young men makes their precious happiness almost unbearable; as June 30 draws ever closer, turning the pages starts feeling downright cruel.

When the Granite Mountain hotshots finally reach Yarnell, they’re greeted by “total nonstop chaos.” Three-mile walls of fire roar through the chaparral, and “dozens of propane tanks (send) columns of flames shooting into the air like fires off an oil derrick.” Communications deteriorate as hotshot crews, agencies and commanders tussle for control of radio frequencies. Airplanes and helicopters nearly collide. Granite Mountain, trapped in a canyon, tries desperately to hail air support, which fails to grasp the crew’s predicament until it’s too late.

The Yarnell Hill Fire may have been sparked by lightning, but it was partly a manmade calamity, exacerbated by uncertain hierarchies, miscommunications and breaches in safety protocols. If these 19 deaths accomplished nothing else, perhaps we can use them to improve how the West’s firefighting agencies interact on the line—because more, and bigger, fires are on the way.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

On the Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It

By Kyle Dickman

Ballantine Books

304 pages, $26

Published in Literature

Snowblind, the first collection of short stories by veteran travel writer and alpinist Daniel Arnold, explores mountaineering and the power it holds over the people who pursue it.

Arnold’s characters are drawn irrevocably to the mountains they climb, and their obsession works strangely on their minds, pushing them into sometimes-terrifying realms of thought and behavior. The locations range from cabins at the base of Mount Hood, in Oregon, to brutal mountains at the edge of human settlement in Alaska. The stories’ protagonists tangle intimately with death in all its many faces, from storm-caused disasters to fatal falls and even suspected murder—as well as the lingering ache of mourning.

Even when death is not imminent, the threat of it hovers at the edges of the stories. In one piece, after a dangerous climb, the mountaineers demolish a centuries-old cabin in a fury of pent-up emotion. In another, a climber’s accidental death drives those waiting at the bottom to drinking—and then to blows.

Both alpinists and those who find their outdoor enjoyment in less-perilous pursuits will recognize the emotional landscape inhabited by Arnold’s characters. The wildness of grief, an encounter with an old flame, the underlying fear of loss—these are experiences common to all.

Still, it’s the otherworldliness of climbing and the jagged beauty of the mountains that most grip the reader. In the collection’s finest story, “Ozdon,” Dane, a climber from Boulder, Colo., and a native of the Wasatch, heads to Alaska to find a lost friend. The mountain where his friend vanished seems “torn from the earth, a bone from below dripping with ice and crusted with jags of black rock.” It ensnares Dane physically and emotionally, drawing him in, as it has other climbers, “like flies to meat.”

But Arnold avoids the traditional narrative arc of nobility and courage in the face of danger. The story of the climb remains unsettling and dark. It raises but never answers the question: What is the reward for all this risk and suffering? And, more important, what is its human cost?

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession

By Daniel Arnold

Counterpoint Press

296 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

Montana-based author David Allan Cates plunges us into the raw grief of a recently widowed doctor in his latest novel, Tom Connor’s Gift.

Janine has walked off her shift in a Wisconsin emergency room and driven to a friend’s empty cabin in the Rocky Mountains to confront the emptiness of life without her husband, Mark. She hopes that “the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind.” A stray puppy appears to keep her company as she revisits her past, reliving her marriage and reading old letters from a man named Tommy Connor, who was her first love, 30 years ago. Meanwhile, outside the cabin, a curious grizzly bear lurks.

This tautly written book, which the Independent Publisher Book Awards just named the year’s best fiction from the Mountain West Region, explores the continuum of human experience, from ecstasy to bone-deep despair. Cates deftly weaves together three strands of life, using Tom’s old letters, Janine’s memories of her husband, and her present experience in a cold, remote corner of Montana. As she reads Tom’s letters, she remembers where she was when she received them; memories of her marriage surface as well. The letters serve as a kind of road map as she journeys through her grief; she ends up reliving her married life in all its complexity, relishing both the bitter and the delightful.

Tom’s letters recount the years he spent living in Central America. He describes the poverty and unrest, but also shares his philosophical meditations and sexual escapades. Back when Janine first received these letters, she had trouble appreciating them; she’d become too frustrated by Tom’s half-crazy alcoholic instability. Now that grief has cracked open her heart, she finds an unexpected treasure in Tom’s words. She reflects, “I feel ashamed at how little I was able to grasp of his struggle, not really to reconcile, but to stay open, to love the world so full of suffering and evil, betrayal and injustice. And isn’t that the work of it? I mean, for all of us? To be brave enough to spread our arms and open our hearts and fill our lungs with the terrible beauty of living? And isn’t that what he ... tried so hard and for so long to do?”

With down-to-earth detail and a refreshingly blunt narrator, Cates delivers a tale of transformation that rises to a crescendo with an unforgettable scene involving the bear. Tom Connor’s Gift is a memorable reminder of the richness available to a wide-open heart.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Tom Connor’s Gift

By David Allan Cates


350 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

Gripping beginnings are said to be a key to successful short stories—but it’s the endings in Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair that make this collection stand out.

Punchy, surprising, nebulous and even shattering conclusions mark these stories, with finales that can be as spectacular as explosions. McGuane has authored more than a dozen other books, but he hasn’t published a story collection since the acclaimed Gallatin Canyon appeared nine years ago.

In Crow Fair, the longtime Montana resident writes from his home state, pursuing the themes you’d expect to find in such a sparsely populated region: isolation, loneliness and rugged individualism. In “River Camp,” for example, two childhood friends who take a fishing trip to confront their faltering friendship end up facing grave dangers, including a lunatic guide, ravenous bears and death-trap rapids. The differences between the two men become starkly apparent in their reactions as they float away from their camp in a raft: “Tony thought that this was nature at its most benign, shepherding them away from the dreaded camp; but Jack, looking at the dark walls of trees enclosing the current, the ravens in the high branches, felt a malevolence in his bones.”

Despite their vivid Western settings, these stories contain the kind of unexpected, quirky events that could happen anywhere—from the struggle to cope with an aging relative, to something as dramatic as getting duped into a drug deal. In “A Long View to the West,” a used-car salesman juggles his job with caring for a dying father, and in the collection’s title story, two brothers take turns visiting their mother at an assisted-living facility, where her habit of “loudly free-associating about her amorous adventures” gets her banned from the common room during visiting hours.

In a collection that often seems preoccupied with death, McGuane’s darkly comedic style—together with a host of lively characters and surprise happenings—keeps the tone upbeat. If the knockout endings of these stories can help us understand anything about our lives, it’s that death can elicit a myriad of unexpected responses: from sorrow and confusion to a little leap of joy—and maybe, at times, just a feeling of relief.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Crow Fair

By Thomas McGuane

Alfred A. Knopf

288 pages, $25.95

Published in Literature