In Best Stories of the American West, Volume I, editor Marc Jaffe has given readers as much of the West as possible. His collection of 20 contemporary stories—each of which merits inclusion in an anthology bearing the name “best”—contains traditional cowboy yarns, tales of urban and rural American Indians, literary and genre fiction, a prose poem, octogenarian ranchers, middle-aged school teachers, migrant workers, Hollywood stuntmen, conflicted deputy sheriffs, a ghost, nosy journalists, a 5’6” wannabe NFL lineman who wishes he’d taken steroids, adulterous bush pilots, and, depending on whom you believe, maybe even John Dillinger.
Jaffe’s anthology features the work of four Montana writers: Missoula residents William Kittredge and Robert Stubblefield; Pete Fromm, who lives in Great Falls; and Kalispell native Melanie Rae Thon. Other notables include Sherman Alexie, Elmore Leonard, Max Evans, Valerie Miner and Elmer Kelton. Many of these writers engage the themes of aging and mortality, some celebrating the wisdom acquired from a life of physical labor, others urging caution on terrain that can kill in an instant, and still others bemoaning lawlessness and random violence.
Of the stories about death, Max Evans’ “Once a Cowboy” is the most hilarious and sad. Evans chronicles the youthful high jinx of cowboys Roy Barrett and Rusty Carver and then the passing of Ol’ Rusty into insanity. Among their many adventures, Barrett and Carver swindle a bootlegger out of his whiskey and his hunting rifle and try to milk a cow that’s running away from them at full speed. There is also this exchange with a police officer when the boys get pulled over on a road trip to El Paso:
“What is your name Sir?”
“All I can remember right now is Rusty.”
“OK, uh-huh, OK. Mister Rusty, did you know you were speeding?
“Yes sir, ninety miles an hour in a fifty-five mile zone.”
“Sure, I knew it, I was trying to get home before I got drunk.”
So what if that quick-lipped back-and-forth is the stuff of buddy movies? It makes for a good laugh all the same. And when these roustabouts finally face the judge, Rusty has plenty more to say, all of which adds to the store of the duo’s good memories. When Barrett later visits his pal to reminisce, however, Rusty can’t remember anything, and Evans’ story downshifts into a somber gear.
Growing old is good fun for a while in John Sayles’ “Dillinger in Hollywood.” Sayles, who is better known for movies such as Eight Men Out and Lone Star, sets the story in an old-age home where Spurs Tatum regales fellow patients with tales of his days as a Hollywood stuntman. His patter gets so tired that Old Casey finally shuts him up by claiming to be the real John Dillinger. Casey’s account of staging his death and retreating into anonymity is so convincing that no one on the floor knows quite what to believe, and the story touches a nerve in readers who hold out some small hope that the likes of a Buddy Holly or a Marilyn Monroe are still out there somewhere.
Pete Fromm’s “Snow Cave” and Steven Patterson’s “Aground and Aloft” examine the perils of the outdoors and the limits of good sense. In “Snow Cave,” a father and son spend a terrifying night in the woods after getting lost on a hunting trip, and in “Aground and Aloft,” Wayva, a bush pilot, revisits the site of her husband and son’s backcountry plane crash. However, she remains too long and must fly out in conditions worse than those that killed her family. Reconciling the role that her extramarital affair played in the accident with her persisting affection for her lover, Wayva is one of the most morally complex characters in the anthology.
Valerie Miner also takes infidelity as her theme in “Vital Signs,” a story in which the 50-year-old Felipe accedes to his 20-something lover’s unwillingness to be faithful and to practice safe sex. Though his transgressions seem unforgivable to the other characters, the young Matsuda nevertheless shows courage and grace when he accompanies Felipe on a weekend trip, during which Felipe tells a group of lifelong friends that he’s contracted HIV. Miner also shows considerable grace, skillfully negotiating the movements of a large ensemble cast and drifting effortlessly between the pettiness that undoes reunions of old friends and the outrage caused by Felipe’s tragic news.
University of Montana creative writing professor Robert Stubblefield offers a more subtle meditation on fear, recklessness and the futility of good counsel in “Preserves.” As he watches a hired kid paint his home, old man Joe Owings recalls an occasion when his and his brother’s antics wasted the family’s winter stock, not to mention countless hours of their hard work. Noting the boy’s fear of heights, Owings tries to soothe his nerves by sharing some advice and a few army tales. But even as he tells these stories, Owings wonders whether the boy’s attentiveness and his sound work habits can protect him from the cruelty of fate. In just nine easy pages, Stubblefield covers terrain as diverse as an unnecessary shooting, a brush with fame and the difficulty of breaking away from a small rural home.
Space does not allow me to extol the virtues of all the stories in the collection, but there are no misses here. The title implies Jaffe’s promise of more volumes of the anthology, and judging from the first installment the demand deserves to be high.
William Kittredge and Robert Stubblefield read their stories from Best Stories of the American West, Volume I, at Shakespeare & Co. Monday, June 18, at 7:30 PM.