7/6/20

The Night Watchman Offers Insight into Chippewa Struggle for Justice


The Night Watchman (2020)
By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, 397 pages
★★★★★

We can add Native Americans to the list of people Donald Trump doesn’t care about. He’s trying to end tribal recognition (on a technicality) for the Wampanoag tribe—the same folks who helped the Pilgrims and are part of the First Thanksgiving story. It seems their 381 acres of Massachusetts land stands too close to Trumpian Rhode Island allies who want to build a casino and halt one being built by the Wampanoags. The only way to do that is to remove their tribal status.

Coincidentally, Louise Erdrich’s new novel showed up in my library queue as Trump’s latest outrage was unfolding. The link? The Night Watchman is Erdrich’s semi-biographical novel about the federal government’s attempt to dismember the Turtle Band of Chippewas back in 1953. Erdrich, an enrolled Chippewa* tribal member, has produced a work of historical fiction rooted in fact. The character of Thomas Wazhashk (“muskrat”) is based upon her grandfather (Patrick Gourneau), who spearheaded the struggle to stave off “termination” of the Chippewas’ tribal status in North Dakota. It was then, as now, a blatant attempt to seize Indian land–all under the paternalistic rubric of making Indians more “American” and allowing them to fend for themselves because they were allegedly self-sufficient.

Thomas is the book’s namesake character. He guards the jewel factory that makes precision parts for watches and is one of the few employers of the reservation. The jewel factory is real, as was Arthur V. Watkins, a U.S. Senator from Utah known for being racist toward Indians. He sponsored the Congressional bill that eventually terminated 113 tribes. Watkins was also a Mormon, a sect which comes off badly in The Night Watchman.  

Erdrich, a leading voice in Native American literature, paints a rich culture that co-exists with crushing poverty and lack of opportunity. This is a land of outhouses, substandard housing, rampant alcoholism, hunting-gathering, horses, no electricity, and patched up automobiles. Boxing brings status to some of the young men, but lard on bread is sometimes a meal. For all of this, it is also a close-knit community in which people look out for each other and help in any way they can.

Edrich populates her novel with memorable characters. Thomas and his wife Rose are blood kin to the Paranteau family held together by Zhaanat and her daughter Patrice, as Zhaanat’s husband is a violent drunk and another daughter, Vera, has gone to missing in Minneapolis. Patrice is serious, smart, innocent, and beautiful. Men desire her, including Lloyd Barnes, a Caucasian boxing coach, and Wood Mountain, one of Barnes’ most promising boxers. The reservation is filled with colorful individuals, including Wood Mountain and his mother, Juggie Blue; tribal judge Moses Montrose; Thomas’ father Bibbon; the Pipestone family, and more.
Women are powerful figures in The Night Watchman–few more so than Patrice. She might not know about the birds and the bees, but she is determined and is nobody’s patsy. Another character, Millie Cloud, is equally determined. She’s an introverted Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, but she has the data to refute the nonsense that the Chippewa were prosperous enough to survive without government largesse. One might accuse Erdrich of trying a bit too hard to impose feminism into her tale as the Chippewa are not matriarchal and the report attributed to Millie in the story was, in real life, mostly authored by a man (Dr. David Delorme). I shan’t nitpick, though, as I found Erdrich’s focus on women refreshing. I also reveled in how those you least expect have proverbial hearts of gold.

The Night Watchman is a sprawling tale with numerous dark turns. Not much good happens to Indians who end up in cities, be it Fargo or Minneapolis. Erdrich also explores exoticism, an often-veiled aspect of racism, which she explores through the various ways in which whites simultaneously revile natives yet find them alluring. One plot device involves the criminal sex trade, another a barely legal underwater act. At heart, though, The Night Watchman is an inspirational David versus Goliath tale of plucky survival. The reservation is also populated by ghosts. Native cosmology is sometimes described as “thin,” meaning that the barriers between the natural and the supernatural worlds are porous.** This has the potential to reinforce community, a factor Senator Watkins hadn’t anticipated.

The Night Watchman is an engrossing read filled with memorable characters, humanity, and determiation. This will probably be shortlisted for numerous literary awards and, no matter what it wins or doesn’t, it is surely a highlight of the 2020 fiction season. It is also a wakeup call. Indians are too often marginalized in discussions of American racism. Perhaps it’s time for a Red Lives Matter movement.

Rob Weir

 * The Chippewa are Anishinaabe peoples and are sometimes referenced that way. They are also called Ojibwe or Saulteaux, depending upon where they live.
** This often remains the case even when Natives are nominally Christian. Through a process known as syncretism, Christian theology is sometimes grafted onto indigenous beliefs.    


7/3/20

The Way We Live Now Truncates Trollope


The Way We Are Now (2001)
Directed by David Yates
BBC Mini Series (4 parts)
★★


Several weeks ago, I heartily endorsed the BCC’s dramatization of Anthony Trollope’s The Barchester Chronicles. Emboldened by such quality I turned to the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) adaptation of Trollope’s 1875 masterpiece, The Way We Are Now. I was especially anxious to see David Suchet in the role of Augustus Melmotte, the film’s anti-hero, as I enjoyed him so much as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot on Mystery. Suchet is fine in The Way We Are Now, but the novel runs over 800 pages and four episodes isn’t long enough to do it justice.

The title encapsulates Trollope’s intentions. His is a novel about the clash between tradition and modernity at a time in which the first is only partially degraded and the second is unfettered in problematic ways. The Carbury family represents fading aristocracy. Lady Carbury (Cheryl Campbell) is a widow trying to maintain a façade of family respectability through writing very bad books that are (mostly) gently reviewed. It doesn’t help matters that she dotes on her son, Sir Felix (Mathew Macfayden), a veritable man-child who sponges money from his mother so he can dress like a dandy, drink like a fish, and gamble like a fool. Henrietta (Paloma Baeza) tries to warn her mother but Felix can do no wrong in her eyes. We quickly learn that many old families are in the same boat. They have titles, but no money.

Enter the Melmottes. Augustus is a foreign financier who moves his family and whatever it is he does to London and into a garishly appointed mansion in Grosvenor Square. He represents the nouveau riche who make money in industry, banking, and moving paper securities. He has money, but is oily, uncouth, and unrefined. (Scenes of he and his family eating look like they belong in Tom Jones, not Trollope.) He is also Jewish and Victorian society was decidedly anti-Semitic. The Melmottes are too rich to ignore, yet too crass for polite society. That is, until Melmotte decides to help underwrite a railroad envisioned by construction engineer Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) that will run from Utah into Mexico.

We watch English nobility line up to invest with Melmotte, who promises them they will grow rich and solve their problems. Felix has another plan: feign his admiration for Melmotte’s daughter Marie (Shirley Henderson), marry her, and tap into the Melmotte fortune. If only he weren’t such an utter ass, he might have pulled it off, as Marie is deeply smitten with him.

There are lots of side stories, all of which by necessity are greatly truncated. The Longestaffes are also strapped for cash, which means their unmarried spoiled brat of a daughter Georgianna (Anne-Marie Duff) goes to live with the Melmottes and is courted by a much older banker Mr. Breghert (Jim Carter), who is also Jewish and thus threatens her place in society. Paul is in love with Henrietta, but she is courted by Paul’s best friend and Hetty’s cousin Roger (Douglas Hodge)–a classic triangle. Or should I say quadrangle? Although Paul is scrupulously honest in his work and smells a rat in Melmotte, he has not been forthcoming about his private life and the hold his former American lover (Miranda Otto) has on him. And, of course, the dissolute Felix has been dallying with Ruby Ruggles (Maxine Peake), a servant girl.

