Monday, July 14, 2014

When the Prairie Sleeps, the Mystery Creeps

C.J. Box, Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country

Somebody’s bound to say it somewhere, so let me say it first: it’s difficult to read this book without comparing it to Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the collection which gave us the original “Brokeback Mountain.” Assuming you’ve read Proulx, obviously. And if you haven’t, please do, because putting these two together provides a remarkable view of the wide, arid, hardworking domain America largely derides as “flyover country.”

Proulx, a Wyoming transplant, and Box, a native, both create languid, laconic characters whose actions deliver eloquent messages that mere words couldn’t convey. Their concise snapshots reveal a people whose lives have become integrated with the landscape, giving them a permanence transcending generations. But where Proulx’s literary approach conveys Wyomingites’ diverse struggles often in stolid silence, Box, a crime novelist, observes his protagonists through the lens of violence.

Box’s very earthy, hardworking, and concise English doesn’t eliminate poetry; often, it heightens stylistic power. Describing the North Platte River, Box writes, “the current gripped the flat-bottomed McKenzie boat and spun it like a cigarette butt in a flushed toilet.” Anyone who’s seen fishing boats in shallow water recognizes that surprising yet apt simile. Likewise, Box says so-and-so’s “face was round, like a hubcap.” He uses that one twice.

This approach, free of self-conscious ornamentation, is merely the surface layer of how Box’s characters think. Too busy with work, family, and survival to be “pretty,” they distribute words with Protestant thrift, and base their metaphors on common, workaday images. Yet their often unforeseen poetry doesn’t just make us see their objects anew; it forces us to acknowledge them as deep thinkers, though they may lack fancy East Coast credentials.

Four stories feature Box’s recurrent protagonist, game warden Joe Pickett. (Non-hunters may not realize game wardens are sworn law officers with arrest authority.) Pickett’s innate feel for Wyoming’s diverse ecology, and the humans who make their living off it, recalls dime novel tropes of Indians standing outside white society, yet still maintaining certain justice. Besides Proulx, I also recalled Zane Grey’s highly moral Westerns while reading Box.

Six other stories venture outside Box’s previous bibliography, while remaining around his Wyoming heart. (Okay, “Le Sauvage Noble” is set in South Dakota and Paris, France. Allow some latitude.) The most powerful stories in the collection feature some collision between the stable Wyoming equilibrium and outside forces which would remake the prairie in their image. Box’s stories manage the constant tapdance between down-home continuity and worldly disruption.

My favorite tale, “The Master Falconer,” features a naturalist and former soldier on society’s fringes. When a powerful Saudi plutocrat attempts to buy his loyalty, believing everybody is for sale, our hero finds himself imprisoned by overwhelming pressures. His understanding of the land and people lets him construct a sophisticated noose from the Saudi’s own rope. Remarkably, this is one of only two stories where nobody dies, though several people crawl away bloodied.

Other stories span the range of Western life, turning on ways people hurt, diminish, or steal power from others. “Dull Knife” describes a hard collision between modern Indian and White societies. Casual racism won’t surprise most readers who’ve lived near the Rez, but the flippant bigotry inherent in friendly White condescension remains shocking. “The End of Jim and Ezra” flips eras, depicting the brutality that drove early American expansionism.

Not everything works equally. “Every Day Is a Good Day on the River” billboards its impending conflict so blatantly, I wonder how these characters didn’t realize they’re trapped in a suspense thriller. Box took the easy option here. But that’s one weak story among ten. I’d forgive much worse for “Blood Knot,” a flash story with no physical violence, but deep insights into how people chisel away each other’s humanity.

Box’s stories resemble Proulx’s observations of ordinary people, pushed by austere circumstances into moments of chilling hostility. Mystery fans may prefer comparing Box to Craig “Longmire” Johnson, but beyond the Wyoming setting, the comparison rings hollow. Longmire channels classic Westerns and heroic myths, Box prefers a cold-eyed look at how people cling to society’s margins today. Box’s arid Wyoming prairie symbolizes his characters’ inner brokenness.

Don’t let my high-minded analysis deter you, though. Box creates high-energy adventures that test characters to destruction, revealing their secrets not through turgid discourse, but through action and moments of bleak, inescapable honesty. I can think of no greater praise a weary night-shift laborer can bestow upon this collection, than that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish that last story.

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