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The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Open Season by C.J. Box – my thoughts about Joe Pickett vs Walt Longmire

April 7, 2021 6 comments

Open Season by C.J. Box (2001) French title: Détonations rapprochées.

Open Season by C.J. Box is the first instalment of his crime fiction series.

Set in Saddlestring, Wyoming, it features the Game and Fish Warden Joe Pickett. In this first volume, Pickett has been appointed in Twelve Sleep County for three months, after his mentor Vern Dunnegan suddenly retired. His friend Wacey works in the adjacent area.

Joe moved into the Game & Fish state-owned house with his family, his wife Marybeth and his daughters Sheridan and Lucy. Another baby is on the way. The family barely survives on Joe’s salary.

Box describes the inconsistence between game warden recruitment requirements and the wages they get for their degree and dedication:

There were 55 game wardens in the State of Wyoming, an elite group, and Joe Pickett and Wacey were two of them. Wacey had received his B.A. in wildlife management while bull-riding at summer rodeos before Joe had graduated with a degree in natural resource management. Three years apart, both had been certified at the state law enforcement academy in Douglas and both had passed the written and oral interviews, as well as the personality profile, to become permanent trainees in Jeffrey City and Gillette districts respectively, before becoming wardens. Each now made barely $26,000 a year.

No wonder Joe’s family struggles to make ends meet.

Joe is still a rookie and has acquired an unfortunate notoriety when a poacher, Ote Keeley, took Joe’s gun while he was writing Keeley a ticket for poaching. Joe isn’t a good shot, at least on fixed objects. He’s an honest game warden, a job he loves and takes seriously. He’s an ordinary man with a strong moral compass.

When Ote Keeley stumbles and dies in Joe’s garden, Joe gets involved in spite of him. Ote Keeley has been shot. Sheriff Barnum leads the investigation and the case involves an endangered species and the project of a gas pipeline from Canada to California. A classic case of protection of nature vs greed and the promise of jobs for the locals.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I also read Craig Johnson’s crime series also set in Wyoming. So, how do the two compare?

I’m afraid Box isn’t half as good as Johnson. If I compare Open Season to The Cold Dish, Johnson is superior to Box in plot, characterization, sense of place and style.

Here, I guessed the plot quite early in the story, but maybe Box improved in the following volumes. The characters are less quirky and original, even if having a game warden who isn’t an excellent shot is a great idea. I wasn’t in Twelve Sleep county the same way I feel transported to the Absaroka county.

Saddlestring was a classic western town borne of promise due to its location on the railroad, but that promise never really played out. In the 1880s, a magnificent hotel was built by a mining magnate, but it had faded into disrepair. The main street, called Main Street, snaked north and south and had a total of four stoplights that had never been synchronized. The two-block “downtown” still retained the snooty air of Victorian storefronts designed to be the keystones of a fine city, but beyond those buildings, the rest of Main Street looked like any other American strip mall, punctuated by gun shops, sporting goods stores, fishing stores, bars, and restaurants that served steak.

This is almost everything we learn about the place. Open Season misses the little moments we have in The Cold Dish, Longmire going to the Busy Bee Café, the exchanges with Lucian, the former sheriff and all the little interactions with the locals that make the place come to life.

Johnson’s books are also closer to Nature Writing. Contrary to Box, who was born and raised in Cheyenne, Johnson isn’t a native from Wyoming. And yet, he has a way to describe nature and its impact on people’s lives and way of thinking that is a lot more convincing.

Johnson’s Wyoming is also more multicultural than Box’s. In the Longmire series, Johnson has native American characters, the Cheyenne reservation is part of the local life and there’s a volume about the Basque community. Craig Johnson has been to Quais du Polar several times and I remember hearing him say that books set in Wyoming that don’t include Indians don’t reflect local life properly.

And Box’s Wyoming is made of white people who love guns, hunting and fishing.

Today was, he knew, likely to be the last Sunday for at least three months that he would be able to cook breakfast for his girls and read the newspapers—and now he hadn’t even been able to do that. Big game hunting season in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming, would begin on Thursday with antelope season. Deer would follow, then elk and moose. Joe would be out in the mountains and foothills, patrolling. School would even be let out for “Elk Day” because the children of hunters were expected to go with their families into the mountains.

Wow. A day off school to go hunting!

Both books include funny details about local life, like the electric plugs on parking meters to heat cars during the winter or the local way to shield their hats from rain:

A few ranchers stretched plastic covers, sometimes referred to as “cowboy condoms,” over their John B. Stetsons but few people owned umbrellas.

Can you imagine the Stetsons with the plastic over them? Sounds like a funny sight.

Style-wise, Johnson is more literary. The descriptions are more poetic, little thoughts about life are peppered in the books. It’s deeper in a off-handed way, especially considering Johnson’s great sense of humor. I love writers with a good sense of humor.

The general feeling is that Box describes a more conservative white community than Johnson. I’m sure both Wyomings exist, but I’m more inclined to read Johnson than Box. I’ll probably read another Box or two, to see how the characters develop and because it’s still good entertainment.

Recommended as a Beach & Public Transport book.

Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson – Where European winters seem summery

February 14, 2021 8 comments

Junkyard Dogs by Craig Johnson (2010) French title: Molosses. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

I’m back in Wyoming in Absaroka county in this 6th volume of Craig Johnson’s Longmire series.

Unfortunately, that’s where Johnson’s paperbacks started to be published by Points instead of Gallmeister and the books are not as nice as before. The cover is a cheap picture instead of an original drawing and the paper isn’t as thick. Gallmeister keeps publishing the hardbacks and manages the translation while Points has taken over the paperback ones.

I don’t know who made the decision but it’s not a good one for readers who enjoy nice paper books. I guess either I’ll get the hardback or I’ll get the ebook in English.

Back to Junkyard Dogs. It’s February and the winter in brutal. Imagine that they have electric plugs on parking meters so that you can warm your car. Let’s not complain about a little bit of snow in Western Europe, right?

This episode opens on a weird scene that only Longmire seems to get himself into:

I tried to get a straight answer from his grandson and granddaughter-in-law as to why their grandfather has been tied with a hundred feet of nylon rope to the rear bumper of the 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado.

I stared at the horn pad and rested my forehead on the rim of my steering wheel.

The old man was alright and being tended to in the EMT van behind us, but that hadn’t prevented me from lowering my face in a dramatic display of bewilderment and despair. I was tired, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the young couple or the season.

The old man is Geo and the young couple are Duane and Gina. Geo runs the local junkyard and is at odds with his neighbor Ozzie Dobbs Junior. He bought the land adjacent to the junkyard to build a luxury housing development. The proximity of the junkyard cramps his style and for two years now, Dobbs has been trying to move the junkyard and car scrap yard from Geo’s land to other premises in the State. There’s no lost love between Geo and Dobbs, but it’s another story between Geo and Dobbs’ mother.

Then a human thumb is found in the junkyard and the sheriff opens an investigation to find out to whom it belonged. It’s an opportunity to motivate Deputy Saizarbitoria who has trouble recovering from taking a bullet in a previous investigation and from the birth of his son, who is not sleeping. A change of job sounds appealing to him at the moment but Longmire wants to keep him on the team. Hence the motivational thumb investigation.

The severed thumb mystery leads the Sheriff to another kind of crime operated on the junkyard premises.

Life is never boring when you’re sheriff in the Absaroka county.

*sigh* I never know how to write properly about crime fiction books, I’m always wary of giving away too much of the plot and spoil another reader’s fun. I was glad to spend another moment in Longmire’s company. The team at the sheriff’s office are as fun as usual and Craig Johnson never lacks of plot ideas. It’s not Pulitzer Prize material but it’s entertaining, good fun and well-written.

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison – drugs, alcohol, ecotage and road trip

February 7, 2021 13 comments

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison (1973) French title: Un bon jour pour mourir. Translated by Sara Oudin

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison opens in Key West, Florida. Two young men meet in a bar. One, the narrator, is in Florida on a fishing trip and the other ended up there after a tour of duty in Vietnam. During a drunken night, they conceive the crazy plan of driving west, buying a case of dynamite and destroy a dam on the Grand Canyon that they heard was under construction

On their way, they go through Tim’s hometown to fetch Sylvia, Tim’s ex-girlfriend. Sylvia goes along because she still hopes that Tim will change his mind and come back to the white-picket-fence dream she still entertains.

Follows a memorable road trip of three young people who don’t want to conform anymore. The narrator, an aspiring poet, was thrown out of his wife and child’s lives because she felt he was impossible to live with. He was probably not ready to bend to the routine life that children need. The booze he consumes didn’t help his case but he has an incredible capacity to wax poetry over trout fishing in mountain streams.

Tim is damaged by the Vietnam War and bonds with the narrator over fishing. They are both passionate fishermen. Tim has nightmares from the war and struggles to readjust to civilian life.

Sylvia finds herself in the middle of them, still in love with Tim but the narrator is soon growing on her. She tries to keep Tim out of trouble and ends up disappointed.

There is no way this is going to end well. 