Can Melmotte buy his way into society, including a seat in Parliament, or is his a house of cards? Or is everyone dwelling among cardboard jokers? Transitional times in history are always fraught and Trollope teases out those threads. Alas, the series does not. Shortened though it is, there are 36 credited actors, so nuance has to go. Yates plays up the camp angle and some parts are funny, so much so that the edge is taken off of serious matters. Campbell chews scenery throughout and Mcfaydyen often seems to be playing Oscar Wilde rather than Felix Carbury. Anne-Marie Duff will get on your nerves, but not as much as Shirley Henderson, who may be my least favorite actress of all time. Her little girl voice and lack of articulation drove me up a wall, as did her channeling of a libidinous school girl.

These performances detract from the good: Suchet as an amoral conniver, Otto as an icy and sexy femme fatale, Hodge as a dignified frustrated courter, and Murphy as a man caught in the middle of things he cannot control. Yates and the series producer somehow won BAFTA (the British Emmys) Awards for the series. I can only conclude that 2001 wasn’t a good year for TV in the UK. Read the book.

Rob Weir

7/1/20

R.I.P Carlos Ruiz Zafón



As if 2020 hasn’t been horrible enough, Spanish author Carlo Ruiz Zafón died in Los Angeles on June 19. He was just 55 and had been in the U.S. off and on since the 1990s working as a screenwriter. His was not a coronavirus death; he had colorectal cancer, but still….

Earlier this year I read The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the final selection in his magnificent Shadow of the Wind quadrilogy. I cannot conjure the name of an author writing in the 21st century whose works enthralled me as much or engaged my imagination to the degree that Zafón was able to do.

Zafón was born in Barcelona in 1965. That made him 26 years too young to recall any part of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which brought the Falangist (fascist) dictatorship of Francisco Franco to Spain. He had just turned 10 when Franco died in 1975. Like many Spaniards, especially Catalonians such as Zafón, the Civil War continued/continues to loom large in that slippery construct known as the collective unconscious. Catalonia was fiercely anti-Franco and often bore the brunt of oppression. If you’ve been to Barcelona and marveled over its vibrancy, know that most of it evolved after Franco’s death. Likewise, if you’ve followed the current political drama involving the desire of Catalonians to secede from Spain, it too is rooted in Falangist repression, including Franco’s decree banning the Catalan language. (Contrary to popular belief, Catalan is not a Spanish dialect, though it is a Romance language.)

Zafón’s Shadow of the Wind books all involve the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship, and the semi-loosening of Falangist repression in the 1960s. Not much is more fraught with danger than a dictatorship seeking to “liberalize.” Where is the boundary between freedom of expression and ending one’s days being tortured in a castle dungeon? What generally occurs is that overt control gives way to self-imposed (but well-placed) paranoia. Zafón wrote about all of this, but wove the themes into fictional tales that centered on the Sempere family and their Barcelona bookshop, especially young Daniel Sempere and his mentor/sidekick/and sometimes dangerous older friend Fermin Romero de Torres. Fermin is, simply, one of the funniest and most outrageous characters in all of literature. Whenever things start to get too heavy, one of Fermin’s bodacious boasts force readers to laugh aloud.

The novels also have splashes of magical realism. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books also factors into the novels. It is a hidden place accessible only by initiates and is as implied–a repository for books either never published or which never found favor. Those who gain access the first time get to choose a book to borrow–randomly, as it is said the book chooses you, not vice versa. The image one gets of the place is that it is a Fibonacci spiral based on the mathematical figure that yields the golden ratio. (You don’t need to understand that.)


I have reviewed all four books and will let those words speak for themselves. Each uses an unreliable narrator that keeps readers on their toes. Here is a capsule with a link to each review.

The Shadow of the Wind (2004 in English) introduces us to Daniel, Fermin, and their neighbors. Daniel’s forgotten book is from Julian Carax and Daniel becomes obsessed with trying to unravel what happened to Carax and his love affair with Penelope. It takes us backward to the Civil War and forward to 1956. There are elements of Romeo and Juliet, but literal and figurative mists make this a mystery within a tragedy within a thriller.

