Last, Best Books 

The latest literary releases from western Montana’s writers

What I Keep by Jennifer Greene
(Greenfield Review Press, paper, $12.95)

If there’s one shelf in the library of American literature that looks eerily empty, it’s the one marked ‘Native American poetry.’ Sure, you might find a few scraps of paper with recognizable names on them there—Leslie Marmon Silko, say, or N. Scott Momaday—but they only come around to poetry when they’re bored writing novels. And you may spot the occasional genuine poet, like Luci Tapahonso, but in recent years her elegant manifestoes on Indian life have given way to aimless, university-caliber canoodling. And you’ll certainly see plenty of stuff by out-and-out frauds, dilettantes who deploy their Native American heritage (real or imagined) to wax poetic about Pain or The Great Spirit or Nature. But that’s pretty much all there is. That’s what’s on the shelf, coming to you sideways on those narrow book spines. There are lots of gaps to be filled, it seems, and not enough talents to fill them.

That’s why we should feel grateful for What I Keep, a debut book of poetry offered up this spring by Flathead writer Jennifer Greene. Over the course of some 55 poems, Greene just about traces the arc of Native American poetry over the past 30 years—including all of the good stuff from that shelf you were staring at—and still manages to add some things never before seen.

The earliest pages, for starters, give you a taste of the bare militancy that has been long missing from Indian verse (“Complain about the bear problems because/they eat cattle and get in the way,” she tells the reader in the opening poem. “But my brown face is a bigger threat than/any cat or bear.”) From there, she takes you on a breakneck tour of her Montana—peopled with decrepit old women in parking lots, sausage-fingered men in backroad taverns, and innocent girls who find themselves quite naturally in these smoke-stained word paintings. It’s enough to evoke the strongest, most punishing days of contemporary Indian poetry, the days we thought were over.

But there is so much more to Greene’s work than just gritty effect. There are moments of tender longing for the rez, even after she has left it (“Now, I’m far away,/far away in Arizona,” she writes at one point, “where beauty and life/are always beneath the surface”). There are impressive displays of poetic technique (including the death-defying rhyme scheme of the sestina format), and, above all, some of the most stunning love poetry that you’ve laid your eyes on in some time. “Green pine needles listen to a man/whisper into his woman’s hair/about making love/beneath the stars,” Greene writes in one of her airier excursions. And, a little less dressed-up: “I like your hairy face and the sounds of the bottoms of your toes pressing/across a carpet when you come to me.”

In a school of writing where the absences are more obvious than the presences, Jennifer Greene has made a remarkable debut. Some Indian poets with twice her experience have accomplished only half as much. Be proud of her—she has moved back to Montana—and as I said before, be grateful.

Twice Dying: A Novel of Suspense

Twice Dying: A Novel of Suspense by Neil McMahon
(Harper Collins, cloth, $24)

Anthony Trollope once caviled that detective stories had plots that were too complex and characters that were too simple. Missoulian Neil McMahon’s first novel, Twice Dying, updates this tried-and-true formula by combining elements of both “ER” and Pulp Fiction into this engrossing novel of suspense.

Some aspects of this plot should be familiar to anyone who followed the story of Frank Curtis, the Bitterroot man who killed his father and brother, was judged unfit to stand trial, only later to be “rehabilitated” in order to go before the court.

The book’s premise is the logical question: How can we be sure that doctors know that a criminal has been rehabilitated, that he is safe to be let out into society? Couldn’t they make a mistake? Couldn’t he figure out what is expected of him and then act it out perfectly? What if, for whatever reasons, doctor and patient collaborated?

In answer to these questions, McMahon creates a brilliant yet perverse English psychiatrist who, for a series of convoluted reasons, will compromise his principles by returning the worst violent offenders, especially serial rapists and killers to the streets. He adds the satanic scion of a celebrated San Francisco family, a sexy young psychiatrist whose work with violent male offenders is just another outlet for her penchant to live on the edge, and finally our hero ER Dr. Carroll Monks.

