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Face the Strange 

Laura Chester's quirky 'Rancho Weirdo' may cause you to dream of new possibilities

Laura Chester can't seem do anything "the normal way."

Instead of simply writing a book of short fiction set in and around Southern Arizona, she enlists gifted New York City artist Haeri Yoo to supply a number of prominently displayed and beautiful illustrations. Rather than go with a Southwestern publisher, she chooses to hitch her wagon to Massachusetts-based indie house Bootstrap Productions. Eschewing a standard author photo, she is shown riding a horse in an unlikely effort to demonstrate her cowgirl bona fides.

Everything Chester, who lives part-time in Patagonia, does seems a bit off-kilter, which makes sense, since Rancho Weirdo, her new story collection (actually, many of these works appeared in her 1991 book, Bitches Ride Alone), is about as quirky as contemporary American fiction gets.

I mean quirky in a good way, of course. The characters who populate Chester's fictional universe break the rules--of literary realism, for instance--and create tension in the reader's mind about what they'll say and do next. Rancho Weirdo clears the aesthetic sinuses, causing you to wonder what else can be done in the literature of the Southwest, so much of which tends to recycle the same tropes, ideology and earnest multicultural stance. This isn't to say Chester eschews multiculturalism; how could she write about the culture-clash that defines Arizona otherwise? But she is definitely more lighthearted, comical and fun than the vast majority of the university press authors who cover similar territory. There are illegal immigrants, Native Americans, cowboys and ranchers in Chester's fiction, but they are unpredictable and darkly humorous.

In the book's opening story, "True or Untrue, Grit," a New York snowbird wife finds her house being built on a Native American holy site and haunted by the presence of an unnamed Indian she ends up calling Grit. It's a tale filled with black comedy, as when Grit insists the unnamed narrator learns to eschew technology like plumbing:

"Listen," Grit said, cupping his hand to his ear and motioning to the hole.

I got down on my hands and knees and listened intently. It sounded like--like what?

"You know," Grit said.

"A toilet flushing."

"Yes," Grit nodded. "Exactly. Sacred Mountain disturbed. You can not flush toilet at base of Sacred Mountain."

"But modern people have to have bathrooms."

"Use that." He pointed to the bright green Porta-Potty that we were still renting for the crew.

Chester's humor isn't limited to poop jokes. Her story "Keyboard and Knives" is a gender-bending ditty designed to poke fun at the obvious ways in which we use clothing and accessories to signal our feminine and masculine identities:

After my first youthful bout with tom-boyishness, I imposed a strict femininity upon myself. I ironed my hair and wore pale pink lipstick. I talked on my princess phone for hours beneath the canopy of my twin-sized bed, wore mini-skirts, faux-fur boleros, black patent leather over-the-knee boots. What gave me away was my size 12 shoe. I could only get heels at the Tall Girls Shoe Store along with the rest of the transvestites.

Rancho Weirdo is not all fun and games. Less amusing is a story like "Don't Tell Daddy," in which an East Coast camp for troubled kids (who survived the Sept. 11 attacks) revolts against the counselors. This particular tale--in addition to its geographical setting--is so radically different from what has come before that it seems out of place in the collection. Fortunately for readers, Chester doesn't let her characters preach on the evils of child abuse or terrorism; instead, they are empowered by roiling emotions and eager to re-fashion their lives outside the label of "victim."

Adding to the quirky tone of Rancho Weirdo are the compelling illustrations by Yoo, whose imagery is as disturbing as it is playful. Initially, the inclusion of such mixed-media drawings struck me as better-suited for a children's book or graphic novel, but then it dawned on me that there was once a more prominent place for illustrations in literary fiction, especially in the earlier part of the 20th century, and that art and writing aren't mutually excusive enterprises: They can complement each other rather than compete.

Rancho Weirdo contains short and powerful bursts of quirky short fiction that will get readers--and even writers--dreaming about new possibilities for American literature, which today seems to be deeper in the doldrums than ever before. Chester's book is bound to transform your idea of what you can expect from a story strangely and expertly told.

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