The Angel’s Game (2009 in English) is the toughest read of the four because it’s a prequel set in the 1920s and 1930s. It also involves the Sempere family (sans Daniel), but centers on writer David Martin, who plays more of a deal-with-the-Devil game rather than one with an angel. It is melodramatic and so deeply mysterious that you need to read the next book to sort what happened from what may have been Martin’s descent into madness.

The Prisoner of Heaven (2012 in English) is something of an unlocking key novel that unveils deep background details of Fermin, Martin, and Daniel’s brooding personality and marital problems. It is the shortest of the three books. I liked it, but it’s the weakest of the four. It needs to be read, though, to sort out the details mentioned.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits (2018 in English) is, like Book One, a masterpiece. It delves deeply into the aforementioned dangers of a liberalizing dictatorship and introduces a tantalizing which-side-are-you-on character Alicia Gris. Daniel seeks the answers to a mystery involving his mother, but does he really want to know? Many doors open; most are dangerous.

Rob Weir



6/29/20

Wood Brothers, Portnoy, Trevor Krehel, Walk Off the Earth, Cameron Johnson, Wyatt Edmonson


 
The Wood Brothers (TWB) released their 6th album, One Drop of Truth, in 2018 and have been busy promoting it. One way has been to make three tracks from their 5th LP, Kingdom in My Mind, available via a live Paste Studios session. Some may recall that Chris Wood was once a member of the jazz funk ensemble Medeski, Martin and Wood. The Wood Brothers–Chris on bass, brother Oliver on guitars, and Jano Rix on drums– reside more in the soulful folk side of the musical spectrum, a groove augmented by tight harmonies, husky leads, chunky bass, and flowing guitar that snaps to the melody lines. “Little Bit Sweet” is indicative of how the trio build songs; the bass comes in big around 1:30 and takes things to a higher level. TWB also like to venture in retro land on occasion, as in “Cry Over Nothing,” a kicked-in-the-teeth country song like few write anymore. Snatches of bluesy jaw harp add texture that evoke a toned-down Allmann Brothers offering. They get grittier on “Don’t Think About My Death” in which the intro spray of acoustic notes sets the stage for some electric noise and lines such as, While I’m loving you, I won’t think about my death. This session is a good way to hear TWB, as they are a great live band. That’s why they have three live albums in addition to their six studio recordings.   

Portnoy used to be called The Portnoy Brothers and were a semi-bluegrass duo. Now this Israel/Manchester, England-based lineup is a six-piece band that slides a bit more towards a folk-rock sound. Their latest CD, No Complaints is richer in sound, though it’s still anchored by Mendy and Israel Portnoy. If you’re looking something upbeat, this release might do the trick. “Celebrate” has tight harmonies and is a smooth and polished love song. Gentle is Portnoy’s stock-in-trade. “Tick of Time” is piano-driven and feels like a power ballad that dispenses with histrionics and showcases the song. “Seeing is Believing” is also amped down and is song about the moment in a relationship when things could go either way: Well I don’t believe/Seeing is believing/Maybe baby it’s just cos’ I haven’t seen you yet. There’s also a cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” but the most winning track is “Spotified,” a take down of its demerits done in non-rant fashion. With tongue in cheek (but not really!) they sing: We’ve both had a stupid long hard day/We both have so many many bills to pay/And how do we get radio airplay/As if we haven’t been spotified anyway. And this, my friends, is why I urge you to buy music directly from the artists.

Trevor Krehel is an object lesson in what happens if you don’t move on. It took him six years to ready his debut release, which is appropriately named Let Go. Krehel sings with pleasing velutinous tones, though his songs are often about walking through new doors things are about to fly out of control. The title track, for instance, is about wanting to get back to where he once was in a relationship, but its imploring why do we let go? query suggests it won’t happen. And you know that any song titled “Bonnie and Clyde” will be problematic at best. Ditto one named “Break Free,” which is in keeping with an overall theme of escape. It, and “Run Like the Wind,” are feather and hammer songs in which acoustic passages give way to the bold and loud, then thread their way back to a softer place. There is some nice picking in the latter. His is folk music John Mayer style.

