Reviews | Commentary | The Literary World by
August 23, 2018 by David G. Pace
Recently, I had the privilege of having a short story appear in Moth & Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death, published by Signature Books (2017). It’s a collection of short (most of them around 1,000 words each) essays, sketches, short stories, illustrations, poems … even a play. And of course, the small attractively bound paperback, though somber looking, is about death through the lens of Mormons and Mormonism.
One of the selections, the short story told in first-person titled “Hollow” by Kathryn Lynard, struck me badly. The story is written well, but I felt that something was clearly manipulative about it. It’s not unusual for Mormon literature—what I would call Mormon lit in service of the faith—to be dogmatic, even hackneyed. This story is not hackneyed. Again, it’s well-written, genuinely atmospheric and compelling reading.
It’s also about abortion, which orthodox Mormons hold in contempt and for which the LDS Church has a special kind of hell if the person guilty of it remains unrepentant. Abortion was arguably the wedge issue that propelled most Utah Mormons to vote against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election and helped elevate Donald Trump, who is ostensibly “pro-life,” into the White House and, in my view, precipitated the most serious political emergency of our lifetime as Americans.
All of this to say, that when I first read this story, I knew I was going to be triggered all over the place and that my first impulse was going to be to shoot flaming arrows. Curiously, a good friend who, like me, is a self-described post-Mormon and is pro-choice, did not find the story “Hollow” offensive.
He and I are still talking, but I admit to wanting to send one of those arrows his way when I realized he disagreed with me. Still … I’m struck by Lynard’s story, that there’s something wrong-headed and manipulative about it and that I need to call it out. And not just because I’m a pro-choicer “baby-killer” who earlier this year received a surgically evacuated and bloodied doll beneath my “I Stand for Planned Parenthood” lawn sign here inSaltLake City.
Clearly, I needed some help. I decided to enlist someone who knew more about a strange term that kept leaping into mind regarding my agitation: “agit-prop.”
I’ve asked Sonja Farnsworth who like me has an MA in Speech Communication/Rhetoric but who unlike me is brilliant and even-keeled, to talk me off the ledge and to help me determine if I’m just a defensive progressive with a post-Mormon axe to grind or if I actually have a point.
Sonja is a graduate of Brigham Young University (BA) and San Jose State University (MA). She is a regular contributor at the Mormon-related Sunstone Symposium, a book reviewer, and contributor to more than one collection of essays largely about women and the LDS Culture. She and I exchanged emails about the story, and I wanted to feature it here in this post.
First, I thought I’d give a summary of the story “Hollow” by Kathryn Lynard so that those who haven’t read it will know what the text is we are examining today. The nameless narrator of this story leaves her parents’ home on a frigid Saturday morning in January with her boyfriend Dave. He picks her up in his new truck and they drive to what we soon learn by inference is an abortion clinic. Dave pays the $200 in cash at the receptionist’s desk, while the narrator, who has mixed emotions about what she’s about to do, fills out the required paperwork. It’s clear from the text that her parents do not know anything about the pregnancy nor that she has been sexually active. When the survey asks if the unwanted pregnancy is the result of contraception that has failed she ticks, “yes,” even though, the reader learns that the young couple were just careless: they hadn’t used any contraception.
Once in the sterile room, sans Dave whom the narrator is trying not to inconvenience too much, she is asked if she still wants to go through with the procedure. She says yes. The nurse assists with the local anesthesia and the doctor, a black woman with “eyes [that] had the look of old pain,” does the scraping and vacuuming of the fetus out of the narrator’s body. From there, the young woman/narrator is left to dress. She reports: “Salt water appeared on my gown as my eyes and skin purged themselves clean.”
Dave drops his girlfriend off, saying he knows she needs to rest and that he is going to meet some friends: “I nodded again, excusing him from any further responsibility. …Dave kept the engine running as he said goodbye, and as I walked up the driveway I heard him pull away a bit too fast.” The narrator’s grandparents are there. She enters the house, and hears her mother and grandmother calling her name. “wanting to hear all about the places [on a Saturday morning] I hadn’t been.” [italics mine]
DGP: Sonja, what did you make of this story in general terms? Or did I prejudice you against it before you read it?
