- Zero at the Bone
The novel-in-stories is not always sheer folly: Mitch Wieland's God's Dogs comes as near as possible to accomplishing perfection with the devious form. Wieland, author of the bracing novel Willy Slater's Lane (1996), performs the magic trick that has eluded other writers: each story works both as an individual entity and as a propellant into the next narrative. Wieland thwarts the manufactured links that infect the integrity of the typical novel-in-stories. His hero's stuttering evolution, organic and effortless, needs no contrivance. These tales of Western isolation, male muteness, and extreme physicality—tales of earth and blood but also of ghosts and gods—are crafted with a restraint and accuracy that matches early Thomas McGuane and Richard Ford (Ford himself said of Wieland's novel-in-stories that it "pulls off impressively what seems, in practice, almost impossible to do well"). Our art has tended to over-romanticize the West with equal parts mystery and myth ever since Lewis and Clark heeded Jefferson's call in 1803. A resident of Idaho, Wieland applies to his fiction an aptitude much too wise to traffic in the televised folklore of the West. Instead, his landscape of barren beauty—the wind and dust and hills and what they unleash within the people who live there—yowls to life as if for the first time.
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Ferrell Swan, retired from teaching high school history and separated from the ex-wife he cannot quit, abides in Idaho's badlands just beneath the Owyhee mountain range. His ex-wife, Rilla, his stepson, Levon, and his two cantankerous neighbors, Din Winters and Harrison Cole, waft in and out of his days, upsetting his seclusion and compelling him to reckon with the errors of his personality he'd rather not acknowledge: "He's long sensed he is lost behind something huge, but he doesn't want to know what it is." Ferrell (think "feral") and his neighbors relish this nook of our homeland still untouched by the mad sheen of civilization—"eighty miles south-southeast of Boise, in the middle of not much else but the wide curving sky"—and therein lies the book's central struggle: Rilla's attempts to rope her beloved back into modernity, to convince him that humankind, for all our filth, is worth his appreciation.
Some women from the Midwest and West can make their East Coast counterparts look timid in comparison (consider the female characters in stories by Lee K. Abbott, Annie Proulx, and William Kittredge). Rilla brings to her dialogues with Ferrell a sharper mind and more capacious heart, a toughness formed from the lifelong accumulation of calluses. She harbors neither the idealism nor the misanthropy that keeps her ex tethered to the desert, and when she speaks, she speaks the truth: "You see, in their hearts and minds, men leave women first…. We just break the physical connection. We basically finish what you're too weak to finish yourselves. We end the misery for all concerned." For all its male-centric themes, these stories bestow no compliments upon male stupidity, of which these characters have much. Rilla chides Ferrell for his reticence, for his refusal to admit that emotions must be not only reciprocated but verbalized for a marriage to endure: actions don't always speak louder than words.
Ferrell's reticence signals not the stereotype of the laconic Western man—real hombres use fists and bullets instead of words; chatter is for females—but the fact that Ferrell has grown old and tired, that "he senses with absolute clarity every ligament and tendon he owns." And he doesn't trust himself to speak: "Words, he's forever understood, are at best rough approximations of what goes on behind his eyes." When Ferrell makes an effort to cheer up Cole after his wife deserts him (for Ferrell's stepson), he says, "You'll be new and improved, stronger in all the hurt places," which is both...