When I started to read A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison, I had a sense of déjà vu. A road trip with three damaged young people driving west, with music, drugs and booze, passionate with fishing in the wilderness and on a mission to dynamite a dam on the Grand Canyon. It sounded like a merger between On the Road by Kerouac (1957), Trout Fishing in America by Brautigan (1967), The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) and Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987). I’m almost sorry Abbey didn’t publish his book in 1977, it would have made a one-per-decade road trip book series.

Although the article about ecotage on Wikipedia states that the concept was popularized by Abbey’s book, Harrison wrote A Good Day to Die before The Monkey Wrench Gang, and according to the foreword by François Busnel in my copy, Harrison’s book influenced Abbey. 

I suppose that Jim Harrison put a bit of himself in A Good Day to Die. I know from McGuane’s Outside Chance that he and Harrison went fishing in Key West. And the narrator comes from Michigan and his knowledge of fishing in Montana and Wyoming comes from Harrison’s experience too. 

I know A Good Day to Die is an excellent book but since I read the ecotage/drunken poets/fishing gurus road trips out of order, the feeling of déjà vu tainted my reading. To be honest, I’m not a huge Kerouac fan. I loved Abbey for his playfulness. His characters are quirky, borderline crazy and he has a wicked sense of humor. As much as I love Jim Harrison, I didn’t enjoy A Good Day to Die as much as The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Still, the message is there. We’re in 1973 and Harrison worries about huge construction projects, wild deforestation and sprawling towns that disfigure the landscape, destroy ecosystems and ruin the environment. Maybe we should have paid more attention to these counterculture books at the time.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm – A Book You Mostly Won’t Know How to Put Down

December 20, 2020 22 comments

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm (2019) French title: La vie en chantier. Translated by Juliane Nivelt.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Taz and Marnie are in their later twenties and live in Missoula, Montana. They’re married, deeply in love, settling in life. Taz works as a cabinetmaker for a contractor, Marko. Money is tight but they’re happy, enjoying the nature around them, spending time with friends and renovating the old house they bought, room by room. When Marnie announces that she’s pregnant, they couldn’t be happier to have a baby, become parents and start this new chapter of their life.

Then the unthinkable happens: Marnie dies in childbirth. And from one day to the other, Taz finds himself without his soulmate and with a newborn little girl.

The first chapters of the book show us the young couple preparing for their baby’s arrival. They decorate her room, Taz builds her a bed. They rush into finishing other rooms as well, to be as ready as possible. They enjoy their last picnics and swimming in the river days at two, or so they think. They love camping and flyfishing and upon Marnie’s insistance, their baby girl’s name will be Midge.

And then, the horror on Day Zero. Midge is born and Marnie dies.

From then on, we follow Taz through his days as he struggles to get up, to take care of his baby, to go back to work. Grief takes him to an inner place where the echoes of the world barely come to him. He’s a living robot, lost in his bubble of silence. His parents emigrated to in New Zealand and won’t come back to help him. Marnie’s mother comes to help, crushed by her own grief but thinking of her grand-daughter. His best friend Rudy takes care of him and the community rallies around Taz. His freezer is filled with casseroles, he gets stocks of diapers and baby formula. Clients add a nice tip to his checks. His friends make sure he doesn’t drown in sorrow.

His friends are there, pulling him out of his underwater tunnel, forcing him to resurface and take a breath. Rudy helps him find a babysitter for Midge and that’s how Elmo enters into Taz’s and Midge’s life.

Each chapter is named after the day after Taz’s personal ground zero and Pete Fromm takes us until Day Five Hundred and Nine to Day One of a new life. The title A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do refers to parenthood and Taz is distraught and helpless. How can he raise Midge on his own? Thankfully grandma Lauren visits from time to time, Elmo goes beyond her babysitting duties, Rudy has his back and his employer Marko is understanding.

Fromm makes grief palpable and real for the reader. There’s no pathos, no long internal monologues dissecting Taz’s feelings. He shows us Taz’s life in his long tunnel to the beginning of recovery. Marnie’s with him at all times, he mentally seeks her advice. He takes Midge to their favorite places by the river and tells her stories about her mom. Sorrow grips him at the throat at the oddest moments, because a tiny detail triggers a memory of his former life with Marnie.

A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do is sad but hopeful. It’s the opposite of grandiloquent pain you’d find in other kinds of literature. It’s the pain of ordinary people who brutally lose a loved one.

Pete Fromm finds the right words to make us feel Taz’s pain. There’s no direct description of it but his picture of Taz’s quotidian is an oblique way to show the reader how he feels. How he’s slowly winning the battle against despair. Step by step. How people around him are there along the way, catching him when he stumbles from the heavy pain that he carries with him at all times. How life and hope win, in the end.