SLF: I don’t worry that you may have prejudiced me against the story. As George Linzer (a writer I follow on Medium) expressed it,
Bias is not a sin that needs to be debated or eradicated, and a biased point of view is most certainly not something to be dismissed from conversation. Rather, it is something that needs to be more frequently acknowledged and embraced as a useful starting point for productive discussion…
We all come into the world with proclivities that result in implicit biases, and since it’s more constructive to admit them than deny them, I appreciate the chance to explore “Hollow” with your concerns about bias on the table. Chapters 9-13 of The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis demonstrate ways in which investigators can restrain their biases by applying certain tests to their reasoning and exposing their conclusions to criticism. We can consult it and other sources about bias detection at the end of this discussion if we want to.
That said, the word “agit-prop” is a portmanteau of “agitation” and “propaganda.” It differs from regular propaganda because it’s designed to embed in an audience ideas a propagandist calculates will arouse it to activism in the service of a cause. It can be any form of media—a poster, a pamphlet, or well-written fiction like “Hollow.”
What strikes me about “Hollow,” is that it’s a short, easy-to-read, tightly-constructed story—the kind people read when they feel rushed as most of us feel these days. Unlike a sign saying, “Abortion is murder,” “Hollow” does not announce its purpose, make any claims, or does any special pleading. Consequently, its readers will tend to relax their defenses—and most people do anyway in the presence of a story. Because you shared your concerns that “Hollow” might be agitprop, the fairest way to proceed is to see if it meets the criteria—(e.g., if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck…it’s a duck). In general terms, “Hollow” is appropriate for an anthology about death and dying because of the way Lynard interlaces it with symbols of mortality. The story begins with the phrase, “It was January,” setting the scene in the dead of winter. The word “cold” appears twice in the first paragraph and once in the second, and the words “frigid,” “froze,” and “frost” all appear in the sentences that follow Lynard’s central character to the abortion clinic.
Continuing the theme of lifelessness, Lynard leaves her central character nameless. This calls forth the Hebrew concept of people’s names being their link to the creative force. When the nameless woman says, “I had close-cropped hair that was bleached a color of white called silent snow,” the words “silent” and “snow” evoke death because corpses are silent, and snow is nature’s shroud. To put it succinctly, Lynard’s “Hollow” is a story about a woman whose life is suspended, living in a lifeless landscape.
DGP: Once Lynard sets up the scene of a stark and dead environment, what else does she do in your view to further the aims of what we are referring to here as agitprop?
SLF: Having set the scene in an allegorical coffin, Lynard fashions her main character as a facsimile of the woman that inhabits pro-life arguments against abortion—promiscuous, self-absorbed, careless about conception, disinterested in the fetus, prone to taking the easy way out, and disposed to using abortion as a form of birth control:
We hadn’t used a condom that afternoon in the emptied house. We knew we should have, but we were already in my parents’ bedroom—their bed was bigger than mine—and didn’t have much time before I had to leave for work. Ask we walked into the bedroom, Dave asked if it would be OK, and I said yes, even though I didn’t know.
As the plot takes the young woman through the medical paperwork, Lynard takes her readers into the young woman’s mind as she describes the mundanity of filling out forms. (The scene reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s observation of “the banality of evil.”) At this point, Lynard gives the boyfriend a name (Dave)—a whisper of a hint that he is more alive than his impassive girlfriend who observes his subtle emotional responses about the potential child she is carrying but turns away from his feelings because they’re something she “can’t afford to pin down.” As she’s prepped for the procedure, she describes it in terms that make it seem banal and when she recounts the physical pain she feels from administration of the local anesthetic, her concern never extends to the fetus. At this point, Lynard provides insight into her reasons for giving her story the title “Hollow”:
What followed were bright lights, deep pressure, and the noise of suction. There was a moment of silence before the doctor confirmed me empty.
With the word “empty,” Lynard serves the pro-life movement’s valorization of the fetus by dehumanizing the mother and trying to ensure that readers view pro-life women as a kind of human void with all the concomitant characteristics the word “empty” evokes. In Christian terminology, a true Christian is “filled with the spirit.” In contrast, “Hollow” proposes a nameless, spiritually impoverished heroine, cut off from the purpose of life.
We know little else about Lynard’s protagonist except that she’s become pregnant through hurried, unprotected sex in her parent’s bed—a violation of parental privacy based on lack of her own resources and explored humorously in an episode of Seinfeld. From that, we can deduce she lives at home, and in having sex with Dave, is in territory she has no business being in. She relies on Dave to pay, evoking a sense of sex in exchange for money. And (in a dig at feminist pro-choice women who aspire to escape male oppression) she is spinelessly afraid to displease her boyfriend Dave because he’s paying:
I avoided eye contact with the other women as I followed Dave to the receptionist’s desk. His job was to pay money. I watched him pull a wad of folded bills from his back pocket and count them out, two hundred dollars in twenties. When I scheduled the appointment, I opted for local anesthesia instead of general to save money, a favor Dave was unaware of.
