Missoula's favorite bar, Charlie B's, no longer allows smoking. Even with the city's rampant growth and acres of housing developments, there's probably no better symbol of the changes that have occurred in the valley. You could call it "gentrification," you could call it "evolution," you could call it, in the case of Charlie's, a responsible new state law, but Missoula isn't the same city it was five years ago, let alone 30.
Likewise, James Crumley's death marked the end of a Missoula literary tradition. The New York Times called Crumley's genre "gonzo gumshoe," a kind of style you'd expect "if [Raymond] Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson had collaborated," a genre of hard-boiled detectives snorting cocaine, womanizing and perpetually drunk in a small "Pacific Northwest" town that was a thin disguise for Missoula. Crumley's hard drinking, spare economy of style was embodied by Missoula poet Richard Hugo's generation of Garden City writers, and one of those inheritors is Kevin Canty, Missoula author and instructor in the University of Montana's writing program.
Canty's work has always been sparse and severe, a kind of measuring of despair by recording the descent of ordinary people. His most recent collection of stories, the excellent Where the Money Went, described the agony of failed relationships amid bars and rehabilitation centers, and was filled with longing for the unknowable, unreachable perfection you might call holiness, or you might call love. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver, Canty's ordinary protagonists' efforts toward redemption are invariably futile.
But Canty's latest novel, Everything, is a departure from his usual work.
Everything opens on a river outside Missoula—I'm guessing the Blackfoot—as RL and June commemorate with whiskey and cigars the birthday of RL's best friend and June's former husband, Taylor, who died years earlier. RL's daughter, Layla, fishes in a side channel nearby. June announces that she's finished living "like he's still here. Like he's going to walk through the door and everything's going to be OK." The declaration kicks off the story and the subsequent coupling and uncoupling of the three with various false interlopers: RL with Betsy, a long ago ex-girlfriend with a terminal disease; June with former alcoholic and real estate agent Howard; and Layla with Edgar, RL's quiet fishing guide struggling with his own young marriage.
But unlike Canty's previous work, Everything offers a kind of redemption, and a real hope for comfort and love. There's a nod to the past. RL is, after all, a whiskey-drinking fisherman—but his best drinking buddy is long dead, and he has a daughter and responsibility. Still, RL romanticizes self-obliteration—"all those hundreds of doors closing, one by one," he thinks waiting in the hospital while Betsy undergoes treatment, "until there was just the one door left, the last one. A friendly bartender, a cool drink, a meeting, a woman. I am lonely, RL thought. I am lonely. I was born lonely. I am best so." Only, as it turns out, there are more options for RL—options that don't include loneliness.
And unlike past Canty characters, RL has a detailed interior life. Where in past work Canty's prose was minimalist and context-heavy, Everything features a panoply of voices and the rich prose of thought. It's not just the three main characters—RL, June and Layla—but everyone who passes through the story, including one memorable chapter told from the point of view of Dorris MacKintyre, a sheepherder from Ovando dying in his daughter's spare room, watching squirrels play on the wire outside his window and mulling his grandchildren, so different from himself: "He couldn't help wishing they were different, wishing they were interested. A kid who didn't like killing gophers. Dorris didn't even want to understand."
Missoula is also different here, a far cry from the bar town crawling with crazed hippies of Crumley's books. In Everything it's a tourist town, and the narration revolves around real estate, college and family. Even with the rising cost of land and the loss of the old-timers, Canty's Missoula is redemptive and hopeful, even as it mourns the beautiful obliteration and hard times of its past. It's Missoula, now.
All of this combines to create something refreshing in comparison with the work of the literary stars of Missoula's past. Everything has freed itself from the self-obsession that marks Crumley and Hugo, who wrote as if their lives were psychological experiments of self-destruction, fully cut off from interrelations with family and community. Take Hugo's poem, "Missoula Softball Tournament," dedicated to the "wives, beautiful wives in the stands," who "now take the interest they once feigned/oh, long ago, their marriage just begun." The women are faceless and interchangeable, an amorphous blob of "scrimping" and "anger" perched as spectators over their equally faceless husbands engaged in meaningless acts of amateur athleticism. Compare that to the fully fleshed-out multitude of Canty's novel—a community of individuals drifting against one another—and RL and June and Layla forming a family around a child in a new house tucked on the banks of a river. The house, of course, has solar panels.
Kevin Canty reads from Everything Tuesday, July 6, at 7 PM. Free.