Tuesday, July 26, 2016

“LAST YEAR’S RIVER” by Allen Morris Jones

I intend to be mercilessly personal, so allow for that. My center in Montana is NOT academic, NOT urban, NOT in Butte, NOT on some scratchgravel ranch. It’s not really even on the Blackfeet rez, though that’s a big part of it. Browning, MT, is a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me it’s the beginning in 1961 and becoming a Scriver, which landed me right on top of one of the persisting tropes of Montana novels, which is the collision between Edwardian standards and money in the upscale East (in this case Quebec where my in-laws grew up) and the presumably primitive and brutal West.
It’s culture versus passion. Or that’s the story. And it’s shaped by the Industrial Revolution: railroads, dams, and people with a lot of resource money looking for some way to keep from being bored to death. Dude ranches, pack strings, stately lodges — but the swimming pools were not quite ready yet according to this book.
Exciting events in the West included forest fires and being lost in blizzards, but just keeping warm and getting dinner on the table are always a challenge. Early automobiles were an adventure. This is Charlie Russell country — he called ’em skunkwagons. Remington is a dude Easterner, fat enough to make a horse groan, and really more interested in military men than cowboys. People from back east think Remington.

McClintock photo
The first Montana writers I knew about in Browning were James Willard Schultz and Walter McClintock. They were quite different from each other, Schultz going for the romance of it all and McClintock a photographer who liked domestic camp scenes. The Scrivers knew them since they traded at the Browning Merc, the Scriver family store. Schultz was disreputable and McClintock had back-east money and connections, which makes him a target for the more political historians. Walter does not appear on lists of Montana authors, but Schultz has whole societies devoted to his work.
The Montana writers I actually met, but didn’t know well, include A.B. Guthrie, Jr, Norman McClean, Russell Chatham, William Kittredge. But once past Richard Hugo, one is into a new stage, which includes my age cohort: Ivan Doig, James Welch, Mary Clearman Blew, Rick Bass, Judy Blunt, Peter Bowen. Then there are the “wicked” writers who preyed on local tribal families: Richard Lancaster and Ruth Beebe Hill. The writer who confounds everyone by writing more published Western genre books than any six other Montana writers is Richard Wheeler. He is consistently left off every list, even the wildly erratic Wikipedia entry which starts off with Governor Babcock and his wife, Betty.
If you’re looking at writing as being like art, one division is between those whose personalities are the point, like Ace Powell, and those whose works are never going to be in fancy galleries, but are woven into the community, like Al Racine’s church wood carvings and his Napi cartoons. John Tatsey’s newspaper column is rough and jokey, but for some that IS the essence of being Blackfeet. These are people’s works, nothing like the sophisticated abstracts we see now, guided by the AIAI in the Southwest.
All this fussing around is preamble for comments on a novel by Allen Morris Jones, who not only writes, but also edits the Big Sky Journal (http://bigskyjournal.com)  and runs the Bangtail Press. Literary Montana divides, if you are looking at it through media eyes, between east (Missoula) and west (Bozeman). There are a lot of ways to contrast them but since many of the ways are pejorative, I’ll refrain. Jones has moved around, but is now in Bozeman.

by Burl Jones
Burl Jones, the novelist’s father, came to bronze sculpture via dentistry and two years in St. Ignatius. He built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1984 to ‘87. If you think these imply any parallel with Bob Scriver, who came to sculpture through taxidermy and a lifetime in Browning and built a gallery/wildlife museum in 1953, you’d be dead wrong. Bob never had a son who wrote, but he had an ex-wife who writes — me, the last living Scriver wife. I’m not on any list of Montana writers. My book about Bob was published in Calgary, so that knocks me off the list. Maybe I’m an Alberta writer, since my book of prairie theology sermons was published in Edmonton, but my blog goes out over a Blackfeet rez url tower on the US side.
So this novel, “Last Year’s River” has a puzzling cover: a woman in a blue robe on the back of a white horse, lying down with her head at the tail end. The reins she holds have tassels on the ends. Jones likes tassels. I don’t know why.
I’m going to look at this book as an artifact. Published in 2001, almost twenty years since it was written. Events happen in 1924. Rather than chapters, 116 “beats”, each one an event, some very short. Vignettes. Framed as memories of an old woman but not in her voice. It’s a love story and everyone but the two lovers are merely shadows and plot devices. Nothing at all about indians. The support credentials of the author are top drawer: an ICM agent and one of the last “Development Editors,” Anton Mueller.  Houghton Mifflin publisher in 2001 means just before the big eTsunami hit the industry. Whoever did the line editing only flubbed badly once but it was funny: “roughed grouse.”

Ruffed Grouse
Today’s novel readers are mostly women and will love that pastel cover, love the writing, love the great conflagration that kindles sex in a beaver dam, and the sub-zero blizzard that ends the other man’s child on a cabin hearth. The “sneaking around,” compromises, and ecstatic stolen moments that fill the rest of the book are immersive, semi-poetic, and informed by the book “A History of the North Fork of the Shoshone” by Ester Johannson Murray, a Cody “local” historian. The southeast corner of Montana bears the same relationship to Cody as the northwest eastslope of Montana bears to Calgary.
So this is a Montana romance novel written by a man who dedicates it to his mother and her sisters, braided through with research and experience, easy to read on a Kindle in episodes. Right on top of one of the forces behind Western literature: culture v. nature.
I love high culture almost as much as the landscape. Today Burl Jones’ bronzes sell for three times the price of Bob Scriver’s. The moment Bob died, his museum was dismantled. People get bored — they want new things. But they can’t quite give up the old things either, so they hang on to their fantasies. It’s a little awkward. This book is for sale on Amazon for a penny. I paid full-price for a hard back. No regrets.
Dan Flores
“Big Sky Journal” is a luxury magazine. I ended up with a stack of them when Dan Flores’ series on Western art was developing before it became a book. I can’t bear to throw them out, but I have a nasty Puritan streak in me that says, “All this fancy stuff is not real, it’s just indulgence.” When do they slide the knife in? When do they get to the guts?

No comments: