Small-town rural life is often anything but idyllic and innocent. Wherever people can be found, so too can sex, drugs and scandal, like in Gwen Florio's debut novel, a mystery called Montana. It's a fast-paced, engrossing read with details cleanly rendered by Florio, a seasoned journalist. Florio has worked all over, including as a reporter in Somalia and Iraq, and at the Missoulian.
At the start of Montana, our protagonist, Lola Wicks, has just been removed from her post as a reporter in Afghanistan, since her Baltimore-based newspaper has shut down its foreign bureaus. Lola, a hot-tempered, scrappy woman who sleeps with her boots on, is shell-shocked from her years of working in volatile regions, habitually on guard for danger and vividly imagining what would happen if she was back in Afghanistan. While her editor is chastising her, she looks out the window of the newsroom and contemplates a truck sitting outside. "The perfect size to hold a dozen oil drums packed with a sludgy mix of fertilizer and racing fuel ... The concussive force would bend the newsroom windows outward, the panes bubbling like a soapy mass across the face of the building, then suck them back in with such speed and intensity that the glass would burst, shards rocketing across the office, razoring through furniture, paper, flesh."
Forced to go on vacation, Lola plans a visit to her old college buddy, Mary Alice, who works for a paper in the fictional town of Magpie, Mont., described as being a little south of the Blackfeet Reservation. "Fly fish, ride horses, whatever it is they do out there," an editor tells Lola. She only plans to stay a few days, and then return to Afghanistan as a freelance reporter.
But when Lola flies in to the Helena airport, and Mary Alice doesn't arrive to pick her up, the real trouble starts. The rest of the tale follows Lola as she tries to solve a murder, investigate a suspicious gubernatorial candidate, deal with overdosing meth addicts, manage unlikely love interests and navigate rural customs. She teaches herself to ride a horse and tend a wood stove along the way.
The story is also a loving portrait of the state, filled with observations of things we might take for granted, from the expansive sky to the generous portions of cinnamon rolls at hometown cafes. One of my favorite tiny details is when Verle, a local rancher who's taken a liking to Lola, picks her up to take her to a cafe and, after coaxing her into his truck, "drove a single block in silence" before parking. Much as it agitates me, that's about as Montana as it gets.
Montana's hard-boiled plot and its twists are entertaining enough, but Florio's portraits of tough women and old-school journalism are what left a lasting impression for me. Lola and Mary Alice worked for their college paper and then moved on to rough big-city beats for dailies, packing .45s for protection and drinking Jameson, never regretting their bold career choices. They're the kind of dogged, intrepid reporters that aspiring journalists hope to become. Lola's clueless about Twitter and Facebook, but relentlessly tracks down people who can give her information. She stays up late, gets up early and drives hundreds of miles to get a source to talk. I'm not sure that her kind of newspaper career even exists anymore, but it makes for a good story.
Fictional portrayals of journalism can be frustrating to read if the details are wrong. But Florio's real-life experience gives the dramatic plot of Montana a realistic heft, from descriptions of dead bodies to interludes where Lola tries to look up campaign finance donors. It captures how journalism can be exciting and utterly banal at every turn. (Florio does leave out mention of characters actually writing articles, which I'll allow, given that it would be pretty boring to read. Alas, my dream of a gritty depiction of journalism where someone argues with an editor about capitalization will have to be realized some other day.)
It's not giving much away to say that, despite the misadventures and intrigue, our hero Lola warms up to the state by the book's end. I wonder if we'll see more from her in Florio's upcoming works. After all, a reporter's work is never done.
Gwen Florio reads from Montana at Fact and Fiction Fri., Nov. 1, at 5:30 PM.