The other prominent female character Lynard features is the African American abortion doctor. This portrayal of a black woman doesn’t conform to any of the stereotypes of black women, such as the welfare mother or the domestic. However, the black doctor’s dark, substantial presence (in contrast to the sad, passive Dave) becomes the story’s most prominent collaborator in the abortion. Lynard leaves her nameless as well and makes her the administrator of six searing shots of local anesthetic.
DGP: There’s satire and then there’s agitprop. What’s the difference in your view? Are they related? I think I could have embraced satire about abortion and the debate it has engendered, as many of us did the 1996 Sundance Film Citizen Ruth, written by Jim Taylor and debut director Alexander Payne. Instead, in “Hollow,” the author’s message about abortion seems manipulative. The story is deeply coded to confirm the bias of an ultra-conservative community and institutional church that appears to believe that abortion is exclusively, or at least most importantly, about killing babies. I think the editor of this collection, Steven Carter, might have seen this as a stark, technically well-written work that would represent the more traditional Mormon writers out there. It was, perhaps, an effort to be inclusive of the Mormon experience. Still, I’m wondering if it should have been excluded because of its polemical nature. Also, except for the death imagery which you’ve pointed out, the only connection to the collection’s subtitle is that the author is LDS.
I know I’m making a judgment here on the literary merit of “Hollow.” I’m not asking you to do that as well, but I would like you to weigh in on what you think more broadly the role of art, particularly the literary arts, plays or could play in the public discourse that abortion is exclusively about murder . . . art being something, ideally, that is less about messaging and more to do with aesthetics, expression, and story without having an overt agenda.
SLF: Agit-prop and satire are language-based communications with different goals. Satire operates through a universal appeal that exposes and denounces the irrational, peels away layers of deception or pretense, and jumpstarts self-exploration with no fixed intent. Agit-prop is politicized and calculated to elicit an activist response predetermined by its creator. In “Hollow,” the author arguably hopes to create activists and single-issue pro-life voters by dehumanizing women who choose abortion. Yes—and “Hollow’s” aesthetics, expression, and story serve an agenda because it denies readers the opportunity to see abortion as the complex, contradictory issue it is. Lawrence Tribe, Harvard law professor emeritus, called the abortion debate a “clash of absolutes” because both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” represent profound ethical principles. But instead of building bridges between them, Lynard’s story tells a one-dimensional tale–abortion is murder, and only the dehumanized could commit it—end of story. “Hollow” may be artful, but it’s not art. It’s tightly packaged, well-presented moralism. Great literature is relevant, and if “Hollow” doesn’t tell a great truth, it doesn’t meet that standard.
DGP: You’ve studied a lot about confirmation bias in general and the alt-right rhetoric targeting Hillary Clinton, which I think you could argue has been unprecedented in our contemporary age. I understand the vitriol of a Sean Hannity or fellow Mormon Glenn Beck. Especially Hannity has balked at being called a journalist, preferring to see himself as a commentator/entertainer, as if either of those when it relates to social and public issues isn’t contingent on any kind of truth claims. But “Hollow” is fiction and I can’t help but call foul a little faster with Lynard’s veiled attempt at vitriol which I believe it embodies.
Wallace Stegner wrote that “culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.” It’s all culture, I suppose, but I’d like to think that when it comes to literary fiction that we need to call out one another when we fall to indecorous approaches for nefarious reasons. I would much rather read grit lit of Denis Johnson’s short story “Dirty Wedding,” which is also about abortion (and admittedly much longer), than “Hollow” because it doesn’t presume the reader is an idiot who can’t possibly be human if he/she doesn’t come to the conclusion at which Lynard is driving.
SLF: From a propaganda analyst’s point of view, the problem with “Hollow” is not that it takes a position that expresses vitriol against women but that it’s misleading. Few women who choose to end their pregnancies are like Lynard’s nameless, emotionally dead protagonist. And not all pro-life advocates see abortion in a way that portrays women who have abortions as somewhat inhuman. Pro-life advocate Dr. Randall O’Bannon articulated more nuanced views by suggesting that the legalization of abortion has created “the cultural machinery that forces these cruel choices on women, that lets men off the hook, that leaves women to care for households of children all alone, and that makes society less accommodating to the demands of motherhood.”