I wish I had quotes to share but I read it in French. The French title, La vie en chantier, is spot-on. It means Life as a Work in Progress and Life as a Job Site at the same time. Taz’s life is under construction and he works in construction too. The way he slowly, thoughtfully crafts wood is a metaphor of how he slowly rebuilds his life. Usually, in that case, I download a sample from the American Kindle store or use the “Look Inside” function on Amazon to find a quote from the first pages. But there is no such thing for this book, I suppose that it’s not bankable enough. That’s a shame. Surely the disastrous English covers got in the way of promoting this sensitive novel.  Look at them! They are so stupidly Women Fiction (A term I despise) that they betray the book. 

Well. Taz felt true-to-life to me and will stay with me for a long time because he’s one of us and all of us at the same time. I would love to meet the author who wrote such a beautiful and universal piece of literature.

A book I very very highly recommend.

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage – 30 years in Grayling, Montana

November 11, 2020 2 comments

The Corner of Rife and Pacific by Thomas Savage (1988) French title: Rue du Pacifique. Translated by Pierre Furlan.

And we’re back in Montana with a novel by Thomas Savage, The Corner of Rife and Pacific. Savage’s earlier novel, The Power of the Dog was part of the Read-the-West readalong that I did with my sister-in-law. We decided to go for another year of reading books together. In September, we read the excellent Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer and our choice for October was The Corner of Rife and Pacific. In November, we’re reading The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert.

In The Corner of Rife and Pacific, Thomas Savage takes us to Grayling, Montana. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that there’s no Grayling in Montana but that Grayling, Michigan is where Jim Harrison was born.

When the book opens, we’re in 1890, the town of Grayling is officially founded and Mr Rife is its first mayor. He’ll become a street name. Two families were present at the ceremony, the Metlens and the Connors who arrived from California in the 1880s. They’re Pacific.

An omniscient narrator with a storyteller voice starts to tell us the story of these two families, with the Metlen in the foreground and the Connors in the background. John Metlen and his wife Lizzie settled in Grayling on a ranch. Later, they also had a hotel in town. The Connors settled in town and became bankers.

We follow the Metlens from 1890 to 1920, from the foundation of the town to its thirtieth anniversary. The local aristocracy is made of the families who were there when the town was founded, recreating a system of class inherited from the old world.

Besides the Metlen family’s story, we witness the world change during these years and it comes to Grayling too. Advertising, phones, cars, new technologies appear, but that would be the same for any novel set in that time. The two families don’t have the same vision of life, the Metlens want to live decently and peacefully besides the Shoshones tribes. The Connors are ambitious moneymakers and support the removal of the native Americans from their land.

Thomas Savage describes the foundation of a pioneer mythology. The locals celebrate the foundation of their city and reinvent their past. They do a carnival where women come dressed up in “old time” costumes, which means that they wear their mothers’ clothes. They do rodeos. Amateurs go on stage and play historical moments of the pioneer history. They don’t embarrass themselves with historical accuracy, taking in all that looks old.

Savage says that the locals have lost part of their past because it stayed back in Europe with the families left behind when the first family member came and settled in Montana. These towns with no history, no past have to create their own history, to have common grounds and strengthen their roots. We all need to know where we come from and the community of Grayling builds their own legend and roots. It’s based on a certain idea of masculinity, the myth of the cowboy and of the pioneers.

John Melten and his son Zack don’t fit well in this idea of masculinity. Lizzie says John is a dreamer and a poet. They have a balanced relationship and John relies on her for moral support. She’s also a good listener, a sounding board. Zack isn’t fond of hunting, horse-riding or any other outdoorsy activities. He’s intelligent and into science and communications technologies. His parents support his endeavors and he’s not pressured to run the ranch or take over the hotel. They seem a bit eccentric among the others or simply ahead of their time.

Thomas Savage was born in 1915 in Salt Lake City and was raised on a ranch in Montana. John Melten and his wife Lizzie have common traits with the Phil and George’s parents in The Power of the Dog. I wonder if The Corner of Rife and Pacific is not also a quiet tribute to Savage’s family and his Western roots.

I think that The Power of the Dog is a better book than The Corner of Rife and Pacific but it is still an easy and enjoying read.

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo – A poet writes hardboiled.

October 4, 2020 3 comments

Death and the Good Life by Richard Hugo. (1981) French title: La mort et la belle vie. Translated by Michel Lederer

Death and the Good Life is the only crime fiction book written by Richard Hugo. He was better known as a poet. Unfortunately, he died in 1982, before he had even the chance to write another polar.