Walk Off the Earth are from Canada. Although the band does some folk, rock, ska, and reggae originals, it has followed in the footsteps of The Cowboy Junkies in the sense that it is also a cover band. The band has recently released a new album titled Here We Go, and performed “Home Alone” from it when they visited Paste Studios. That one is a joyous love song with a pop feel. Gianni Nicassio and Sarah Blackwood share vocal duties and Blackwood alone is worth checking out the band. She sometimes goes by the handle of Sarah Sin, and she has feistiness to burn. The other three songs from the Paste session are covers; Ed Sheeran’s “I Don’t Care” (in four-part harmony); “I’ll Be There,” which Mariah Carey once recorded, and which Walk Off the Earth give a slight ska nod; and “Teenage Dirtbag,” which in my opinion surpasses the Wheatus original. Were I in a band doing a four-song showcase, I wouldn’t do three covers, but Walk Off the Earth does them well.

Cameron Johnson has made two previous appearances in this column. The Bentonville, Arkansas has a new release that he modesty titled EP2. It’s another acoustic offering that falls somewhere in the Venn overlap between blues, folk, and soul. The theme of his latest five-song offering could well be one of his titles, “If I Survive.” He’s not being fatalistic, just responding to how tough it is to make it through. Though it was written before the coronavirus shutdown, “What a Shame” feels timely, especially his lamentation of how too much is “the same damn thing.” It’s a smoky, dark, husky-voiced piece that swells and takes full advantage of moods enhanced by cello and keys. There are less somber offerings as well. “In the Winter Time” is an invitation to come into the fold, as it were, and features sprays of bright notes to offset wistful edges. Despite its title. “Just Like All the Rest” has a sunny feel.

Staying south of the Mason Dixon, Alabama-born Wyatt Edmonson grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and Dave Matthews. He claims he hung up his electric guitar after hearing the latter. His EP If I Don’t Try is firmly in the folk singer-songwriter camp. It could be seen as something of a love ventured, gained, and lost album. The title track is about amorous approach and deciding to go for it. “You Said It, I Meant It” is his take on the moment when everything comes apart; his plea that he meant every tender word he spoke is offset by her leaving. A splash of torchy sax on the outre adds to the hurt. My favorite song was “Lovers Lake,” a watery analog to the lane. It’s a love song about Wild Jack, the son of millworkers, and “sweet” Mary Leigh, who comes from the ritzier side of the proverbial tracks. In essence, it’s Edmondson’s spin on Romeo and Juliet. We don’t know how it ends, but we infer that Mary Leigh won’t be a virgin when, one day her daddy’ll wed her away.  

Rob Weir

6/26/20

The Glass Hotel Too Ambitious


The Glass Hotel (2020)
By Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages
★★★

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of my favorite books of 2014, hence I was excited to score a copy of her latest, The Glass Hotel. Mandel is an imaginative writer, but if I might toss a few pebbles at her glass domicile, imagination alone can’t carry a novel. The Glass Hotel has sublime moments, but it’s also one of those books that the more you think about it, the more its holes become apparent.

The book’s central characters are Vincent Smith, a woman named for poet Edna St. Vincent Millay; Paul, her half-brother; and investor Jonathan Alkaitis, who is patterned on Bernie Madoff.  Each is, in his or her own way, a person adrift. Vincent is beautiful, smart, and adaptive, but also impulsive and, in many ways, carries her blue-haired 13-year-old rebellious self into adulthood. Paul is a composer/musician who might have some talent, but he’s seldom off drugs long enough for it to shine for more than a brief moment.  If you recall Bernie Madoff, you can probably sketch Alkaitis’ character—a smooth operator who can be charming and persuasive, but has the morality of a carrion crow.