And though I disagree that legal abortion is the culprit in leaving women feeling unsupported in motherhood, at least O’Bannon sees women as fully human. He doesn’t blame them as much as understand their economic and emotional situation. His concern is that, “Collectively … factors may conspire to force many of these women to consider an option that goes totally against their nurturing natures and pits the needs of one or more of their children against another.” His sense that we have created a world in which women are afraid to have babies does not single out women (the least powerful of the two sexes) for blame. It exposes more humane reasons women choose abortion—ones in which mothers are fully human players.
DGP: Is “Hollow” a cautionary tale for all of us, especially as we find ourselves embedded in a seemingly intractable politicized age?
SLF: There’s a case to be made that “Hollow” represents the current America in which Americans see those with opposite points of view as less than human. In Lynard’s defense, I suggest that acting out of concern for the unborn is a grand, loving impulse that has done incalculable good in the world for centuries. Her story is undoubtedly sincere or perhaps an exploration of concerns she may have about women who chose to end their pregnancies. But that begs the question of what is accomplished when protective zeal toward the unborn dehumanizes pro-choice women and publicly accuses them of murder. A narrative that turns the notion of “abortion as murder” back onto itself till it symbolically kills the mother is disquieting for the way it does not consider the context of fear in which women view motherhood when society offers shrinking options for raising a family in the nostalgic, pro-family way pro-lifers envision.
DGP: Thank you, Sonja. Let’s talk about bias detection next time. I think many of us are chronically uncertain about our own bias these days, or not uncertain at all–at least publicly. I’m not sure which is more egregious–for one to be so so worried about how bias impacts one’s attempts at dialogue and therefore remaining silent or being absolutely certain that one has no bias and therefore shouting everyone down. Next time?
SLF: Yes. Next time.
This review originally appeared in 15 Bytes Magazine. “House Under the Moon” was a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Awards in poetry. I liked this book partly because I’ve met Michael personally in Logan where he and his family live, and partly because he’s a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, something I’ve been dabbling in for a couple of years. “Dabbling” is perhaps the wrong word for it. It’s become a discipline for me, this Zen thing, and one that I would recommend. My introduction to meditation was through the writings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh whose mindfulness work seems to have penetrated the West to reach many. like me, who have never had an entree into Eastern thought and spirituality. Not sure when I can call myself a “Buddhist,” if ever, but I have to say that of late mindfulness/meditation has been transformative for me. And this book of poems sort of helped me understand that, calling yourself this or that, Buddhist or not, is the least important thing to worry about.
“IN HIS 2012 COLLECTION House Under the Moon, it’s clear that poet Michael Sowder has suffered for his art, as spiritual seekers do. The first section (“Homecoming”) starts with a kind of post mortem of the life previous—another marriage, a father whose marginalia in a book sends the mind reeling in memory and loss, perhaps old systems of thinking, feeling and believing. The direction is linear, forward in direction, away from something and home to a new hearth that in the second half (titled “Housekeeping”) becomes eastern, circular and
curiously joyful.” read the full review
House Under the Moon
by Michael Sowder
Truman State University Press
(2012) 85 pages
Michael Sowder is a poet, writer, and professor at Utah State
University in Logan where he lives at the foot of the Bear River
Mountains with his wife, writer Jennifer Sinor, and their boys, Aidan
and Kellen. His first book of poetry, The Empty Boat, won the 2004 T.S. Eliot Award and his chapbook, A Calendar of Crows, won the New Michigan Press Award. His nonfiction, which explores themes
of wilderness, poetrics , and spirituality, appears in Shambhala Sun, The Wasatch Journal, and several essay collections.
Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Michael Sowder was trained as a meditation teacher in a tantric yoga tradition in the 1970s and subsequently practiced meditation in Buddhist and Christian mystical traditions. He is the founder of the Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality, an organization that explores and teaches the practices ofthe world’s contemplative traditions.
In the fall of 2013 the winners of the first annual 15 Bytes Book Awards were announced. As the literary editor of this online arts magazine, I had the privilege of working with other magazine staff and the editor, Shawn Rossiter, to determine all the particulars of launching a new statewide program of this type. In part, the 15 Bytes Book Awards was in response to the fact that the Utah Book Award went on hiatus. (Whether it returns is still in question.) But, being an art magazine for adults, we decided to limit the categories to literary fiction, poetry and art books. This seemed enough for the first year. At the moment we are engaged in the second iteration of what we hope we become an annual affair perhaps someday expanding its categories to include narrative nonfiction.