Al Barnes is a former police detective of the homicide brigade in Portland who decided to leave the grim life of a city cop behind to become a deputy sheriff in Plains, Montana. Al is nicknamed “Mush-Heart” due to his natural empathy. That makes him unsuited for most police work but a good investigator because people confide in him.

Al thought he had switched to a quiet life when two men get axed. Ralph McGreedy and Robin Tingley work for the Plains pulp mill. It belongs to the Hammer siblings, Lee and Lynn. They live eight months of the year in Portland and four months in Plains. McGreedy and Tingley run the mill for the Hammers, wealthy investors who saved the pulp mill and its jobs. They are well-acquainted with the locals and well-accepted in Plains. Who would want to kill McGreedy and Tingley?

At first, it seems that a serial killer is in action. Red Yellow Bear, the sheriff and Al’s boss decides to take advantage of Al’s experience with homicides. He will follow a lead to Portland and discover that twenty years ago, a murder happened during a party thrown by the young Lynn and Lee. Al starts digging. He meets with his former colleagues and gets the informal help he needs to push the investigation and see what’s behind the Hammers’ posh façade.

For a first, Hugo, who was a fan of hardboiled fiction, wrote an excellent polar. I was fond of Al, a man I would love to meet in real life. The plot is well-paced and peppered with little thoughts and remarks as Al navigates through the ups-and-downs of a police investigation. There’s a strong sense of place, the descriptions of Montana sound genuine and it’s the same for the parts in Portland. The sheriff is an Indian and I remember Craig Johnson say that writing a book set in Wyoming or Montana without Indians in it was not realistic as they are part of the local communities.

I read Death and the Good Life in French, in a mass paperback edition. I don’t think there’s an ebook version in English and no sample is available online, so I have no quote. I wish I had some to share. It seems that this book is a bit forgotten by its English-speaking readers. It’s too bad because it’s an excellent book to read by a rainy afternoon, by the fire, under a plaid.

After reading Death and the Good Life, I decided to check out Hugo’s poetry and browse through the first pages of his Selected Poems. Look at the first one:

Trout fishing again! I’m cursed! 😊

Trout aside, it’s a reminder that my English isn’t good enough to truly understand poetry. And once again, I have this issue with genders in English. In French, trout is a feminine word. In my mind, Trout is not a he, it’s a she. When I read in English and the gender remains neutral, it’s not a problem because I don’t think in French anymore and nothing special pops out of the sentence. But when an animal is described with a gender in English, it attracts my attention. If it’s not the same one as in French, it’s confusing. Is it the same for people who speak German and read in English? And what about speaking French, German and English?

PS: The book covers. *sigh* The French one screams ‘Montana cliché’ and it’s the wrong season. The American one looks like Gatsby is around the corner. None really reflects the atmosphere of the book…*double sigh*

PPS: Don’t let my ramblings detract you from reading Death and the Good Life.

20 Books of Summer #18: The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson – Longmire #5

September 16, 2020 8 comments

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (2009) French title: Dark Horse. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Dark horse: noun

1 a: a usually little-known contender (as a racehorse) that makes an unexpectedly good showing. B: an entrant in a contest that is judged unlikely to succeed.

2: A person who reveals little about himself or herself, esp. someone who has unexpected talents or skills.

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson is the fifth volume of the Longmire series of crime fiction books set in Wyoming. I was happy to read the definition of dark horse because it explains a lot about the title and how fitting and multilayered the book is.

In this volume, Sheriff Sandy Sandberg of the Campbell county transferred his prisoner Mary Barsad to the jail in Absaroka county, Longmire’s jurisdiction.

In appearance, it’s a straightforward case. Wade Barsad was found dead with six bullets in his body. He and his wife Mary owned a ranch where she raises horses. She used to compete in racehorses and is very attached to her horse, Black Diamond Wahoo Sue.

Wade had set the horses’ barn on fire before going to bed, while the horses were trapped in the building, burning them alive. Incredibly cruel. Mary confessed that she killed him for this. See, straightforward.

But, locked in Longmire’s jail, Mary refuses to eat and the sheriff starts interacting with her to coax her into eating her meals. Things don’t add up and Longmire goes undercover in the town of Absalon, 40 souls to investigate this murder.

Being undercover in Wyoming and in a town of 40 inhabitants is a challenge. It turns out Wade has made enemies in town, due to shady dealings.

He came from the West coast, knew nothing about ranching still purchased a ranch. Longmire remarks: “He hated animals, and he hated the West? That kind of strikes me as odd for a fella who buys a ranch in Wyoming.”

What pushed Wade Barsad to settle in Wyoming? Why did have to move?

