Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Still Wild, for all your short fiction needs

This book caught my eye at the library last time, and I decided it would be an excellent book to use to test my credit limit as far as overdue fines go (I owed $6.75 and put $3 on it, and they let me take everything. So far, so good!). It is called Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950-present and was edited by Larry McMurtry. I knew a couple of the stories: "The Mexican Girl," an excerpt from Kerouac's On the Road, and of course E. Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain." I was familiar with several of the authors, like Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Raymond Carver. A couple of the others, like Wallace Stegner and Richard Ford, sounded familiar to me, but I was unsure if I'd actually read anything by them.

Many others, though, were unknown to me, and I think that's one of the joys of these types of collections. Some of the unknowns I liked enough to remember their names and look for more (that's how I got into George Saunders). There were about 20 stories in the book, so I won't go through story by story, but just pick out a few noteworthy ones to talk about.

"Brokeback Mountain" is one I could probably forgo discussing. The movie was nominated for every Oscar on the planet, after all. I still haven't seen it, but I knew the story and was pissed that people made it into a joke. I read it again, and it really is a devastating story, beautiful and sad. Proulx always does an excellent job of breathing life into locales that are probably deadly dull and uninspiring to live in. She's always a treat to read, and "Brokeback Mountain" is no exception.

"Good Rockin' Tonight" by William Hauptman was just plain fun. It was about an Elvis impersonator, and the parallels between his life and that of the King, and I dare you not to like a story that has an Elvis impersonator in it!

Like the above, "True Romance" also riffs on tabloid themes and the American subconscious. It features Baby Mama Drama, La Chupacabra and UFO's. It was not as much fun, and more metaphorical, but still a good read.

More straightforward, realistic and gritty were Diana Ossana's "White Line Fever", Richard Ford's "Rock Springs" and Robert Boswell's "Glissando". All three are about (as my mother would say) "how the other half lives." They speak to broken hearts, broken lives, petty crime, cheap sex, lives lived in motel rooms and on the run from the law or from a bad man or from themselves. Each author manages to shy away from both moralizing and romanticizing their main figures. Ossana's heroine is an ordinary, lost girl. The father of Boswell's narrator, we're stunned to learn, is essentially a romantic at heart. Ford's narrator is relatively unsympathetic, even dull, until the last paragraph of his tale, when the meaning of the story falls into place.

"Mahatma Joe" by Rick Bass is a beautiful, dreamlike tale that celebrates peace and stasis and humble achievements. It's got to be a difficult thing to do in an engaging way, but Bass achieves it. I will definitely look for more from him.

I'm not sure why "Cul-de-sacs" by Mark-Jude Poirer was included in this collection. I liked the story a lot: it was very well-done and had a lovely metaphor at its heart (his main character lives with his wife and baby in a model home, in a subdivision that was never completed) but I wouldn't call it particularly Western. True, it was set in Tuscon, but the story would've worked in any suburban setting. Still, it was a good short story, with an excellent juxtaposition of familiar elements and odd details.

"The Pedersen Kid" by William H. Gass closes out the anthology. At over 60 pages, it barely qualifies as "short" fiction. A big WTF????? to this story. I have to confess, I didn't understand it at all. There seemed to be some subtext that I wasn't getting, and part of it seemed like a hallucination, or a dream, or a fantasy. All I could determine that definitely happened in the story is that the Pedersen kid appears frozen mostly to death on the farm where the narrator (also a kid) lives. Living on the farm with the kid are his drunken and abusive father, and a hired hand named Big Hans who doesn't seem much better. The Pedersen kid wakes up with a tall tale of someone coming to his house and threatening his family, and the narrator's family goes to check it out (I think). That marks the midpoint of the story, though. If anyone out there has read it and feels they get it, please comment!!!!

Update 9/2/07: The comments section of this post now contains spoilers for this story.

Overall, I give this one a high recommendation. Like me, I'm sure you'll read some of these stories and just scratch your head, but I do think there's probably something in here for just about everyone. In the introduction, McMurtry notes a shift away from the pulpy "Western" novels of the early to mid-20th century, towards something that demands more of the reader than a quarter and an afternoon. One of these stories will probably stay with you, in some way or another. This anthology is well worth your time. Try it. Maybe it'll get you through the Labor Day Blues.


Jeff M. said...

the last third of the novella, The Pedersen Kid, is difficult. It's been a while since I read it, but I think I remember that the narrator murders his father and Big Hans.

LD/Brownie said...

Thank you, Jeff. The way it was written, I had difficulty telling whether he actually did it, or whether there really was a murderer in the Pedersen house who picked off everyone but the kid, or whether the entire thing was a hypothermia-induced hallucination.

For some reason, I had a hard time with the entire story. It took me a while to catch on to what was going on in any given scene, plus the characters were kind of unsympathetic and it was the last story in the book and I was just kind of eager to be done, and maybe didn't give it the attention it needs.

Thanks for your take on it, and thanks for stopping by!