The winner of last year’s fiction award was Barbara Richardson’s Tributary, a novel set in the 19th Century. I had the privilege of writing the review/citation for this extraordinary book which, coincidentally, falls within my own long-term interest in Mormon letters. I found this book not only worthy of a 15 Bytes book award, but also worthy of note for those within the admittedly small but rather obsessed cadre of “Mo-lit” enthusiasts–a group to which I often feel ambivalent toward, even though my own forays into writing suffer (or benefit) from my seeing Mormonly. (With apologies to Emily Dickinson’s phrase to describe her own poetry as “seeing New Englandly.”)I fear still, and perhaps always will, as I express below in the review, that Mormon literature, such as it was, is and might in the near future become, will fail to find an audience. One thing is certain: no one is in charge of this train–not the institutional church, not its dissidents, apostates and true believers either within our without the academy, and not its rank-and-file. There are broader, indiscriminate and enigmatic forces blowing through the attempts of not only Mormon writers but every writer right now…not only technological but social forces (both of which continue to profoundly inform each other). In the end, serious writers of every stripe can only do what serious writers have always done and what they’ve always been called to do: write and write well. Perhaps writing well is like loving well. It is its own reward.
“Remarkable as Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary is, it is most remarkable, perhaps, because it seems to be one of the first literary works in memory that positions the history of the Great Basin in the broader context of its time. Set in the years following the arrival of the Mormons to Utah, this sprawling tale told in the first person dignifies the region, if rarely the “saints” who people it, with the weight of its narrative. Here the territory is not just a placeholder in the story of the west—or in modern parlance, a ‘flyover state.’ Its heroine, plucky Clair Martin—the woman with the red stain of a birthmark on her left check—is its product, and its curse, its orphan and its lay prophetess. Clair is a proto-feminist—not entirely likable—and, lucky for the reader, stained with much more than just the splotch on her face.
“Of the many questions this Western epic raises in the course of its scene-shifting from Brigham City to the Mississippi Delta and back to the Utah/Idaho border is, what happened to those 19th Century Mormons who left their tribe?”
Read the full review
Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson
Torrey House Press (September 2012)
Barbara Richardson’s debut novel, Guest House, launched the first literary Truck Stop Tour in the nation and was a fiction finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2010. In Tributary,
she claims the land of her Mormon ancestors who settled the northern
Salt Lake Valley. Richardson earned an MFA in poetry from Eastern
Washington University. Barbara is also an avid environmentalist. She now
writes and designs landscapes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.
Visit the author’s website: www.barbarakrichardson.com
“It’s rare to read poetry that is this experiential, visceral and
somehow transcendent at the same time. In three sections Bertram runs
her electric fingers as if over the braille of American life as varied
as wildlife (coyotes, elk), the natural sciences (inter-galactic
formulas, weather patterns—in both a glass globe as well as “the model
solar system, [in which] planets suspend & twirl/as if from a
spider’s whirl.”), as varied as “blankets sewn/with thinning economic
plans and called them/shawls…” as well as the body, including in one of
the more memorable poems, the laboratory heart sans blood . . .” Read the full review
But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise
Red Hen Press
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award) is a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry. An Assistant Editor at Quarterly West, and a Vice-Presidential Fellow at the University of Utah, Bertram has had work appear in Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Narrative magazine, Subtropics, and other journals. This is her first book.
“MOTHERLUNGE IS A FULL-FRONTAL assault on every dappled, dimpled and doily-enhanced image we’ve had of both women and mothers. Think Sandy or Orem, Utah—scrubbed clean with culturally-defined markers of motherhood, riven with Victorian charms that are neither really Victorian or charming. Then think the opposite.That is Scott’s literary world. That the story is also hysterically funny even as it makes you squirm, is a tribute to the writing—an exquisite mix of the scalpel scraping along the physical curves of the female form and the cumulative, and ultimately sublime effects of pushing out another human onto a steel table: scrape and plop.” Read the full review
Motherlunge by Kirstin Scott
New Issues Poetry & Prose (January 8, 2013)
Winner of the 2011 AWP Prize for Novel and the Utah Original Writing Competition, Kirsten Scott’s Motherlunge has also been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan prize for debut novel from the Center for Fiction. Scott is a graduate of the University of Utah Creative Writing Program. Her short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review, Western Humanities Review, PANK, and
elsewhere. She works as a medical writer and lives in Salt Lake City
with her family. She is currently working on a novel about a
gynecologist named Ajax.