Did Mary really kill him? Longmire is on the killer’s trail while digging into Wade’s past and business to understand what lead to his death.

As usual with this series, the sense of place makes the salt of the book. Details like this one when Longmire arrives at a bridge that workers are dismantling, contribute to the feeling.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren’t very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches.

Apparently, even old bridges can be monetized and auctioned. I’m always surprised by the deals made between the State and the people on practical matters. It probably is better for the State’s budget to sell the bridge than to cover the costs for destroying it. It’s like asking the ranchers to cut the grass along the roads to keep it for their cattle. It’s such a different mentality than the French one.

Johnson always aims at deconstructing western clichés, like here:

“You know, one of the worst images perpetrated on society is the idea of a cowboy with a gun—you give a real cowboy a choice between a gun and a rope and he’ll take the rope every time, because that’s how he makes his living. No self-respecting cowboy makes a living with a gun.”

I guess it makes sense.

I won’t go into details about the personal lives of the characters, to avoid spoilers. Longmire’s daughter Cady is back to her life in Philadelphia, the election for sheriff is coming up and Longmire’s right arm Vic is true to herself.

I read The Dark Horse in the car, during a long drive during the holidays and it was a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. Tight plot, charming characters, a good sense of humor and little reflections dropped here and there:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance—anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

My next Craig Johnson will be Junkyard Dogs.

PS : Another ugly cover for the English edition. It looks like a kid’s book.

20 Books of Summer #4: The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke – Breathtaking

July 12, 2020 6 comments

The Lost Get-Back Boogie by James Lee Burke (1986). French title: Le boogie des rêves perdus.

In the darkness of the tavern, with the soft glow of the mountain twilight through the blinds, I began to think about my boyhood South and the song I never finished in Angola. I had all the music in my mind and the runs that bled into each chord, but the lyrics were always wooden, and I couldn’t get all of the collective memory into a sliding blues. I called it “The Lost Get-Back Boogie,” and I wanted it to contain all those private, inviolate things that a young boy saw and knew about while growing up in southern Louisiana in a more uncomplicated time.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is the second James Lee Burke I’ve read. (The other one is The Neon Rain, the first book of the Dave Robicheaux series)

When the book opens, we’re in 1962 and thirty-year old Iry Paret is about to leave the Angola penitentiary in Louisiana. He’s on parole after a little more than two years in jail for manslaughter. He killed a man during a bar brawl. Iry is a gifted musician, he plays rural blues in bars. Now, he’s going back to his childhood home, where he’s not welcome.

It wasn’t going to be pleasant. Their genuine ex-convict was home, the family’s one failure, the bad-conduct dischargee from the army, the hillbilly guitar picker who embarrassed both of them just by his presence in the area.

His mother and sister died in 1945, his father is dying and his brother and sister aren’t too happy to see him again. Iry knows his stay in Louisiana will be short: he has applied to do his parole in Montana and work at his friend’s parents’ ranch. Buddy Riordan did time in Angola for marijuana possession. Buddy is a jazz pianist and music brought the two men together.

Buddy Riordan was working on a five-to-fifteen for possession of marijuana when I met him in Angola. He was a good jazz pianist, floating high on weed and the Gulf breeze and steady gigs at Joe Burton’s place in New Orleans, and then he got nailed in a men’s room with two reefers in his coat pocket. As a Yankee, he was prosecuted under a felony rather than a misdemeanor law, and the judge dropped the whole jailhouse on his head.

Buddy is already back in Montana when Iry drives across the country to get to the ranch. As soon as he arrives, they stop at a bar and Iry feels the hostility towards them. He soon learns that Buddy’s father, Frank, has made enemies in his county. Indeed, he lodged a complaint against the company who owns the local pulp mill because it doesn’t have a proper filter and pollutes the whole Missoula area. People are angry because the pulp mill might close and they’ll lose their job.

Iry finds himself guilty by association and the locals are determined to run him out. He’s in the middle of this feud when he needs to lie low and comply with the rules of his parole.

Neither Iry or Buddy are hardened criminals. Iry wants a chance at a new life while Buddy drives through his at full throttle with his head clouded by drugs and alcohol. He’s separated from his wife Beth, he rarely sees his two sons but not even his family manages to ground him. Buddy has a love-hate relationship with his father and doesn’t get along well with his grownup sister. He feels like a failure.

What they didn’t understand about Buddy was that he had turned in his resignation a long time ago: an “I casually resign” letter written sometime in his teens when he started bumming freights across the Pacific Northwest. He didn’t have a beef or an issue; he just started clicking to his own rhythm and stepped over some kind of invisible line.

