Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Literary APB: Jon Billman, Where Are You?

Starland Vocal Band:  Afternoon Delight
Michael Cimino:  The Deer Hunter
Jim Nabors:  Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
Harper Lee:  To Kill a Mockingbird

One-hit wonders are the saddest things on earth.

How many times have we read, heard, or watched what looks like an artistic comet blazing across the sky only to learn there won't be a repeat performance?  Sure Michael Cimino directed other movies and Jim Nabors had a good run with The Carol Burnett Show, but The Deer Hunter and Gomer Pyle are the things that will top their obituaries.*  For that one moment, talent burns hot and bright...but then....nothing but crickets.  We wait, and we wait, and we wait.  In the case of Harper Lee, we pilgrimage to Monroeville, Alabama and dig through her trash, hoping against hope that we'll find some scraps of discarded drafts with fresh ink.

Alas, we can do nothing but go back to their one hit and wonder why lightning never strikes twice in the same place.

For me, one of the most agonizing of all the one-book authors I've read is Jon Billman.  A recent comment from one of this blog's readers got me to thinking, "Whatever happened to Billman's career?"

In 1999, the Wyoming writer published a short story collection called When We Were Wolves.  Billman was praised by the likes of Rick Bass ("a new voice that is almost alarming in its energy"), Annie Proulx ("mark him as an important emerging writer") and Larry McMurtry ("I look forward eagerly to what he does next").  Larry and the rest of Billman's fans are still waiting.  It may well be that Billman has been working on something during the past eleven years--after all, Marilynne Robinson took twenty-four years to bring out Gilead after Housekeeping--but prospects are looking a little dim.

Eight years ago, I wrote a review of When We Were Wolves for another site elseweb.  In my borderline manic enthusiasm, I probably got a little dewy-eyed and moist-lipped in my praise of his writing.  Such was the hyperbole of my early days as a book reviewer (which is not to say I still don't overindulge in the Moist-and-Dewy Department).  Though I might couch the terms a little differently if I were to write the review today, the fact remains that, at the time, I believed I'd stumbled upon the Next Great Thing.  This morning, I went back and read a couple of Billman's stories from that book and I find that, spittle-flecked lips or no spittle-flecked lips, I was right in my assessment of his work.  He is one damn fine writer.

Here's what I wrote nearly a decade ago:

I WAS ON PAGE 77 of Jon Billman’s short story collection When We Were Wolves when I did something I’ve never done before.  I wrote a fan letter.

I did a quick search of the Internet for “Jon Billman,” found an e-mail address and, even though I was only a few pages into the book, dashed off a correspondence dripping with praise.  I wrote sentences like “You've got my writer's blood all stirred up and you've given me renewed hope for the future of short fiction.”  I gushed.  I swooned.  I was a teenage girl stripping off her bra and throwing it at Elvis’ feet.

I don’t regret one word of the hyperbole.

Ladies and gentlemen, I haven’t been this weak-kneed about something since the day I cracked open Richard Ford’s Rock Springs.  Before that, you’d have to go back to the first time I kissed the girl who’d later become my wife.

In his debut, Billman writes with the kind of sharp, muscular prose that makes me happy to be a writer…not to mention positively giddy to be a reader.  I should tell you right now, this review is going to be about as balanced as a man walking down the street carrying a load of bricks in one hand and a sack of feathers in the other.  I tried to find something less-than-praiseworthy about these thirteen stories, but I couldn’t, I really couldn’t.  I just thought I’d warn you before the gush got too deep.  (And yes, for all of you who are wondering, Mr. Billman did write me back with a very kind and gracious note**.)

You should also be advised that I’m probably prejudiced toward this collection of stories because most of them are set in Wyoming—that squarish state populated with sagebrush, antelope and miles and miles of barbed wire.  I grew up in Jon Billman’s Wyoming.  This was my land; these were my people on these pages.

Many of the stories are set in Hams Fork, Billman’s Yoknapatawpha, a small town where “no one beautiful or vital ever stays long.”  The fictional Hams Fork is a place where the nearest tree is thirty miles north of town.  The isolation, the on-edge desperation of the state and its residents is evident on nearly every page.  At one point, someone says of Wyoming:  "No one wants to be here.  Permanence isn’t Western in nature.  You take what you can get, or get what you have to take, and move on, get the hell out.  Vamoose."

Billman is such a good writer that he easily transcends any thematic borders, leaping over the limitations of purely regional writing like a wild mustang clearing a barbed-wire fence, then continuing to gallop toward, say, New York City.  This is literature everyone can read and walk away from deeply affected.

In “Indians,” he writes about a Depression-era bush-league baseball team from the reservation whose one-armed pitcher can predict rain by way of his missing arm.  As the team barnstorms around the drought-stricken Dakotas, the tension rises like barometric pressure.

