Thursday, October 21, 2010

MONTANA GOTHIC by Dirck Van Sickle

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.


Patia said...

Dirck was born in Michigan but raised in and near Billings. He is very much a Montanan, although he has lived in New York for over 40 years.

I think his critique of Montana is so accurate precisely because he is an insider. "Montana Gothic" turns the romanticism of "the last best place" inside out.

There is plenty of wind in one of Dirck's unpublished manuscripts, "The Light From Tomorrow." It's a Montana road trip that takes place during the Dust Bowl, which started on the Hi-Line.

Dona Stebbins said...

I read that book years ago, and it is still vivid in my mind. I am going to find another copy and re-read it.

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Patia. In the last story of this book, the hero is shot to death by a sheriff named Billings in a place that is clearly the town, Billings.

You say this was a case where Dirck followed Fiedler to New York? So does he accept the mythos of New York? Do the Manhattan Big Six publishers shun him because of his iconoclasm?

Where are the professors who are picking up on all this? We need to know a lot more. Especially now.

Prairie Mary

Patia said...

I don't know about mythos or iconoclasm.

The one lit professor I mentioned "Montana Gothic" to dismissed it as pulp.

prairie mary said...

When lit profs are dismissive, it means you're onto something.

"Maudit," mythos, iconoclasm, subversive, etc. are well worth study. An excellent "niche." The larger media know it, whether or not Montana profs get on board. Enough sledding on Big Sky clouds!

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Hi Mary,

I am one of those professors picking up on all this right now--I am working on an article about both Van Sickle's book and Peter Koch's journal of the same name.

Aaron Parrett

prairie mary said...

You still on the east slope, Aaron? GF? Koch is sending me one of the triquarterlies. I'm only just now getting things sorted out between the book and the mags.

Don't hesitate to call me on the phone (I'm in the book), send an email or whatever. I could have helped you out on the Flood of '64 article if I'd known you were working on it. (Sid Gustafson is also using the flood material for fiction.)

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

This is amazing that this was just posted, right when I've started obsessing over it yet again. I LOVE THIS BOOK. It haunts me like almost no other, and it remains one of the best books about A Sense of Place I have ever read. Patia, where can we find these unpublished manuscripts? And how is it that you've read them? And Aaron Parret--where will that article appear? And what IS the connection, besides the name, between the book and the journal? Great write-up by the way, prairiemary. I really enjoyed it.

Mike Smith,

Patia said...

Hi Mary, et al,

I recently published my interview with Dirck on Amazon Kindle:

(You don't need a Kindle; they make free apps for most computers/devices.)

prairie mary said...

Thanks for the update, Patia! VERY intriguing! Both Dirck and the Amazon Kindle! Both sorta mystical.

Prairie Mary

Marc H. Abrams said...

I just finished reading Montana Gothic earlier today (a great book). Curious about Dirck Van Sickle I also read Patia Stephens' interview with him just a few minutes ago. It's all a bit weird for me. I'm from Brooklyn, NY, and live in the Gravesend area which he mentions as part of his family history. I work not too far from where he lives in NYC. He is from Billings (or at least spent part of his childhood there) and I lived in Billings from 1992-1995. He stated that Wendell Minor did the artwork for his book when it first came out. A few weeks ago I read a book about Wendell Minor with my son, a gift from someone who knows Minor. Anyhow, I guess it's true... it's a small world.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Sounds as though "synchronicity" is sending you a message!

It was good to see Ernie Burke's sculpture detail. At one time Bob Scriver, George Phippen and Ernie were considered the only bronze sculptors of Western subjects. We loved his "ghost" paintings of the Old West.

Prairie Mary
Mary Scriver
Valier, MT

Marc H. Abrams said...

Hello Mary.

And one more thing I forgot. The two of us became disillusioned with the publishing industry after writing books. I much prefer reading anyway.

I have a book about Berke by Walt Wiggins (still need to read it!) and two books by Bob: The Blackfeet and No More Buffalo, which contains one of my favorite lines: "Any object has religious significance and power when people give it Significance and Power, when they have faith that an object has Power, then most assuredly it is powerful. That is the way it is with the Medicine Pipe!" It struck me as wise, so I wrote it down.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Marc, you might enjoy the book I wrote about Bob: "Bronze Inside and Out." Amazon has it. Quite a bit about how Bob became a Bundle Keeper and therefore so did I. And then I went to seminary at the U of Chicago Div School.

It wasn't that I became disillusioned with the publishing industry -- it simply collapsed. Blogging is fast, convenient, and can't be captured by hostiles.

Prairie Mary

Marc H. Abrams said...

Thanks for letting me know about the book. I added it to my wish list.