Iry inserts himself in Buddy’s life, working and living on the ranch, bonding with Frank and meeting Beth and the kids. Buddy is a bad influence on Iry and inadvertently thwarts Iry’s efforts to turn over a new leaf. They drink too much and Buddy does drugs. His temper is volatile and Iry never knows what he could get himself into.

Don’t misunderstand me, the two of them start thick as thieves but Iry wants to grow up and yearns for a chance at a new life. He’s not a saint but he’s trying. He needs to start believing that he deserves it. The Lost Get-Back Boogie is his journey to redemption, even if he seems like a “loser” most of the time, but he’s just a man who fought in the Korea war and came back with a Purple Heart and a bruised mind, a sensitive blues musician who can play any song after only hearing it and a person who wants a second chance at life. Who sets the parameters of the definition of “loser” anyway? He’s doing a lot of soul-searching and I hoped he would find his way back to a quieter life.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie also reflects on the DNA of America. Capitalism, violence, hard work and hope. Remember, we’re in the early 1960s and consumer society is the new norm. Here’s Iry driving home from Angola and observing the changes:

But as we neared New Orleans, the country began to change. Somebody had been busy in the last two years; it was no longer a rural section of the delta. Land-development signs stood along the highway, replacing the old ads for patent medicine and Purina feed, and great areas of marsh had been bulldozed out and covered with landfill for subdivision tracts. Mobile-home offices strung with colored flags sat on cinder blocks in the mud, with acres of waste in the background that were already marked into housing plots with surveyors’ stakes. The shopping-center boys had been hard at work, too. Pecan orchards and dairy barns had become Food City, Winn-Dixie, and Cash Discount.

Unbridled capitalism has the same effects in southern Louisiana as in Montana. It destroys landscapes and people for profit. Quickly. Very quickly.

Capitalism builds up on fear. We’re in 1962. The Great Depression is a fresh memory and people still have scars from that time. Unemployment is their greatest fear and they are ready to accept a lot from rogue companies as long as they have a job. Firms had a lot of leeway to use violence against workers who would protest. These men working at the pulp mill would rather turn against Frank Riordan than fight for the implementation of a proper filter at the pulp plant.

As the novel progresses, Iry discovers Montana and finds out the common points with southern Louisiana. He reflects on Montana’s history, one that also mirrors America’s history. It’s based on violence and the appropriation of the land to make money but also on the hope of immigrants. The country is built on violence and destruction. Slavery. Indians. The killing of buffalos in the 19thC. The destruction of rivers and trees in the name of progress in the 20thC. In Montana, the natural resources are wood. They have pulp mills. In Louisiana, the natural resources are oil. They have oil fields, and sugar mills.

Bonner was the Anaconda Company, a huge mill on the edge of the river that blew plumes of smoke that hung in the air for miles down the Blackfoot canyon. The town itself was made up of one street, lined with neat yards and shade trees and identical wood-frame houses. I hadn’t seen a company town outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, and though there was no stench of the sugar mill in the air or vision through a car window of Negroes walking from the sugar press to their wooden porches in the twilight with lunch pails in their hands, Bonner could have been snipped out of Iberia Parish and glued down in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.

The same causes have the same consequences. Underpaid workers work to destroy their own environment, barely survive and mortgage their children’s future. But who can judge them? They need to put food on the table.

Burke describes Montana people as rough. After all, they settled in a place with a hard climate and only the tougher survived.

“You don’t understand Montana people. They’ll hate your ass and treat you like sheep dip, but they come through when you’re in trouble. Wait and see what happens if you bust an axle back on a log road or get lost deer hunting.”

They do justice themselves with their rifles and their fists. Iry and Buddy get beaten up and threatened and the sheriff lets it slide. That’s the way justice is done around there. It’s something you guess in The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage too. Like Savage, Burke is never judgemental. He’s observant, that’s all.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is a very atmospheric book with incredible descriptions of Louisiana in the beginning and Montana later. Burke draws the portray of a man who’s fighting to crawl out of the hole he fell into. Music sustains him. Friendship too. In an interview I read in L’Amérique des écrivains, Burke says that it took nine years and 111 refusals to have The Lost Get-Back Boogie published by LSU Press. A big thank you to them for taking a chance on this marvelous piece of literature. Everything I love in a book is there: stellar style, great characters and a background of social commentary.

Very highly recommended.

The Lost Get-Back Boogie is my fourth billet of my 20 Books of Summer series.

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan – Swoon…

May 24, 2020 23 comments

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967) French title: La pêche à la truite en Amérique.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.