The three paths cross at the Hotel Caiette, a glass jewel tucked away in a section of British Columbia so remote that it’s a half hour boat ride to the nearest village. (It is apparently based on Quatsino on Vancouver Island.) Why build a luxury hotel in such an out-of-the-way place? That’s what the first owner ended up thinking before selling it to Alkaitis. If you recall the days after Y2K (which makes a cameo in the novel), high-powered executives occasionally sought solace from their workaholic drudgery in Robert Bly camps, golf vacations, and private retreats. Paul has gone there to escape trouble, Vincent because she sort of drifted there, and assorted guests because they are, hope to be, or keep their distance from Alkaitis.

Paul manages to screw things up, as he always does, but when we move the clock ahead to 2005, Vincent is living with Jonathan, who divorced his wife Suzanne. Business associates assume that the 28-year-old Vincent is Jonathan’s trophy wife, because that’s what older men like he collected. Vincent sees no reason to disabuse them of that notion, as she’s in the phase of her life she calls “a fairy tale.” And so it is—sort of. She meets Mirella, who also has a sugar daddy for a season, a Saudi prince who invests with Alkaitis; and Leon Prevant, an older gentleman, and his wife Miranda. Either at the hotel or later, readers also meet others who circle around Jonathan: painter Olivia Collins, who knew his late brother, also a painter; loud mouthed Lenny Xavier, his largest client; and a swath of others. There are also several who don’t fall for Jonathan’s pitch, psychic Clarissa, and Chicago business woman Ella Kaspersky, who finds the numbers she’s seeing on Jonathan’s investments too good to be true. She’s right, of course; it was all a Ponzi scheme. If this all sounds a bit like a Tom Wolfe or Jonathan Frazen novel, it’s a bit more than that—sometimes in good ways and sometimes not.

Once the house of cards tumbles, the resulting wreckage takes its toll on both investors and Alkaitis associates such as Oskar, Harvey, Joelle, and Enrico. Some will fall by the wayside and others adjust from luxury to life among the lower working class. Vincent takes everything in stride, so for her it’s merely an exchange of a fairy tale for life aboard a container ship—owned by a firm Leon used to control—a job as ship’s cook, and a new lover. As he’s serving an impossible sentence of 170s years in jail, Jonathan begins to imagine his “counterlife,” as do several other characters. At key moments in the book, ghosts appear. Are they actual ghosts, or metaphorical ones?

The answer to that question is left to the reader. It’s fair for an imaginative novelist to offer fodder for imaginative readers. I’m less inclined, though, to overlook other lacunae. There is, for instance, a digressive chapter in which the book jumps ahead to the year 2029, where we find Simone—who, as a newly hired secretary, helped Alkaitis shred documents—tell her secretary about her role in saving documents that brought down her boss. There is also a side tale involving Leon’s temp job: as a consultant investigating Vincent’s disappearance. If you’re keeping score, you’ve surmised that there are a lot of characters in the book. Add a bunch more I’ve not mentioned, the details of various lives in different time periods, ghosts, and explorations of those who invent and reinvent themselves and you have a book with an epic sprawl crammed into around 300 pages.

All of this means that more than ghosts are ambiguous. Credit goes to Mandel for making the book as tight as it can be, but leaks invariably spring along the way. To pick just one missing element, morality gets but a wink and a nod. Perhaps Mandel thinks that it can be assumed, but I’m not sure she really addresses the question by showing angry investors one moment and selected fallout the next. One might, for example, feel some sympathy for post-crash Alkaitis. I came away thinking that Mandel needed either to pare the story or write another 150 pages. This glass hotel exposes frauds like Alkaitis and Paul, but draws the curtains on deeper questions.   

Rob Weir

6/25/20

Valentine One of Best Novels of 2020

Valentine: A Novel
By Elizabeth Wetmore
HarperCollins, 320 pages
★★★★★

Move aside Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurty, there’s a new gun in town and she looks at Texas with her rose-colored glasses left in the glove compartment. Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine is a stunning debut about hard truths and hard living in the unforgiving Permian Basin of West Texas. As one character describes it, it’s “eighty thousand square miles of the same old, same old….”

Lord Byron once wrote, “Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey.” Okay, how does he feel about snakes? Wetmore’s West Texas is a place where everything thing that slithers can be found—often curled up by your kid’s bicycle—and three of ‘em are poisonous. Or five if we add Gila monsters and scorpions. Only pumpjacks and dusty towns break the monotony of a landscape whose human population is dominated by roughnecks, rednecks, sexual predators, drunks, and the desperate. Wetmore sets most of her story on or around Valentine’s Day. The year is 1976; oil and football are about the only reasons anyone would wish to be living in the recession-blasted town of Penwell, a strip of nothing southwest of Odessa and Midland.

The story unfolds when 14-year-old Gloria Ramirez gets in a truck with Dale Strickland. Before the evening is out, he brutalizes and rapes her. When he falls asleep, Gloria sneaks out and walks across several miles of desert scrubland to the nearest house, that of Mary Rose Whitehead. Mary Rose has a small daughter and another on the way. At first she doesn’t want to get involved, as her husband Robert is away tending their cattle and their home is remote. But when she sees what has been done to Gloria, she relents, calls the police, and even pulls a rifle on Dale when he comes looking for his “girlfriend.” Little does she know that her reluctant act of decency will tear apart her life and community.

The men of the area–including Robert–will themselves to believe Gloria deserved her fate; she willingly got in the truck, after all, and everyone knows that Mexican girls are promiscuous. They are sure that she simply had a bad case of buyer’s regret, and that Dale should apologize and everyone should move on. Even women at Mary Rose’s church feel this way. But Mary Rose knows better and isn’t going to play along. Things get so hot for her that she has to move into town as it’s unsafe on the ranch, a decision that leaves her further estranged from Robert.

Mary Rose’s neighbors are an interesting lot. There’s Corrine, a retired school teacher, grieving over her husband Potter’s death by pickling herself with booze; busybody Suzanne who leaves Corrine casseroles that she dumps in the garbage; and 11-year-old Debra Ann “D.A.” Pierce whose mother Ginny took off a few years ago–around Valentine’s Day, natch. D.A.’s dad works long hours in the oil fields and D.A. is practically feral, though she befriends and tries to help Jesse Belden. He is a Vietnam vet from Tennessee who is “skinny as ocotillo branches” and down on his luck. He lives in a drain pipe and appreciates the small gifts D.A. brings him.

To say that West Texas is hard on women–and this is very much a book told from a woman’s perspective–is an understatement. There are snakes, chiggers, tornadoes, sexism, and way too much religion. It’s a place where a girl considers herself lucky if she makes to 12 “before some man or boy, or well-intentioned woman” informs her why she was “put on this earth.” Violence is all around and those who can follow Ginny’s example and get out. Karla, a young waitress with a daughter, poses a riddle with a distressing answer: “What do you call a single mother who has to be up early in the morning? A sophomore.”

Valentine’s Day is harrowing and unforgettable. It is also unusual in that it has several endings, not just one. I’m usually unmoved by book jackets, but that of Valentine’s Day is perfect: sage brush, oil derricks, leaning telephone poles, ominous skies, and vast nothingness. Coyotes dare to prey in the desert, but they are the sinewy, skinny poor cousins of the kind of wolves Bryon had in mind. Wetmore’s West Texas is like a suburb of hell. I ran that metaphor past a good friend who lived in Texas. Her response: “You have no idea. That might be overly kind.”

I will take her at her word rather than checking out the area for myself. I will, however, heartily recommend that you check out Valentine. It is one of the best novels of 2020.