“Custer Complex” and “Ash” have forest firefighters as their main characters—a profession that Billman himself once worked, by the way.  In one, a computer error sends a firefighter to a blaze that burned out two years ago; in the other, a crew member falls in love with a girl named Ash ("She was big.  Not sloppy.  Not classically voluptuous.  Big.  She could hold her own.") and the relationship leads to recklessness.

In another incredibly subtle story, “Winter Fat,” Billman writes about an ex-con who befriends a family of Mormons.  All is well until they start hearing reports of public sculptures stolen from town squares.

A character named Wayne Kerr makes several appearances in When We Were Wolves, including the final story, “Albatross,” which is one of the most perfectly-written soliloquies I’ve seen since Shakespeare.  Wayne, a renegade artist who likes to airbrush topless women on water towers, slowly freezes after collapsing on a deserted golf course.  Here’s Wayne, paralyzed and fighting off hypothermia, staring at the sky:
Full-blown night had fallen on the Hams Fork Valley.  The Hale-Bopp comet loomed overhead in the northwest.***  So dark, so very dark, the light of the comet was brilliant—Wayne could clearly see the comet’s vapor trail.  To him it resembled a submerged Alka-Seltzer.
Billman has the clear, focused wit of Sherman Alexie and the gritty desperation of Raymond Carver.  While I’m at it, I’d also throw in all the best qualities of Rick Bass and Richard Ford as well.  He’s that good.

But he’s his own master—staking out plots of literary territory like a rancher stringing fences. This is a wholly accurate portrait of Wyoming—the land and the people—and it’s a parcel of earth that Billman knows intimately.  When We Were Wolves is the kind of book that makes me want to race through from start to finish in the same way I’d gulp a cold mug of sarsaparilla on a summer day.  But yet, I told myself to slow it down, to savor the language.  After all, you toss back that sarsaparilla and you’ll miss the sweet froth, the edgy bite.

Here are two more of my favorite sentences—both describing female characters—from this collection:
I’ve seen Copper open a beer bottle with her eye socket.
Robin is pretty in the way wood smoke smells nice.
If you’ll indulge me just a minute longer, here’s a pitch-perfect passage from the Carveresque “Sugar City” where a newlywed couple finds their impetuous marriage quickly veering toward disaster:
       Bonnie slumped against my shoulder and slept the fitful sleep of the depressed who don’t have their medication quite dialed in.  A rainbow air freshener that hadn’t bothered me before hung from the rearview mirror.  I ripped it down, looking over at sleeping Bonnie, and threw it out the window.
       Night would soon settle on the southern Idaho desert, northbound, and I began to need the ceremony of eggs and a bottomless cup of coffee.  It’s the surest thing about the road, breakfast at any hour, and something to chew on when driving all night: loss and breakfast.  Bonnie still didn’t know about the ten-thousand-dollar donation I’d made in Reno.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “He’s given away all the best parts of the book and there’s nothing left.”  Trust me, dear reader, there’s plenty of literary treasures I’ve left untouched.  The talent on display in When We Were Wolves is, indeed, as wide as the Wyoming horizon.

*     *     *     *

You may now clean the fanboy saliva from your computer screen.

Judging by the fever pitch of my excitement, you can probably guess the intensity of my disappointment when Billman never published another book after 1999.  Each year, I'd search Amazon and the shelves of Barnes & Noble in hopes I'd find something else he'd written.  Each year, the echo chamber got larger and more hollow.

Billman is still around.  I just Googled him and learned that he's written several articles for Outside magazine, adrenaline-injected accounts of biking and hiking around the West.  He's currently teaching courses in writing at Oklahoma State University.  Another online reference mentions that he is "finishing a novel, Embalming Will Rogers, that takes place in the Red Desert of Wyoming."

A novel?  That's certainly good news.  But I have no idea how long ago that bio-blurb was written.  It could have been 2003 for all I know and Embalming Will Rogers could be nothing more than a rigor-mortised novel by this point.

Following a side street during my afternoon of Googling, I came across a brief mention of Billman in a Salon essay, "Not Talented Enough," written in 1999 by a hopeful would-be novelist with the too-apt name Ellie Forgotson.  She tells how she struggled with rejections from agents who began their letters "We think you're very talented, but..."  Those were some pretty devastating "buts," Forgotson tells us.  Eventually, she gave up on that novel and went through a mourning period for her unpublished work:
       I began to ask big questions.  I began to reevaluate my life and myself as a writer.  Could I call myself a writer if I wasn't getting published?  Was I just fooling myself?  What kind of "talented" person could spend five years on the same 500 pages, revising and editing, reevaluating and recasting, without ever once realizing that it might not work?  For months I felt stupid and naive and incredibly ashamed, the way I felt after coming out of a long, bad, emotionally tortuous but sexually satisfying relationship, where everyone but me had recognized about three years earlier that Mr. Right was sinister and unstable and totally, completely wrong.  And no one had had the heart to tell me.
       "But I loved this novel," I wanted to say to these agents, my family, my husband.  You don't understand!  I was blinded by love.  Or ambition.  Or need.  Or whatever it was that made me spend five years believing in something, making efforts every day to make that something work.  I just kept writing, sacrificing my social life, an income, the well-beings of my new husband and dog.  I wrote to finish and I wrote for love.  And in the end it was all wrong.
As an unpublished novelist myself, this is a scary thought: have I foolishly, vainly, naively "wasted" nearly six years of my life driving the wrong way on the literary interstate?  Is this all for naught?

