Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Echoes from Montana's Festival of the Book

I'm still reeling with a language hangover from the 11th Annual Montana Festival of the Book held in Missoula this past weekend.  It was 48 hours of 100 writers, dozens of readings and panel discussions, and several happy discoveries of authors new to me.  If you stood in the lower level of the Holiday Inn at the height of the festival, your head would whirl from the simultaneous buzz-chatter of book-centric conversations.

All that, and Ben Percy, too!  Hey, I'm not name-dropping here; I'm just re-affirming what I'd already suspected: the author of The Wilding is one helluva nice guy (even on four hours' sleep, jet lag, and the taste of last night's whiskey in his mouth).

I reported on the Festival of the Book for New West (click here to read the story), so I won't rehash the details of the weekend here at the blog.  Instead, I thought I'd share snippets from the works of some of those "happy discoveries."  Here then, are some of the greatest hits of this year's festival (which is not to say I didn't also enjoy James Lee Burke, C. J. Box, Jim Lynch, Laura Munson, or Rick DeMarinis--I just didn't have room for everybody).

I'd never heard of Idaho novelist Brian Hart before the festival, but once I listened to him read from his noir-tainted debut Then Came the Evening, he was hard to forget.  The book-jacket copy begins: Bandy Dorner, home from Vietnam, awakes with his car mired in a canal, his home reduced to ashes, and his pregnant wife preparing to leave town with her lover.  The bulk of the story takes place twenty years later when Dorner is trying to pick up the pieces of his life.  Here's a clip from the opening scene:
       Bandy Dorner woke to a fogged windshield, cracked and spattered with mud and grass, the watery shadows of two policemen banging on his car hood with their fists.  He opened the car door with his shoulder and fell into the canal.  The shock of the water stole his breath and when he went to stand the strong current knocked him down.  He dug his hands into the mud bank and pulled himself up to flat ground and stood dripping.  The fog was nearly as dense outside of the car as it was within and it took him a few seconds to orient himself.  The barbed wire from the fence he'd driven through was tangled up in his rear axle and strung across the field with some of the posts still attached.
       "You can't prove a thing," Bandy said.  He knew the two policemen and didn't like them.  Turner was the tall man's name; Meeks was the shorter.
       "I care about proof," Turner said.
       Meeks took a toothpick from his breast pocket and slipped it into his mouth.  "We got your bed ready in town.  It ain't even pissed in.  Yet."  He smiled and the toothpick pointed skyward.

In his thunderous, energetic reading at Missoula's Wilma Theater, Idaho poet Robert Wrigley's performance was like what we used to say about B-movie action movies: "He blowed up good."  After hearing his recitation of an ode to national phobias, "American Fear," we had to be peeled from our theater seats.  "American Fear" is too long, too epic to post here at the blog (and an excerpt could never do it full justice), so I found another choice selection from his newest book, Beautiful Country:


They've made love in the woods again
and now she's asleep, her head on his belly,
and he only wants to study her as she naps.

But the black carpenter ant, the one he's watched
climb the curve of her right breast,
now wanders from the pinkish aureole borderlands

in spirals round and round and round again,
which is why he reaches as carefully as he can
and plucks the ant up and flicks it back to the forest,

apologizing at just the moment she opens her eyes
and almost frowns, then closes them, and allows herself
to sleep again, although he was talking to the ant.

Billings author Craig Lancaster is something of a self-publishing Cinderfella.  Born out of a challenge to participate in National Novel Writing Month*, Lancaster's novel 600 Hours of Edward was self-published in February 2009; then, six months later, it was picked up by Riverbend Publishing.  The novel has gone on to win the Best First Book award at the High Plains Book Festival and was chosen as a Montana Book Award Honor Book.  The book is narrated by Edward Stanton, a young man with Asperger Syndrome, over the course of one month in his tightly-controlled life.  Here's the start of a typical morning for Edward:
       My eyes flash open.  I wait a moment for the dull blur of morning light to come into focus, and then I turn my head 90 degrees to the left and face the clock: It is 7:38 a.m.  I have been awake at this time for the past three days, and for 18 out of the past 20.  Because I go to bed promptly at midnight, I am accustomed to stirring at 7:38, but occasionally, I will wake up a little earlier or a little later.  The range isn't large--sometimes it's 7:37, and sometimes it's 7:40, and it has been 7:39 (22 times this year, in fact), but 7:38 is the time I expect.  It has happened 221 times so far this year, so if it were you, you would expect it, too.  (You're probably wondering how frequently I've been up at other times: 15 for 7:37 and 29 for 7:40.)  Although I do my part by going to bed at midnight sharp, the variances occur because of things I can't control, like the noise made by my neighbors or passing cars or sirens.  These things frustrate me, but I cannot do anything about them.
       I write down the time I woke up, and my data is complete.

