Thursday, March 7, 2013

Great Beginnings: Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal

You can tell a lot about a story by the way it shakes your hand.  Does it have the metacarpal-crushing vigor of a football linebacker, or the limp-fish laxity of a shy visitor?  Those first sentences--the handshake of fiction--of a story will either pull you in or push you away, depending on the intensity and freshness of their language.

In the case of Shawn Vestal's stories in Godforsaken Idaho, I was grabbed and squeezed by the first grip of words.

The book will be officially released at the beginning of April, but I was lucky to get an advance copy in the mail yesterday.  As soon as I ripped open the mailing envelope and Vestal's book spilled out into my hands, my heart did a series of gymnastic vaults and I think I even let loose with a "Yesss!"  I don't know Vestal personally, but he and I have bumped into each other on social media once or twice and Godforsaken Idaho was on my radar.  I set the book aside so I could make dinner, which led to a night of TV watching with my wife, which led to a drowsy climb upstairs two hours later where I fell into bed and promptly fell asleep.

This morning--as with most mornings--I wasn't sure what I'd write about here on the blog, so to kill some time, I picked up Vestal's book again, and turned to the first page.

Howdy-do!  The handshake pumped my arm like I was an oil derrick.

I should say "handshakes" plural because I didn't stop with that first paragraph of the first story but kept flipping through the pages, reading the opening paragraphs to all of the stories.  Suddenly, I knew exactly what I'd blog about this morning.  Sure, I could have saved Godforsaken Idaho for the next edition of Front Porch Books, but my excitement over what I read would have completely taken over the blog post and that wouldn't be fair to the other books I chose to highlight.  So, I decided to give Vestal his own day.

I should add that I didn't read any of these nine stories beyond the opening lines you see below, so for all I know the rest of the words could totally suck, could turn out to be nothing but limp, moist fingers pulling weakly out of our first handshake.  But I really don't think they will.  Not with great beginnings like these.

The food is excellent.  The lines are never long.  There’s nothing to do with your hands.  These are the first things I tell my son.  Then we don’t talk again for something like two hundred years.
      --"The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death"

I never wanted to be a criminal until I was one.  And then, for a while, I couldn't imagine wanting to be anything else.
      --"About as Fast as This Car Will Go"

Gina said, "I'd love to stab you to death with an icepick.  Like four hundred times."  She feigned delicate stabs.  "Or a hat pin."  We were driving from Jackson to Rupert, Idaho, where her parents lived.  An eight-hour drive.  She'd already come up with: suffocation in a vat of excrement; poisoning with lye in cake frosting; crucifixion with rusty nails; and countless variations involving the mutilation of my genitals.
      --"Families Are Forever!"

This starts in the hot pool, around my fourth vodka cran, when she comes in slapping the poolside with her flip-flops, looking like someone you see getting out of a car on TV.  Huge sunglasses with tan lenses.  Pressed blond hair and bronze skin.  Her thin, golden legs emerging from a denim skirt that looked expensively worn out.  I believe firmly in watching such a woman.  The other men in the hot pool, the ones under the supervision of their own women, were trying not to.  She stepped out of that skirt and bent over, ass up like an autumn doe, a taut, aqua patch of swimsuit summoning the eye.  It was four in the afternoon, and something started flopping inside me like a fish on a riverbank.
      --"Pocket Dog"

For most of my life I couldn't have found Idaho on a map.  I had no picture of the place in my mind, nothing like a California beach or a Texas oil field.  Potato trees, is what I thought on the drive out.  Rows and rows of potato trees.  I was a stupid child, well into adulthood.  So I find myself in Idaho, and it turns out that potatoes grow underground, and there aren't any up here in the northern part of the state anyway.  People here hate it if you even mention potatoes.  I feel that way now, too.
      --"Godforsaken Idaho"

They materialized with the first snow.  That was how Bradshaw would always remember it.  He was standing at the living-room window, listening to Cheryl shush the baby, when he saw specks fluttering like ash against a smoky sky, then caught sight of someone on his front step, though he hadn't noticed anyone coming up the walk.  He could see about an inch of a man's left side at the window's border--an arm in a dark suit and boyish hand holding a book bound in black leather.  He knew instantly that there was another suit and another leather-bound volume out there, a companion to complete the pair: missionaries.
      --"Winter Elders"

Then I awoke.  Sea the color of stone curled away in every direction, tucking itself beneath a bright mist that blotted out the sky.  A tinge of lilac bleeding into the frosty air.  A rocking, a lulling.  Was this the celestial kingdom?  I had believed I was dying into God’s glory.  Now I was seeing through someone else’s eyes, and could but hope this was a passage, a way there.  The ashen sea rocked on.  I stared into the haze, longing to see it open upon a wide shore, a sacred light, the heavenly host.
      --"Opposition in All Things"

Sara Miller wanted to know what would happen if she said no.  Just that: No.  The thought terrified and thrilled her.  Could she say it?  Could he hear it?  Ever since they'd left Nauvoo, she feared her father had lost touch with the will of the Lord.  Now she was counting his sins again, as they stood in the dirt yard, as she watched him push the planer along the plank, watched the chapped top of his head, the white points of his raw knuckles.  Tan curls rose and fell to the earth.  His pride, she told herself.  His anger.  She held the plank.  He doesn't keep the Word of Wisdom.  The sun broke from the horizon, and the valley flowered between the mountain spines.  All Zion was golden, Sara thought, and wasn't her father a part of that?  She felt enclosed by the ambiguous messages of the Lord.

February 27, 1825
      A new report regarding treasure.
      Josaiah Stowell heard from his cousin in Damascus the story of the Mink Gang, road agents some decades back believed to have buried coins and bills in a strongbox along our valley road, the spoils of a famed spree of robberies.  Stowell's cousin is a former sheriff, and the report confirms, in some respects, other tales of which I have written here.  The stories gather and gather.  They are becoming harder to discredit.  Elizabeth used to scoff at the notion--"Treasure," she would huff, lovely with indignation.  "You men would do anything to avoid honest labor."


  1. How great to read each story's beginning here. Impressive!

    p.s. I am Shawn's wife!

  2. Dagbabit!

    To the burgeoning TBR pile with you "Godforsaken Idaho!"

    Great first impression(s). I'm in!

  3. I am also impressed by this collection. Note to self: contact Shawn Vestal about an interview when I'm in Spokane for Get Lit!