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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 2 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 22 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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