How can I describe Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan? It’s all about trout fishing and yet not at all. It’s a novella made of a series of vignettes coming from a camping trip in Idaho that Brautigan took with his wife and daughter in the summer 1961. The book was published in 1967 and became a bestseller.

It’s a literary gem that mixes glimpses of the life of the Beat Generation in San Francisco, an homage to an America that the 1960s will leave behind, a playful but effective way to show how our civilization based on mass consumption tamed nature and took over, inserting itself in our minds and in remote areas. Anecdotes reveal a bit of Brautigan’s childhood. He was dirt poor and fishing and hunting had truly been a means to put food on the table.

Trout Fishing in America is not openly about ecology but it is a quirky love note to nature and a roundabout way to show its destruction due to men. This passage made me think of companies and officials who claim that they will protect nature while during business but in fact won’t:

He wore a costume of trout fishing in America. He wore mountains on his elbows and blue jays on the collar of his shirt. Deep water flowed through the lilies that were entwined about his shoelaces. A bullfrog kept croaking in his watch pocket and the air was filled with the sweet smell of ripe blackberry bushes. He wore trout fishing in America as a costume to hide his own appearance from the world while he performed his deeds of murder in the night.

Our consumer world pervades everywhere, camping in our minds and filtering even our impression of nature. Brautigan says it with this fishing trip in a remote creek, he uses a comparison to telephone booths, bringing the industrial world into the wild because his brain is saturated with it:

The creek was made narrow by little green trees that grew too close together. The creek was like 12,845 telephone booths in a row with high Victorian ceilings and all the doors taken off and all the backs of the booths knocked out. Sometimes when I went fishing in there, I felt just like a telephone repairman, even though I did not look like one. I was only a kid covered with fishing tackle, but in some strange way by going in there and catching a few trout, I kept the telephones in service. I was an asset to society.

He seems to tell us that our mind is colonized to the point that he fails to find any other comparison that one to our city world. He also feels the need to justify his fishing trip as useful to society, a maintenance service of some sort. A man must be rightfully employed.

A story is about a discussion at a campsite with an old doctor:

He told me that he would give up the practice of medicine if it became socialized in America. “I’ve never turned away a patient in my life, and I’ve never known another doctor who has. Last year I wrote off six thousand dollars worth of bad debts,” he said. I was going to say that a sick person should never under any conditions be a bad debt, but I decided to forget it.

America, universal healthcare was never in your blood, was it?

As the vignettes go on, Trout Fishing in America becomes a concept, marketing invading the pages like weed. Sometimes it becomes a pattern, a playful game, like Exercices de Style by Raymond Queneau. Unexpected literary references pop up at the corner of a sentence or of a paragraph. It’s always irreverent, a way to tell us that we should treat books and writers casually, like old friends.

“The dishes can wait,” he said to me. Bertrand Russell could not have stated it better.

Ironic references to iconic writers, books or films appear in the text.

Later on, probably, a different voice will be dubbed in. It will be a noble and eloquent voice denouncing man’s inhumanity to man in no uncertain terms. “Trout Fishing in America Shorty, Mon Amour.”

But most of all, Trout Fishing in America is fun. It’s a book full of comic lines, play-on-words and odd but stunning comparisons. Poor cutthroat trout are associated to Jack the Ripper…

I’ve always liked cutthroat trout. They put up a good fight, running against the bottom and then broad jumping. Under their throats they fly the orange banner of Jack the Ripper.

… now the visual of Stanley…

When we reached Stanley, the streets were white and dry like a collision at a high rate of speed between a cemetery and a truck loaded with sacks of flour.

I can imagine the old lady of this vignette, cooking in her old house.

She cooked on a woodstove and heated the place during the winter with a huge wood furnace that she manned like the captain of a submarine in a dark basement ocean during the winter.

Brautigan’s observations are poetic and full of unexpected imagery but when he writes about everyday life, he adopts a simple prosaic Hemingwayan tone:

We went over to a restaurant and I had a hamburger and my woman had a cheeseburger and the baby ran in circles like a bat at the World’s Fair.

Trout Fishing in America is an extraordinary piece of literature, in every sense of the word extraordinary. It’s short but it took me three weeks to read it, to sip it, to enjoy each vignette and wait for the right reading time to fully enjoy it. It is about nature, our destruction of it, a disappearing way-of-life, the final taking-over of consumer society, a direct access to Brautigan’s life, an ode to the Beat Generation, a playful relationship to art and literature. It showcases a brilliant, poetic unusual mind.

And most of all, his quest of America ends up with this statement:

We were leaving in the afternoon for Lake Josephus, located at the edge of the Idaho Wilderness, and he was leaving for America, often only a place in the mind.

Highly recommended.

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