Alyson Hagy is no stranger to me.  I've "known" Alyson (in the Internet sense of the word) since 2005 when I was in Iraq and she sent me a couple of much-appreciated care packages.  We've corresponded off and on and I thoroughly enjoyed her most recent collection of short stories, Ghosts of Wyoming, but it wasn't until the Festival of the Book that I got to meet the writer behind the words.  She's every bit as genuine, humane, and insightful in person as she is on the page.  Here's the first paragraph from her dazzling and ambitious story, "Brief Lives of the Trainmen":
He is awake before daylight greases the black pan of the sky.  The cook rousts him with the ring of her iron ladle across the brake spring.  He hears the cook curse her rheumatic gout, the withholding chickens, the moths that have drowned in her uncovered pots.  Her voice is as complaining as a crow's.  He worms his feet into the square-toed brogans left behind by the spike setter who caught gold fever from a bullwhacker out of Rapid City.  The brogans are too large, but he'll keep them until he can trade for something better.  He bundles his spare shirt and stockings with the grain sack that is his bed, then reties the rope that belts his woolen trousers.  The rope is a gift from the cook.  She used it to lead the pig before she butchered him.

Jess Walter was a bit of a revelation.  I'd heard he was good, I just didn't know how good he was until I heard him read an unpublished short story at the Wilma Theater.  The dude is so funny, he'd have a London palace guard bending double with laughter inside of a minute.  Though he's published several other books, the Spokane novelist hit it big last year with the highly-acclaimed The Financial Lives of the Poets.  Jacket-copy blurb:  What happens when small-time reporter Matthew Prior quits his job to gamble everything on a quixotic notion: a Web site devoted to financial journalism in the form of blank verse?  Before long, he wakes up to find himself jobless, hobbled with debt, spying on his wife's online flirtation, and six days away from losing his home....Until, one night on a desperate two a.m. run to 7-Eleven, he falls in with some local stoners, and they end up hatching the biggest- and most misbegotten-plan yet.  There are plenty of sections which sparkle with humor on these pages, but I'm awfully fond of this blank verse:

A Brief Political Manifesto

I was driving around the packed Costco parking lot
looking for a space and listening to some guy
on NPR talk about America's growing suburban poor
when I saw this woman with four kids--
little stepladders, two-four-six-eight--
waiting to climb in the car while Mom
loaded a cask of peanut butter and
pallets of swimsuits into the back
of this all-wheel drive vehicle
and the kids were so cute I waved
and that's when I saw the most amazing thing
as the woman bent over
to pick up a barrel
of grape juice:
her low-rise pants rose low and right there
in the small of her large back
stretched a single strained string,
a thin strap of fabric, yes,
the Devil's floss, I shit you not
a thong, I swear to God, a thong,
now me, I'm okay with the thong
politically and aesthetically, I'm fine
with it being up there or out there,
or wherever it happens to be.

My only question is:
when did Moms start wearing them?

I remember my mom's underwear
(Laundry was one of our chores:
we folded those things awkwardly,
like fitted sheets.  We snapped them
like tablecloths.  Thwap.
My sister stood on one end,
me on the other
and we walked toward each other

We folded those things
like big American flags,
hats off, respectful
careful not to let them
brush the ground.)

Now I know there are people out there
who constantly fret about
the Fabric of America:
gay couples getting married, violent videos, nasty TV,
that sort of thing.
But it seems to me
the Fabric of America
would be just fine
if there was a little bit more of it
in our mothers' underpants.

And that is the issue I will run on
when I eventually run:
Getting our moms out of thongs
and back into hammocks
with leg holes
the way God

Because he teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula, Kevin Canty is a regular mainstay of the Festival of the Book.  He brings down-to-earth wit to the panel discussions, and always has something good to offer during his readings.  His newest novel, Everything, is, by his own admission, epic in scope.  It follows a large cast of characters around Missoula, but primarily revolves around divorced empty-nester RL, his best friend's widow June, and his girlfriend Betsy.  Here's a short peek at Everything's action**:

He had slept with Betsy before, a long time before.  It wasn't a secret, it wasn't a key.  But it wasn't anything RL liked to think about much.  Like a lot of his life at the time, this experience just seemed painful and inconclusive, painful because it was inconclusive.

He remembered the shape of her body, naked, the slippery seal length of her in that hot springs in Idaho, out in the woods in the snow, snowflakes landing on their knees and hair while they watched them, stoned.  Was that the time they saw the moose?  Once they were lying naked in the gravel pool when a cow moose and two calves drifted into the far end of the clearing, quietly appearing out of the cedar trees and ferns and fog, and stood there grazing for an hour, paying them no mind.  Once they had strange submerged sex in the water and then she rolled him out into the snow and then followed and they rolled around in the snow like seal pups, tickling and teasing.  Did that even happen?  It seems like another life, somebody's else's.

*Which is taking place right now, for all of you hesitant Hemingways out there who need some motivation.
**And with this, I think I've exceeded my quota of outdoor-sex scenes in one blog post.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! What he said. My brain still feels over-booked from last weekend, but thanks for the re-cap, especially Jess Walter's "A Brief Political Manifesto."