As with this country of ours at large, there is at play, in Jana Richman’s new novel The Ordinary Truth (Torrey House Press, 2012), the national see-saw of delusions vs. reality, collective doctrines vs. the sweet, inevitable flux of life’s authentic rhythms. In central Nevada—the driest state in the union, where this contemporary western takes place—authentic, inevitable life is rooted in the land and made possible by that rarest of west desert commodities: water.
Here’s a little tutorial for all of you water-rich east coasters. It’s given early in the book by Kate, the middle-aged Deputy Water Resource Manager: “You can mess with the rancher’s daughter and get away with it. You might even be able to mess with the rancher’s wife and still come out okay. But you mess with the rancher’s water, you can’t expect to just waltz into town one day, unarmed and unprotected. That you’re damn sure not going to get away with.”
Here Kate is talking to her young, live-in boyfriend, a pony-tailed, tantric sex-practicing urbanite who is wondering why she’s so estranged from her rancher family 400-plus miles north of where they live, and work, in Las Vegas high rises. Like the tiny but life-sucking island of Manhattan supported by its outlying boroughs, Vegas is a water-sucking desert island supported by drainage of deep carbonate aquifers that the sparsely-populated ranching communities up north rely on for survival.
And Kate is the point person in the Nevada Water Authority’s actual proposal to spend $2 Billion burying a 300-mile water pipe to drain 200,000 acre feet of water a year from six basins and send it back to the hoards walking The Strip. So she isn’t going to be “waltzing” into her home town of Omer Springs if she can help it. Meanwhile, as she compartmentalizes her rural heritage from her work, the cognitive dissonance is starting to fray her around the edges. There seems to be something more dangerous to Kate in Spring Valley than the machinations of a water grab that for the denizens of Vegas will, as she says, “secure the future of their oblivion.” (p. 315)
In one word, the danger is her irascible, 70-something-year-old mother Nell. Told through alternating first-person accounts, including Kate’s, The Ordinary Truth is, at 368 pages, a big, grappling work of intense rural family dramas, the receding life of western ranching, the threat of unsustainable urban sprawl and, literally, a smoking gun. It’s got everything you might imagine should be in a western—big sweaty men and strong women who talk in vernacular; horses and a dog named Jasper distinguished by their personified temperaments; tightly sprung barbed wire fences; ranch hands who drift in one day and stay 20 years; long drives over hill and vale to get to the public school and the occasional trip into Ely for a steak dinner at The Nevada.
But Richman, whose second book and first novel The Last Cowgirl was set in nearby Utah and also explored both the clash of the cowboy myth with the suburban/urban climes (where most westerners now have gathered) as well as the way technologies shape (and threaten) the land, among other things, has written more than a genre novel here. After all, this is Nevada, where not only live the improbable cities of Vegas and Reno but where bumping along in a truck cab, spewing dust for hundreds of miles along the placarded “loneliest highway in America” is de rigeur, but where atomic bombs are tested and brothels are happily regulated by the state.
In fact, it’s in one of these brothels, outside the state’s capital where Kate’s college-aged daughter Cassie is holed up. She’s the catalyst of this tale, having convinced both her grandma Nell and her mother Kate, locked in a 36-year feud, that she’s living with the other for the summer. Unlike her best friend from college who got them both summer jobs at the Wild Filly Stables, Cassie has found her niche away from the back rooms at a computer designing the website. But like her mother, she is haunted by Spring Valley. “They’re all the people I love in the world,” she explains. “I feel like I walked into the last scene of the last act of a play. I’m not expecting I can turn this into a happy ending, but….I have to try anyway.” Ever since Nell’s husband (and Kate’s father) Henry Jorgensen died in a mysterious hunting accident, mother and daughter have moved further apart. Like the missing father in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Henry presence is all too felt in the cast of characters that includes Nell’s twin brother Nate, his wife Ona and most of the town of Omer Springs. Nothing has been okay since Henry died, with mother and daughter competing for his love in absentia rather than being drawn together by their mutual calamity.
We learn later that ordinary truth, not the insipid lionizing found in an obituary, must come out, and the novel for the most part successfully navigates the various voices from which we learn, piecemeal, what went wrong in Omer Springs. Even the hazy romanticism that Henry inhabits in everyone’s head is brought into question, although not as much as I would have liked. Additionally, Richman occasionally overreaches, stating the obvious as when one of her characters points out the terrain of an entire family history mapped out in a facial scar. Yet, in the end she admirably wrangles with a story that elevates itself into a kind classic Greek tragedy but with spurs.
