Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year’s list is demographic: Among the authors listed, you’ll find neither women nor minorities. Asked to compile a list of 2005’s best books by Montana authors, I looked at each work published this year, read the Indy’s reviews (many of which I originally wrote), compiled a short list of 20, reread three of those and whittled the final list down to eight. Though the group represents only one gender and one race, it’s nonetheless representative of this year’s best. And despite the unfortunate authorial demographics, the characters in these eight books represent a diversity worth celebrating: they’re children and old men, religious fanatics and belligerent tree-huggers, naughty professors and wannabe-sober private eyes. It’s an eclectic and deviant group of misfits who search out trouble that leaves them ravished, whiplashed and ironed out on the back flap of the book jacket. Here’s the final tally, in alphabetical order by title:
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
Max Tivoli, a man-child born as a wrinkled baby, ages backward, sort of. In the opening pages, we learn Max is a 60-year-old man in the body of a 12-year-old boy who writes his confessions in a playground sandbox. He must do this, you see, before his body regresses into babyhood and he loses his mind and memories. What emerges in this novel by a UM grad is a work of devastating and purposeful imagination.
Mile High Mile Deep by Richard K. O’Malley
Originally published in the early 1960s, O’Malley’s memoir of his teenage years in Butte during the mid-1920s was reissued this year by Russell Chatham’s Clark City Press in a beautifully rendered hardcover edition. Compelling tales of miners and ghosts and brothel babes populate this definitive work about Butte and the West by a widely traveled journalist who knew both intimately.
Mission to America by Walter Kirn
When two boys leave Bluff, Montana—home of an isolationist cult that specializes in a cleansing diet—to lure new converts (women preferred, please), they dismantle a lifetime of intestinal and emotional purity on a diet of chicken wings, corrupt billionaires, and an Internet porn model. With incisive acuity, Kirn’s fifth work of fiction is the Livingston resident’s finest book yet.
The Right Madness by James Crumley
In its opening pages, we’re not sure if Crumley is a poet or a crime writer. In its last pages we realize he’s both. On the verge of retirement and sobriety, detective C.W. Sughrue begins to lose his grip when a simple job starts churning up dead bodies. Like his hero, Crumley has balanced on more than his fair share of precipices, and his latest reminds us that balance can be a deft two-step around a bar stool.
The Summer He Didn’t Die by Jim Harrison
In the three pieces that make up this collection, Harrison shows his mastery of the novella form. The book begins with the story of a half-American Indian named Brown Dog who is the single father of a birth-damaged child. Next, he inhabits the voices of three women who’ve each had an affair with the same professor/poet. Long before we want him to, Harrison finishes with an autobiographical piece. Pitch-perfect and commanding, with an impressive range of voices, Harrison proves he’s not even close to retirement.
Walking It Offby Doug Peacock
The friendship between Doug Peacock and Edward Abbey (who used Peacock as a model for The Monkey Wrench Gang’s George Washington Hayduke) will undoubtedly draw many readers to this memoir. Yet the undeniable power of this book lies in Peacock’s manic energy, his epic trekking, and his ability to come to terms with his friends, his lovers, and his demons.
Winslow In Love by Kevin Canty
Desire and destruction collide with a mournful dirge in this latest by UM creative writing professor Kevin Canty. When Richard Winslow, an aging poetry professor about two drinks shy of a nervous breakdown, arrives in Missoula for his one-semester teaching gig, he falls for the most unlikely of students. Laconic and genuine, Canty’s writing is lyrically humane.
X Out of Wonderland by David Allan Cates
As absurd as it is serious, as enduring as it is endearing, Cates’ novel reprises the sardonic wit of Candide in telling the tale of X, an earnest yet unlucky victim of the global free market. At its core, the beauty and humor of Cates’ prose reveals a sobering truth of contradictions and incompatibilities in a world not so different from our own. Perhaps one of the most important novels to come out of Montana this year, it’s also one of the most enjoyable.