In some ways, Colorado author Laura Pritchett's devastating and brief novel, Stars Go Blue, plays out like a modern Western rendition of Shakespearian tragedy. Patriarchs are going mad. A family's legacy is at stake. Characters soliloquize. And we know, from the get-go, that this isn't going to end cheerfully.
Our hero, Ben Cross, is an aging rancher in an early stage of Alzheimer's disease. He's still mobile and able to dress himself, but he's losing his fine motor skills and forgetting names and details. He and his wife, Renny, are haunted by the death of their daughter, gunned down years before by an abusive husband in front of their very eyes. Grief had driven Ben and Renny apart; but now, his disease means Renny must begrudgingly, impatiently care for him. (Pritchett introduced the couple in her award-winning collection of shorts, Hell's Bottom, Colorado, but it's not a prerequisite for reading this novel.) Ben intends to find his daughter's killer and get some kind of revenge before his mind completely slips, but Pritchett first takes care in setting the scene for the beginning part of the book.
In the throes of late-winter in February, one of the most bleak, colorless times of year, Ben's memories trickle away faster than he can write down notes to keep in his pockets. Water, in all its forms, runs throughout Stars Go Blue. "Ben has been partial to water, always, which is why life gets measured in terms of irrigation and rainfall and acre-feet and even the dry rainless days needed for baling hay," Pritchett writes. "Even now he considers the watersheds in his brain, how water moves through tissue, how rivers of electricity pulse in stops and starts."
Pritchett shows off powerful skills with word association and experimental phrasing when writing from the viewpoint of Ben, and the wavering reality of a dementia-afflicted brain. "He remembers that Renny yelled at him about the bacon but he can't remember why. Something about needing to put it in a frying pan and not on the burner, but he had put it in a frying pan, hadn't he? Of course he had. Because bacon always needed to go in a pan. He must have just been sleepy."
Chapters alternate between Ben and Renny's perspectives. Where Ben is sweet and easygoing, a poet who finds beauty in everything even when he can just barely keep a grip on the present, Renny has a dry, practical core. Age has only hardened her. The two together are yin and yang, which has made their life together function for most of it. She's now depressed and lonely, but too practical to admit it; she'd rather stay occupied running the ranch. Like a lot of older women who got married and had kids before they realized they had another choice, she resents her family for the burden of caring for them. While making dinner one day, Renny recalls, "Back when she loved her family, and there was a family to love, and back when Ben was there to smile over a dinner gone right, she grew beans and froze them herself."
With Renny, we get a clear-eyed, irritable picture of small-town life, with just a dash of wry humor in her incessant grumbling. "She is so tired of these cheap-brand cookies," she thinks at an Alzheimer's support group meeting. "No one likes them. Always Lipton tea, which no one likes either. She would like to issue a proclamation to the world: NO ONE IN THE UNIVERSE LIKES LIPTON TEA."
What makes Stars Go Blue absolutely devastating is how very mundane and true-to-life its tragedy is. Abuse, grief, estrangement, dementia—these things happen every day. Dementia kills people, slowly and painfully, in front of the ones they love, taking away their spirit and soul before destroying the body. Like characters do during the funeral at the end of the book, we frown and talk about death between discussions about the haying season, work and taxes. Renny and Ben are such spot-on characterizations of real-life people I love that it makes Stars Go Blue heartbreaking to read.
But this book is still beautiful, and I'm glad I did read it, because we do find some redemption and catharsis at the end—and some satisfying, dramatic revenge.
The last chapter is narrated by Renny and Ben's granddaughter, Jess, who's inherited her grandpa's calm poet's eyes. She reveals a couple intriguing twists, and, fortunately, offers us some hope in the face of death's inevitability. "This one good moment of observation is all we really have in the world and it is called love," she says.
Laura Pritchett reads from Stars Go Blue at Fact and Fiction Thu., June 12, at 7 PM.