And as in the best dramas, she is sure-footed in sympathizing with how families complicate if not destroy themselves, and how natural resources are used like pawns (to wit: the notion of carbon cap and trade). While this is Nell’s story, it is her daughter Kate who best articulates the fault lines that threaten Nell’s world, as well as those in the glimmering city 400 miles south. What about the ranchers’ “pastoral entitlement,” to quote Katie? “You talk about the people of Las Vegas as if they chose between two options—owning a large ranch or making fifteen dollars an hour dealing cards at a casino—and deliberately decided on the life of so-called glitter and greed….There are three hundred million people in the United States alone. You don’t think some of those three hundred million yearn for a few thousand acres of land and the water to go with it, along win the damn near free use of several hundred thousand acres of public land?” (pp. 313-14) Meanwhile, at the foot of the Snake Mountains where Nell has lived her life, alkali patches continue to expand into the green grass, starving from the subterranean pillaging of the land’s life source.
The water wars are really just the back drop to this domestic drama. And yet like water, Richman’s prose slowly erodes the desert basins of the Jorgensens’ world to reveal the beating heart of a family in the throes of literally and figuratively seismic change and arrested by secrets that have too long lay buried. It’s a tribute to the author that she is able here to lovingly portray the stark Western landscape without sentimentalizing it. Even Cormac McCarthy’s tautology of the earth can seem at times so galactic that it swoons, while Richman’s west desert never strays further than Kate’s aunt Ona stepping outside her home under the giant blue vault of the western sky, and wiping her hands on her apron. “The sight of her performing that small movement touches me,” says Katie. “Pure simplicity and beauty. Nothing wasted, nothing nonsensical. In Vegas, we’ve lost sight of our singular insignificance, our infinitesimal blip of time and matter in the universe. In Vegas, we are the center of our worlds. Out here, the geography does not allow it. One moves across the land without reverence or conceit, a small piece of the whole.” (p. 241)
Richman mirrors this macro view with the internal dynamics of the Jorgensen clan which are not without their satisfying resolutions in the end, however painful. Whether in Vegas, in Manhattan or on the coasts of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami two years ago this week, a reader can resonate with Richman’s trenchant view of an arrogant world that refuses to acknowledge the costs of trying to live outside of its natural landscape, continually driving disastrously, it would seem, towards its collective delusions.
is the author of a memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, and two novels, The Last Cowgirl, which won the 2009 Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, and The Ordinary Truth. Jana’s provocative prose has been compared to that of Pam Houston, Barbara Kingsolver and Pat Conroy.
I meant to write a review of the sprawling novel of America’s Oregon Coast, Mink River by Brian Doyle over
Thanksgiving, because it was what I was grateful for. As the year ends, I realize I’m thinking
about it still. Grateful for it, still.
Doyle’s narrative style is off-putting (at first), but eventually one that wins you over by sheer earnestness.
The narrative is episodic and, what you would call in the dramatic arts, an ensemble piece. If there is a
protagonist it is the town of 500 residents itself called Neawanaka on the northwest coast. The cast of characters as
one would expect in an outing like this is many: the village doctor who smokes the same number of cigarettes each day, each smoke the name of one of the 12 apostles (plus Matthias who replaced Judas); A working intuitive named “Worried Man,” one of two who runs the tiny (and comprehensive) Department of Public Works; his married daughter who therapeutically carves massive wood chunks and is named “No Horses”; the owner/bar tender of the local watering whole who pines for a change in career, a change of a scenery; a crow named “Moses,” who talks and
has, literally, a bird’s eye view of the town; a man who beats his son who is called “the man who beats his son”; another in hospital called “the man with thirteen days to live [or twelve…or two, or one…].”
You get the picture. It’s all rather disorienting at first, not unlike a long Russian novel
is disorienting with its many characters with multiple names. But in the end, you love these folks,
animated by their Irish, and mixed Irish-other (including Native American)
heritage, who in a lesser work might be overtly referred to as the “salt of the
earth.” You love the town and the smell of the alder and pine burns off the pages when it’s not, in the form of a log,
falling off a truck and going through a windshield and killing a man named Red Hugh O Donnell, whose adult children, one a fisherman who is ambivalent about the sea, and his sister who has a drinking problem aren’t exactly sure how to process the death of their brutal father except, for the time being, to go back to the sea and drink more, respectively.