Rob Weir







6/24/20

Valentine One of Best Novels of 2020


Valentine: A Novel
By Elizabeth Wetmore
HarperCollins, 320 pages
★★★★★

Move aside Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurty, there’s a new gun in town and she looks at Texas with her rose-colored glasses left in the glove compartment. Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine is a stunning debut about hard truths and hard living in the unforgiving Permian Basin of West Texas. As one character describes it, it’s “eighty thousand square miles of the same old, same old….”

Lord Byron once wrote, “Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey.” Okay, how does he feel about snakes? Wetmore’s West Texas is a place where everything thing that slithers can be found—often curled up by your kid’s bicycle—and three of ‘em are poisonous. Or five if we add Gila monsters and scorpions. Only pumpjacks and dusty towns break the monotony of a landscape whose human population is dominated by roughnecks, rednecks, sexual predators, drunks, and the desperate. Wetmore sets most of her story on or around Valentine’s Day. The year is 1976; oil and football are about the only reasons anyone would wish to be living in the recession-blasted town of Penwell, a strip of nothing southwest of Odessa and Midland.

The story unfolds when 14-year-old Gloria Ramirez gets in a truck with Dale Strickland. Before the evening is out, he brutalizes and rapes her. When he falls asleep, Gloria sneaks out and walks across several miles of desert scrubland to the nearest house, that of Mary Rose Whitehead. Mary Rose has a small daughter and another on the way. At first she doesn’t want to get involved, as her husband Robert is away tending their cattle and their home is remote. But when she sees what has been done to Gloria, she relents, calls the police, and even pulls a rifle on Dale when he comes looking for his “girlfriend.” Little does she know that her reluctant act of decency will tear apart her life and community.

The men of the area–including Robert–will themselves to believe Gloria deserved her fate; she willingly got in the truck, after all, and everyone knows that Mexican girls are promiscuous. They are sure that she simply had a bad case of buyer’s regret, and that Dale should apologize and everyone should move on. Even women at Mary Rose’s church feel this way. But Mary Rose knows better and isn’t going to play along. Things get so hot for her that she has to move into town as it’s unsafe on the ranch, a decision that leaves her further estranged from Robert.

Mary Rose’s neighbors are an interesting lot. There’s Corrine, a retired school teacher, grieving over her husband Potter’s death by pickling herself with booze; busybody Suzanne who leaves Corrine casseroles that she dumps in the garbage; and 11-year-old Debra Ann “D.A.” Pierce whose mother Ginny took off a few years ago–around Valentine’s Day, natch. D.A.’s dad works long hours in the oil fields and D.A. is practically feral, though she befriends and tries to help Jesse Belden. He is a Vietnam vet from Tennessee who is “skinny as ocotillo branches” and down on his luck. He lives in a drain pipe and appreciates the small gifts D.A. brings him.

To say that West Texas is hard on women–and this is very much a book told from a woman’s perspective–is an understatement. There are snakes, chiggers, tornadoes, sexism, and way too much religion. It’s a place where a girl considers herself lucky if she makes to 12 “before some man or boy, or well-intentioned woman” informs her why she was “put on this earth.” Violence is all around and those who can follow Ginny’s example and get out. Karla, a young waitress with a daughter, poses a riddle with a distressing answer: “What do you call a single mother who has to be up early in the morning? A sophomore.”

Valentine’s Day is harrowing and unforgettable. It is also unusual in that it has several endings, not just one. I’m usually unmoved by book jackets, but that of Valentine’s Day is perfect: sage brush, oil derricks, leaning telephone poles, ominous skies, and vast nothingness. Coyotes dare to prey in the desert, but they are the sinewy, skinny poor cousins of the kind of wolves Bryon had in mind. Wetmore’s West Texas is like a suburb of hell. I ran that metaphor past a good friend who lived in Texas. Her response: “You have no idea. That might be overly kind.”

I will take her at her word rather than checking out the area for myself. I will, however, heartily recommend that you check out Valentine. It is one of the best novels of 2020.

Rob Weir