This book review is going to start in a strange place: a basement bedroom in a house in Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Montana. There’s a lot of mystique about Missoula, even within Montana where it’s seen as sort of the Paris of the range. Intellectual, you know. Over on the east side of the Rockies, we find intellectuals a little -- um -- depressed. Where I am, I can see A.B. Guthrie’s beloved Ear Mountain. I love “The Big Sky,” both the book and the real thing. The sky on the Missoula side is quite a lot like that in Portland where I grew up. In fact, I’ve known people in Portland who would dash over to Missoula on a three day weekend, thinking they were visiting Montana. But they’re just going from the gray Willamette Valley to the gray Flathead Valley. Everywhere they go, there they are.
Once I was asked to stoodge for a little documentary film about A.B. Guthrie, Jr. They wanted certain questions answered, so my job was to sit off-camera and ask their questions. We got to having a pretty good time and pretty soon Guthrie was telling me how Leslie Fiedler ran Walter van Tilburg Clark out of Missoula. (There was no shoot-out. Walter just saw that it was time to get out of Dodge.) At that point Guthrie’s wife told him to put on his hat because they were leaving. She thought literary gossip was bad taste. Fiedler, though he lived in Missoula for twenty years, never quit mocking Montana for its own good. That house on Higgins was Fiedler’s house and Dirck Van Sickle lived in the basement bedroom for a while. (1960-61) Fiedler sold the house to the Missoula Unitarian congregation which is still there. 1982-85 when I was the circuit-riding Montana minister, I slept in that bedroom. Very strange vibes. Possibly a curse. But I had come to east side Montana in 1962 and though I felt it, I was protected, possibly by the spirit of Jim Welch, half-Blackfeet and a poet maudit himself, but an east sloper.
This book review is about “Montana Gothic” by Dirk Van Sickle -- not gossip -- and here’s how it all ties together. The first point to grasp is that literary fashions change and college towns are swept by them more than other towns. Walter Von Tilburg Clark is one of the truly major figures in Old Western lit and one of my favorites. He’s not thought of as a Montana writer so much, maybe because his magnum opus was about Salt Lake City, “The City of the Trembling Leaves,” where he, like Wallace Stegner, got a taste of civilized life while coming of age.
Dirck Van Sickle was a student of Fiedler’s. The year after he left, 1961-62, was my first year of teaching in Browning. I’m guessing a little now, though Patia Stephens recently interviewed Van Sickle in New York and will know for sure, both Fiedler and Van Sickle were Easterners who confronted Montana head on. Provocateurs. That was just their modus operandi. Opposition to conformity. Social criticism. Poets maudit.
“Montana Gothic” is a series of short stories linked by characters and stretching over many years. The first is about a med student with a broken heart who bought -- sight unseen -- an undertaking business and discovered all kinds of surprises. But he coped until he fell in love and his sweetheart . . . well, this is a horror story so I won’t give it away.
The book begins: “For most of the long winter the universal mud was frozen like rippled rock, but now, in the middle of this chinook, the graining gumbo lay over the land like the primal muck, almost trapping the horse’s hoof at every step. If you’re a newcomer, the suck of the hoof pulling free of the thick ooze can turn your stomach; best to concentrate on the saddle creaking or the horse snorting -- but don’t look at the sky: winter sky in northeastern Montana is just another kind of mud; thinner and grayer, but so deep that if you ever fell into it, you’d never get out.” Take THAT, Bud Guthrie!
The stories really amount to the same thing as James Willard Schultz and Charles Marion Russell asking, “Why Gone Those Times?” Unless you’re a believer, the elusive mythic West falls apart in your hands because it is a construct. What’s left is horror. Suffering, death. Ugliness. You can tell Van Sickle is writing from the west side: there’s no wind. Missoula in its valley is vulnerable to temperature inversions that seal in the woodsmoke and the latrine-stink of the paper mill.
There are four sections to this book, beginning with the pre-med student; then a range double-tale about two mismatched men wintering in a line shack with a few cattle; then a three-part melodramatic Jim-Harrison-style attack on the grand generational tale of success (lots of THEM in Montana) with bits of Jane Eyre thrown in; and last a homily of doomed anachronism pushed to ridiculousness. All of them are outsider stories: this is a novelist maudit who will never find a home in Montana, never be invited to the celebrations. NOT commodified.
One of the compensations for living in a mythic place, if you can accept the givens, is participation, feeling chosen and proud. People will say, “Oh, I live in God’s country.” For this author, God is a vengeful woman, a Death who meets one at every turn. I read it long ago and recognized the bloody truth of it, not quite in the way expressed in the action tropes of Westerns nor in the way the old cowboy puts it, for he feels he has married Death. “It’s like I was tryin’ to tell ya last night, she ain’t just dead spiritless land, no sir, she’s something ta take her life and share it with ya, like a wife mebbe. An mebbe better, too. ‘Cause a woman can die . . . but the land, she can’t die. . . ya don’t have to think about it. Ye just come to know it.” That’s the old man’s philosophy and of course he dies. Consummated.
The young man says, “. . . to think of Montana in these terms was not just pathetic fallacy but a dangerous, possibly fatal anthropomorphism, like imagining a rattlesnake could return love. The land has no persona, the land is nothing more than a floor beneath the weather. . . the sandstone rimrock and buttes are numbed, calloused, and worn as the nipples of an old-time Miles City whore, and as incapable of feeling. The forests are as badly beaten every winter as the kids of an alcoholic Indian, and, as inevitably as the Indian’s shanty discovered on a rancher’s land, they burn down every summer.” He’s not on the east slope. No grass.
But there’s an eagle: the second chapter is a Jacob-and-the-Angel struggle with an eagle, part-real, part-obsessional. The Winged One wins. “He’d always sought for the savior to be a woman, the feminine apotheosis whose face he never saw, the haunting succubus -- but it was to be the eagle all the time; it could only be Grandfather . . .the blank authority of his power. Grandfather would end Deke’s life and take it with him, and this was, in the needle-sharp clarity of his final deluson, the end of questing, the terminal answer to his question.” This book is dedicated to Van Sickle’s mother. “Mother” is also the name of the horse of the anachronistic cowboy at the end.
I see his problem. His eagle was a bald eagle, the awkward symbol of the nation, which feeds on fish (west side spawners coming in the from the coast) and carrion. On the east side we have golden eagles. (In actual fact Bob and I did raise one and held her in our arms.) They eat meat. It’s their tail-feathers that are in Blackfeet war bonnets. Such a small difference, but a crucial one.