Fiction of the Region

This 'Best of the West' collection is pure goodness

He wanted to die. He loaded the shotgun. Both barrels he loaded. This had to be a joke, both barrels he loaded. He was a man with a sense of humor. He was a joker. Couldn't trust such a man, a joker in the deck. ... His head was leaking. And you could smell it: greeny pus."

Thus opens "Papa at Ketchum, 1961," with Joyce Carol Oates telling Hemingway's Idaho story in Hemingwayese.

Here's how Annie Proulx introduces her spooky "The Sagebrush Kid": "Those who think the Bermuda Triangle disappearances of planes, boats, long-distance swimmers and floating beach balls a unique phenomenon do not know of the inexplicable vanishings along the Red Desert section of Ben Holladay's stagecoach route in the days when Wyoming was a territory."

The pacing, the voices, the images and the setups are different, but these stories ultimately have Westernness in common. Never mind that Oates and Proulx are Easterners donning the trappings; that, too, is part of the region's story.

Best of the West 2009, the latest in an "annual" series last seen 17 years ago, is a delicious feast of characters, voices, images and subjects.

Editors James Thomas and D. Seth Horton (the latter a UA creative writing MFA grad), along with foreword writer Rick Bass, struggle to define the contemporary West in their intros, but these qualities emerge: It's an area marked by immigration, its culture a work in progress, where the physical harshness and terrible beauty of the land are reflected in the lives and attitudes of its people, where the myth of "rugged individualism" has morphed into isolation and loneliness, where universal themes take peculiar forms. Few of these stories reflect the traditional "old West," but the yearnings and disappointments—and wry humor—of those old attitudes persist.

That there's not a yawner or weakly crafted piece in the group speaks well for the region. Ditto that it includes nary a survivalist.

Hemingway aside, the central characters in these pieces are working- or middle-class folks, shouldering their way through adversity or toward meaning in life. In Aimée Baker's shattering period piece on homesteading in Kansas, a family faces a child's death and locusts. A classic sibling rivalry manifests in Lee K. Abbott's "A Great Piece of Elephant," in which our hero of a ne'er-do-well attempts suicide as his fat-cat politico brother gazes on from his porch.

Though rooted in the reality of the region, some of these stories stray into the magical or mythical. A biology teacher confuses lust, cabin-building, fable and love of the earth as she oversees well-drilling in Susan Streeter Carpenter's nicely-wrought "Elk Medicine." Live mustangs, the bleached bones of a dead horse and echoes of Hamlet inform Mitch Wieland's visual and puzzling treatment of another teacher attempting to reconcile fractured relationships ("The Bones of Hagerman").

If there's a common symbol of the contemporary West running through these, it's those mustangs—vestiges of the past, challenges to civilizing the land. In addition to Wieland, Tucsonan Aurelie Sheehan adopts a mustang in her affecting, girl-with-pony "Spin." And mustangs show up (and suspiciously disappear from) the Proulx story.

The collection takes subtle social and cultural pokes at the region. In "Willows Village," Dagoberto Gilb drops a Mexican-American naïf into a Southern California suburb, and we watch as he's swallowed and changed by materialism and a sexy tia's estrogen-creep. Mormons take a couple of direct hits: In "Amanuensis," by Stephen Tuttle, a complacent Utah community is pushed to discomfort by a town model they find in an abandoned basement. And Don Waters fires both barrels at the church in his "Mormons in Heat," in which a couple of missionaries encounter a pack of female bikers ("Conversion," observes the randy one, is "a delicate con.")

Fully realized and sobering is Ernest J. Finney's superb "Sequoia Gardens." Dealing with the corrupting influences of power and wealth on the poor, it features a bright young Mexican from Acapulco with dreams of hotel management who finds himself managing a marijuana farm in a U.S. national park.

The writing is masterful—smart, layered, original and character-driven, but plot-rich. With Proulx, Daniel Chacón (the luminous "Velocity of Mass") and Oates in the mix, it's clear that prose muscle isn't just for Anglo boys anymore. And the Oates story alone would justify buying the collection. Told in the first person through flashbacks, memories, speculation, misapprehensions, paranoias, wives and other women, Oates paints a fully imagined Hemingway.

It's terrific stuff.

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