Colorado Review 31.2 (Summer 2004). Special Issue: Writing of the New West. $9.50.
Reviewed by Dorine Preston
Back east, out west, up north, down south: direction, like everything, else, is relative to where you’re standing. The Editor’s Page of the Colorado Review’s “Writing of the New West” issue informs us that the editors put out a call for “stories, poems and essays that explore themes of the contemporary West: what it means (or doesn’t mean), where it is, how and why we live there--in short, writing in which the West somehow figures prominently.” A tall order. Producing a themed issue is a bit like adapting a book to film: someone will be upset with you, no matter what you do. However varied the selections are, they won’t cover all available terrain. One hopes, though, that such an issue will make a genuine attempt at completeness; in the best of all worlds, a themed issue would feature not only excellent writing, but writing which addresses as many aspects of the chosen theme as possible. Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all worlds, and in this case, some genres seem to be working harder than others: the fiction here is disappointingly uniform in its approach to both form and content, but the issue makes a great run with its poetry offerings and its essays. It showcases a variety of formal approaches and aesthetic allegiances in its poetry, and its essays provide some sophisticated speculations about not only the west, but the nature of the essay itself, and by extension the nature of all endeavors in writing.
The fiction selections mostly maintain a fairly traditional narrative structure and consistently provide a sense of completion rather than fragmentation. Tim Weed’s “Six Feet Under the Prairie,” for example, is a pretty standard Bildungsroman of the middle-class-kid-does-physical-labor-with-the-working-class-man-and-benefits-therefrom-before-returning-to-his-white-collar-world variety. The story is a consistently engaging read, despite falling into some unfortunate cliches (one of the tough-guy cowboy characters, whose description involves the word “leather,” refers to the protagonist as “college boy”)--or are those cliches one of the joys of the story? There’s a certain category of surprise in this story that may be recognizable to the nomadic reader: the surprise of finding out that a particular region is exactly how you thought it would be. After so many Western movies, is it really possible that the west is filled with leathery men wearing boots and giant buckles who have gathered around campfires in the sage to drink coffee thick enough to stand your spoon in? In a word, yes. Whether its engagement with these stock characters is the story’s triumph or its downfall is for each reader to decide, but the questions this story introduces to the reader represent the crux of the matter when it comes to this issue’s fiction.
The west may contain a whole lot of big hats and belt buckles--as Lyle Lovett reminds us, “You can have my girl, but don’t touch my hat”--but it also has, at least as I define it (and the editors did leave the west’s exact boundaries an open question) a lot of lattes and grunge bands and Hollywood and Shakespeare festivals and techno geeks and rainforest and mountains and surfers and coastline, none of which are represented here. And even if “the west” in this issue stops before the coastal states, where is the high country? We have an awful lot of ranches within sight of the Rockies, but no mountaineers. Saguaros aplenty, but very little snow. And the voices are as limited as the landscape: we hear from those whose families homesteaded land that is now being bought up by suburban developers, for example, but we don’t hear much from the developers, or from those who live in the homes they build.
That said, there are some fine stories here, the best of which is Gary Schanbacher’s “Regaining Flight.” This story distinguishes itself in part by the fact that its main characters break up the uniformity of the other stories: they are a vet from Boston and a man who, though he grew up on a ranch, at the time of the story works in Denver in construction management. More importantly, this is a tight, compelling story of two characters deciding whether to risk themselves in a new romance. Both the characters and the landscape have their inviting quirks, and the story moves the reader while avoiding the many pitfalls of sentimentality. In other words, it “rings true.”
The poetry is more formally varied than the fiction, featuring a little bit of everything: the portrait/narrative of Marea Gordett’s “Meeting Michio Takayama the Day of the Total Eclipse of the Moon,” image-driven lyrics like Charles Jensen’s “Dream River” series, Joshua Kryah’s meditative “Perforate,” and also many more fragmented pieces which depend upon juxtaposition and the reader to make connections, like Lara Candland’s “Longtemps” and Alice Notley’s “Burrowing Soul,” two of the best examples of this tactic by way of their taut language and momentum. Two exceptionally fresh approaches to narrative are exhibited in Camille Norton’s “Scattered Remnant” and Nick Twemlow’s “I Remember the Train.”
Some of these selections do seem redundant--the inclusion of Brian Young’s very similar “Stilt 10” and “Stilt 11” on facing pages, for example--but overall, the poetry selections are individually tight and collectively varied. Part of that variety includes, in some pieces, a comfort with direct statements of emotion (vs. emotion enacted through image) that may make some readers squirm, such as “I shook with rage and heartbreak and indignation” in Mark Rudman’s “Autokinetic Heartbreak.”
The essays are in some ways the most exciting pieces here, because they openly and explicitly grapple with the challenges of their form and what it means to participate in “the west.” In this genre as well, there are pieces which make me squirm; a westerner myself, I’m suspicious of those who seem too invested in their own swagger, as in Holly Leigh’s claim that “Like a brand, a hat, a belt buckle, a worn saddle, a scuffed boot, a bandana flags those who embrace an outlaw code, those who wear life’s experiences, mop up the blood and brush off the sweat.” And here I thought it was just to keep my hair out of my face. However, this squirm-worthy moment is the exception rather than the rule. The essays here range from the more personal--Kate Krautkramer’s “Picture That Hillside on Fire” shows us life as the spouse of a backcountry firefighter--to Jonis Agee’s “Fence,” a delightfully cranky personal/philosophical piece that ponders the nature of boundaries in the self and in the landscape.
The essay section and the issue culminate in Douglas Unger’s “Gone West: Farmers, Pirates, and Suitcase Ranchers,” which begins by telling us, “Eleven years ago, I quit writing about the West.” From there, Unger proceeds to blend personal history, political history, public relations, ranching know-how, and writerly chat into a sustained, satisfyingly complex inquiry into what it means to declare one’s credibility about any topic, and in particular what it means to claim the west as not just a physical, but a political and intellectual terrain. This is the essay as genuine assay, and it’s a piece which encompasses at one go the territory that the other pieces have addressed by accumulation. A fitting fence for a wide field.