Channeling Cher in Moonstruck, I slap myself across the cheeks.  Hard.  "Snap out of it!"

Of course it's been worth it--every day I hit the keyboard I'm greeted with a fresh challenge of words that revs my brain.  That's beside the point.  What I'm more concerned about right now is whether or not Jon Billman has had this same experience.  Has he poured his time and talent into another manuscript only to find publishers rejecting his "sophomore slump" efforts?  Or has he been too busy biking across the Rockies to get serious about writing any more fiction?  Or, more likely, have the vicissitudes of All Things Not Writing (marriage, child-raising, a 9-to-5 job, heavy drinking) caused him to put his writing on temporary hold?  Or is he--best-case scenario--returning to his computer and picking up where he left off with Embalming Will Rogers?

It's foolish for me to even speculate.  In fact, it's impolite.  What writers do with their lives is their own business.  I hope Billman is happy wherever he is with whatever he's doing.****

In the end, we readers should be satisfied with the artifacts our favorite writers leave us: these books with their torn, rubbed-thin dustjackets and dog-eared pages.  The ones we've loved to death and never tire of praising to anyone who'll listen.  The ones scorched by the comet's tail of one-hit wonders.

*In Cimino's case, the ill-fated Heaven's Gate will probably trump his Oscar-winner.  Which would be a shame.
**The contents of which are lost and forgotten in the subsequent turnover of new computers and erased hard drives.
***See?  Sometimes even blazing comets write about blazing comets.
****I also hope the term "one-hit wonder" chafes him so much that he sets out to prove me wrong.


  1. If you have a phone number for the great H.F. Saint, please provide it at your earliest convenience.

  2. Wonderful tribute. Thanks. An even briefer candle I believe is/was Kim Zupan, who had a great piece about a little rodeo in BIG SKY READER.

  3. Friend
    Jon Billman has written a lot of nonfiction for various magazines during the period you claim as an absence. He's also raising two fantastic kids and teaching his heart out. So keep the faith. The novel is coming.

  4. "The novel is coming. "
    That might just be the best announcement since Mr Reese said, "I've decided to join chocolate and peanut in holy matrimony. "

  5. From a student: Spread the word. His return will be great.

  6. I was approached recently by a reader carrying an old copy of THE DEADLINE, my second novel, which is now out-of-print. She wanted me to sign it for her, but she apologized that it was a used copy she bought online. No problem, I assured her. But when I opened it, I found it was a gift copy that I had personally inscribed for Jon Billman at a book event in Evanston, Wyoming, back in 1999. (Our flimsy acquaintance began when I wrote a very positive review to "When We Were Wolves" in the Denver Post.) As a writer myself, I don't think I've ever tossed a book that was inscribed for me, even awful ones, mostly because I consider such a thing to be an artifact of connection in our little fraternity. I remain impressed by Billman's early writing ... but I probably won't buy his next book.

  7. Ironically, my name is Jonathan Billman, but everyone calls me Jon Billman. Oh the irony I find in this post, as I am also working on a Novel. Im under 18. What were the subjects of his works?

  8. Jon Billman II: Thanks for reading this and not being too alarmed to see a "Literary APB" had been put out for you. Jon Billman's book of short stories is mainly about what it's like to live in the contemporary West.

    Best of luck with your own writing!

  9. David, I can assure you that the new novel from Jon Billman is close. Think "Allistair MacLeod" when considering Mr Billman: MacLeod is one of our greatest living writers -- three books (and a combined #1 & 2 into book four) in fifty years. And they're great great books. It'll be worth the wait, that's all I will say. Yes, he's a major talent, but he hears his own music and has his own sense of When. Great piece, thanks...

  10. Ron, as a recent student of Mr. Billman, I can assure you that he doesn't sell or toss any books that he receives. He's a bit old school in the best way and he loves to loan books out that he particularly enjoys to his students. I had him for two semesters in a row and he was always lending creative inspiration and spreading literary awesomeness using his own collection of books. More than likely that girl was an ex-student or who she purchased it from was an ex-student that he loaned it to in good faith that it would be returned. Things happen and its unfortunate, but he's just way too sweet to sell or trash a book.