The doctor-hero is the perfect meeting place for all the things we hold in awe: technology, specialized knowledge and skill, god-like control over life and death, and ability to withstand pressure. Although Monks does conform to Trollope’s complaint—don’t hold your breath waiting for some kind of anagnorisis—the stereotypes and contradictions he embodies all serve to win the reader to his side. As the functioning-alcoholic-trauma-doc beset with memories of Vietnam, divorce, and malpractice, he longs to let slip those dogs of war and vanish into the bottle. After a particularly powerful bent-arm salute to Finlandia, McMahon writes, Monks “stood at the too-familiar point of wanting never to stop, to keep riding on the back of that fire breathing mount of alcohol that he had realized long ago he would never entirely break, but could only fight a lifelong battle to keep in check.”

Also highly principled, in his free time he sits on a board that tries to head off malpractice suits and stop sleazy physicians who doctor for the rich only. This allows McMahon, through Monks, to articulate the question we all ask about lawyers: “When did this figure become an American hero, this bureaucrat with a briefcase who makes a rich living by picking laws apart to confound justice?”

The American hero McMahon creates is the antithesis of the lawyer and is someone you can get behind, despite some irregularities and stereotypes. He is the Man of Science with imagination and self-consciousness.

Neil McMahon, who studied pre-med at Stanford, and has worked for the last 20 years as a carpenter, has built a sturdy, finely crafted novel of suspense by capitalizing on the current vogue that sees doctors not as egghead overachievers but rather as sexy individuals. Step aside Holmes, here comes Dr. Watson.

—Bill Fanning

The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux

The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux by David Long
(Scribner, cloth, $24)

Ever break up with someone and find yourself morbidly drawn to the charitable hospitality of that person’s friends or, more importantly, their blood relations? Such commiserators are obviously good for offering insight, but it’s ultimately fruitless to seek that kind of comfort because, try as you might, you just can’t make them into the person you really want to be with. Unless, of course, the commiserator is the person you wanted to be with all along. The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux is a novel-length exercise in this kind of false comfort, a mildly engaging study in one man’s nostalgia projected onto an old girlfriend’s sister who injects herself into his life 25 years after the girlfriend’s mysterious disappearance.

Miles Fanning is the middle-aged head of a moderately successful Seattle jazz label, indifferently if not entirely unhappily married to a woman whom by his own admission lacks the kind of intriguing, secretive side he once thought he could safely live without. The wife, complaining that Fanning has become distant and self-absorbed, suggests a trial separation of four months—more than enough time for Fanning to find intrigue out the wazzoo in the person of Julia Lamoreaux, the chain-smoking, hard-bitten younger sister of Carly Lamoreaux, the girlfriend who vanished without a trace on her way to meet Fanning at prep-school choir practice in 1973.

Of the things The Daughters of Simon Lamoreaux does well, fleshing out this intrigue is not one. Julia, a prickly pear in eggplant bangs and shapeless smocks, won’t commit to Fanning’s confidence until she first gets the chance to completely acquit herself with a series of logorrheic e-mails that leave the reader more than a little bit sick of her—damn near wishing, in fact, that he’d just indulge the logical extension of his mounting obsession by sleeping with the sister, be done with it, and hasten back to the colorless wife.

Author Long, formerly of Kalispell, turns in no shortage of exquisitely turned sentences (one of the most engaging sections of the book has to do with reglazing the windows in an ancient cupola), but the spontaneity of the actual dialogue is immediately called into question because so much of it consists of e-mail. This is hardly Long’s fault; it’s more symptomatic of the manner in which computers have changed correspondence in the last decade. For my grandmother, a lot of the novel would read like mild science fiction. A couple of themes are cleverly dropped and picked up later, but a few too many are dropped and left to shrivel for want of the proper spot to reintroduce them. Rich descriptions languish like crescents of sidewalk rain, and in the end the novel passes over as scentlessly as an August breeze.

—Andy Smetanka

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