This is not to say there is no plot. There are several extended questions that inter-weave: Will the boy Daniel who fell off a cliff on his bicycle walk again? Will his mother be able to recover from “the unshakable sense of herself so shaken”; Will the opera-obsessed cop be able to capture the child-abusing fugitive arrested through Worried Man’s premonitions but who then escaped? Will Moses still be a crow if he can’t fly? How will there ever be enough money to survive in a town whose lumber industry has
So there are these overlapping circles of human drama throughout, and that is stabilizing. Compelling as story. But then there’s Doyle’s experimentation which violates all kinds of novel-writing rules—at least the rules you might
read about in a How-To Write book. His prose is purplish, excessive, and uses stacked up adjectives and nouns, and quotes from William Blake as if its creator is in a nursery, gleefully manipulating building blocks for the naked thrill of seeing how tall he can make it. Punctuation at times goes to hell. Sentences run on and on…and on. Narrative threads run the risk of getting lost right up until the end. This stuff careens all over the place and is, I would imagine if it surfaced in a graduate writing seminar, be deemed at minimum as “undisciplined,” “overwrought.”
But it’s also quite wonderful, perhaps the poster child of how inspired, visceral writing trumps craft…or more accurately, perhaps, becomes its own craft through its own internal logic. Known for his spiritual nonfiction, sometimes overtly Catholic, Doyle has a written a work with a beating heart that resonates with the perpetual sea that alternately nuzzles and violates the shore of this struggling, heart-broken town. And in the end, Mink River re-ups the author’s signature. This book will make you swoon with the relentlessness of life—as relentless as the mercurial sea—and the terror of the dark, damp woods. There are moments of awe and exquisite recognition that require that the reader put down the book, and quiet his or her heart. One of these episodes describe a fetus miscarrying from a swimmer in the upper reaches of the Mink and how it flows seaward and, like the personified protoplasm (or, if you’re Catholic, I suppose, like the person that it is) it sees and feels and glories, however briefly, in the wide, wide world before it plunges into the collective unconscious of the wet universe.
Doyle’s brand may be spiritualized naturalism, admittedly rawer than that of the English
romantics’, his rhetorical style one that adds fifteen adjectives or twenty-five nouns in a single, micro description. But structurally, Mink River turns on the author’s periodic “checking in” of his unruly cast. As with the embryo flowing downriver, we get a sort of catalog of what’s going on, the bird’s eye view of what everyone’s
doing or thinking at one particular moment.
Rain in and on and over and through the town, gentle and persistent, gray and gentle, green and insistent, thorough and quiet, respectful and watchful. On Worried Man and Cedar in the Department of Public Works where they hunch over a table strewn and scattered with maps. On Declan staggering along the beach to the hulk of his boat. On Michael the cop as he drives gently through town humming Puccini and thinking of what to make for dinner for hiswife Sara and their girls. On Sara as she spades their garden with the two little girls who are digging as fast and
furiously as possible looking for worms because their daddy says if they find fifty worms he will take them fishing tomorrow morning rain or shine. On No Horses walking in the hills, up the old quarry road and through the forest and back along the old quarry road once twice three times. On the young female bear two miles upriver from the village where she found a dead elk calf…. (p.141)
These surveys regularly appear but themed not just through behavior, but through thoughts, through fears and through prayers and dreams.
In this way, and in others more subtle, Doyle not only brings you along as every good novelist should, but plumbs the depths of his little site by broadening his canvas again and again. More accurately, he draws a broader and broader diameter of circles out and out, then back in and in until the gumbo—the ennui of the quotidian life, mythologies religious and otherwise, addictions, despair, tragedy, economic survival, sensuality, coitus and how one
dies–convincingly converges into a satisfying whole.
Sort of like life. Sort of not. Like a river town in the northwest where the forest and the sea seem to be having one long, even eternal conversation—sometimes an argument–while the town’s denizens still, somehow, are living rather than just performing a life–thinking about or actually cupping one another’s faces with their hands to comfort and connect in any one moment. And that is, finally, what makes the town of Neawanaka and Mink River so remarkable: it countermands the narcissism of our age, and of our contemporary literature—so that life
lived is just that: a life that is lived. Lives reflected in Doyle’s luminous prose through story in its most numinous sense. Story in the form of a novel that merits my thanks.
by Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle is the author of many books, including the novels Mink River and The Plover; The Grail, his account of a year in a pinot noir vineyard in Oregon; and The Wet Engine, a memoir about his infant son’s heart surgery and the young doctor who saved his life. He edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland.