In one scene in Mark Spragg's novel, Bone Fire, 80-year-old Einar Gilkyson digs a hole beneath a cottonwood at his Ishawooa, Wyo., ranch and fills it with mementos from the past: "all the letters he'd written [his wife] from Korea, most of the family photographs, wedding rings, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, everything he could put his hands on that authenticated his eighty years of using up a body." After filling the hole, Einar lights a match and watches flames collect around the pile, "listening to the crackle of it burning."
Like Einar's remembrances of things past, Spragg's latest can be seen as a novel crafted for the sole purpose of coming to terms with characters from novels past. Instead of a lifetime's worth of keepsakes, Spragg has thrown every memorable character from his first two novels into this third.
We first met Einar in 2004's An Unfinished Life, along with other characters who reappear here. There's Jean, Einar's former daughter-in-law, who, 10 years after Unfinished, appears here as a belligerent, unsatisfied alcoholic. Jean is now married to Crane Carlson, the sheriff of Ishawooa (whom she met in Unfinished). Early on, Crane finds the body of a murdered 20-year-old in a meth lab. He pursues the mystery, even after he's diagnosed with ALS, the same disease that killed his grandfather. Compelled both by his unfortunate prognosis and his broken marriage to Jean, Crane seeks out his first wife, who divorced him more than a decade ago.
Then there's Griff, Jean's daughter, Einar's granddaughter and the namesake of Einar's son, Griffin, who died in an accident 20 years ago (a death from which Jean has never quite recovered). In Unfinished, Griff was a wide-eyed, precocious 10-year-old, one who took to her grandfather's ranch immediately. In Bone Fire, the now 20-year-old Griff is still wide-eyed and precocious, but cautious now, too, and melancholy. Despite her mother's and Einar's own wishes, Griff has dropped out of Rhode Island School of Design to care for Einar at the ranch. Though the novel never specifies what exactly Einar ails from, his imminent death is never in question.
Further complicating Griff's life is the fact that her boyfriend Paul might be moving to Uganda for volunteer work. In Spragg's first novel, The Fruit of Stone, Paul was a 9-year-old American Indian who drifted from place to place with his older sister, Rita (who appears here, albeit briefly, as a self-centered pseudo-mystic).
As if the novel didn't already have enough plot lines running through it, Spragg also continues the story of Barnum McEban, the rancher who first picked up Paul and Rita in Fruit of Stone and began what would ultimately become—literally—an anticlimactic romance with Rita. (She claims their souls are entwined; therefore if "we allowed ourselves the luxury of intimacy on this physical plane...it would shatter our sacred union.") Despite his relationship with Rita (or lack thereof), McEban raises her 10-year-old son, Kenneth, and the relationship between him and the young boy give the novel its most eloquent moments—until Kenneth is carted away to his biological father's home for three weeks.
The biggest problem with Bone Fire is not that Spragg has tossed so many disparate narratives into the ditch, nor even that, in a mere 244 pages of story, he seems intent upon revisiting almost every character he's ever created—in medias res. The problem is that, unlike Einar's ditch full of discarded memories, nothing here ever catches enough fire to give the novel some much-needed momentum. Pregnant as it is with conflict and tension, we're never allowed to pause long enough in any one place for those tensions to bear fruit. The mystery of the body found in the meth lab, a promising arc and one that could have taken center stage, is solved, but the result feels forced and uninspired.
Similarly, just as the reader begins to wonder how Griff will manage to care for her ailing grandfather while emotionally wrestling with the reality of her alcoholic mother, her own feelings regarding her aborted studies, as well as the imminent departure of Paul (despite the lackluster quality of this particular will-he-or-won't-he-leave storyline), we learn that Einar has already called his long lost sister, Marin, an intellectual lesbian who left Wyoming long ago. Griff's storyline gets stalled in order to introduce Marin's, which centers around her grief for Alice, Marin's recently departed partner whose death has no real bearing on anyone else in the novel (except for maybe Einar, but not really).
Ultimately the biggest problem is that Spragg piles so much weight onto his storylines that he forces their arcs to plateau, instead of allowing them to climax. And, as readers, we're left frustrated and, worse, bored. In the end, Bone Fire is a novel full of narrative, but it is one that has no fire.
Mark Spragg reads from Bone Fire at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, April 21, at 6:30 PM. Free.