The Prodigal Author 

Writer Rick DeMarinis returns to Missoula for good—just in time to unleash his gritty fiction

I’m not one of those readers who wants things kept neat. I have a love-hate relationship with humanity. I like characters who are fighting to keep their heads above water, but just keep screwing up blithely and terribly. I seek tales of silent desperation, bitter envy, self-destruction. I want average Joes and Janes living secret, somewhat despicable lives.

This summer, I’m in luck. These are exactly the kinds of figures that Missoula author Rick DeMarinis has populated in his new collection of short fiction, Borrowed Hearts: New and Selected Stories. Now, with DeMarinis releasing this book—and announcing plans to set down permanent roots in Missoula—I just had to find out where this lesser-known voyeur/narrator was coming from.

Clearly, he champions human folly in his writing. His storytelling is often rife with Raymond Carver-esque grit, but his characters are far from unlikable. He writes about people who could be your brother, your tennis partner, or yourself. The words are infused with a dark humor sometimes so subtle it seems accidental.

Photo by Chad Harder
Local author Rick DeMarinis reads to a packed house at the Fact and Fiction Bookstore Tuesday evening. His latest book, Borrowed Hearts: New and Selected Stories, is available in local bookstores.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about DeMarinis is the contrast between his uncompromising voice in print and his polite, self-effacing demeanor in person. He seems genuinely surprised that I have read every story in his book, a task made easy by compelling, concise writing that locked me in by the end of the first sentence.

In the book’s introduction, DeMarinis’ old friend James Welch, describes the author’s reticence beautifully. “Rick was as sturdy as a rock,” he says, “in his determination to unleash that bizarre imagination that lurks just beneath the surface of one of the gentlest natures I have ever known.”

That determination, it seems, couldn’t allow him to stay still, either. Just a few weeks ago, DeMarinis retired from the creative writing department at the University of Texas in El Paso to come back to the Garden City. Although he and his wife Carole have regularly spent the summer here in their Rattlesnake home, it’s the first time they have lived in Missoula year-round since 1988. Although we discuss the possible truth to the myth of Western Montana being some sort of meeting place of global energy fault lines, drawing residents here like iron filings to a magnet, his return has more to do with more practical matters.

“Missoula is one of those places you keep coming back to,” DeMarinis says. “But I’m back mostly because of family. I have kids and grandkids here.” He has made his home in the valley off and on since starting at the University of Montana in 1958, but cites the difficulty of earning a decent living in Missoula as being the primary reason for pulling up stakes and fleeing in the past. “In 1975 I tried to write full time,” he says with a laugh. “That was a big mistake.”

DeMarinis is also a graduate of Richard Hugo’s infamous, late-1960s UM creative writing program and counts Welch among his fellow alumni.

I tell DeMarinis that during a college class in the Liberal Arts Building, I used to fixate on an old black-and-white photo of the bear-like Hugo holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, his mouth frozen open in what looks like a tipsily profound soliloquy.

“Well, it was pretty much like that picture,” DeMarinis explains. “Dick was great, he taught basically by the authority of his presence. He was a powerful influence. Often we wound up at his house, drinking and having a wild time.”

Hugo told DeMarinis he was meant to write fiction, and after publishing a dozen or so poems, DeMarinis agreed and took his mentor’s advice.

And though his short stories seem like they could all be potentially rooted in the semi-autobiographical—DeMarinis concedes that a few are—he says that some come from “thin air.” The reader will have an enjoyably hard time telling the difference.

A perfect example of this is “On the Lam,” one of the more pointed stories in his new collection. In it, a young boy is whisked away by his mother and her .38 revolver-packing boyfriend as they attempt to outrun law enforcement agents and slip across the border into Canada. DeMarinis says it’s a true story.

“My mother left my father and ran off with a gun-toting gangster. I was three or four years old,” he says with a shy smile. “[The boyfriend] went to prison in New York. My mother is still an absolute free spirit and she claims to have read my books, but I have some trepidation whether she has or not.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that this same unfettered mother figure appears in more than one of DeMarinis’ stories. She is clearly a sad yet good-timing woman who enjoys a drink, laughs until tears come to her eyes and lives with a series of men whom her young son has to call “uncle.”

From Broken Hearts, in addition to “On the Lam,” DeMarinis is especially partial to “Novias,” a story about two late middle-aged neighbors and their young Mexican girlfriends.

“I noticed in El Paso that there are lots of old gringos with young Mexican women,” he says. “I fantasized on that idea.”

The central action in the story involves a dinner party that one couple throws for another. Ofelia cooks a colorful meal of fajitas, red tamales and a special “glow-in-the-dark pico de gallo that would make Satan beg for ice water.” Maribel, the pale descendant of Iberian aristocrats, sniffs, “This is Indian food,” and as a result is appeased with a microwaved pork chop.

Sound exotic? DeMarinis describes El Paso as “the other side of the moon,” a place devoid of the mall mentality and prevailing sensibilities that accompany suburban complacency, even less so than Missoula.

“It’s a poor town,” he notes. “Cormac McCarthy calls it the last real town in America.” But spring sandstorms and overpowering summer heat finally helped drive him north for good.

In addition to his new collection of short stories, DeMarinis also completed a novel recently, a mystery that unfolds in the world of academia, but he’s unsatisfied with its current state. Now he plans to write full-time and remain with the small Seven Stories Press, whose “maverick” approach he appreciates in the current age of corporate-owned publishing houses concerned with only the bottom line.

“There are so many good writers around today—it’s a leveling process,” he points out. “If you go back to the 1920s, there may have been a half-dozen great writers. The general quality now is so high that no one really stands out. I think it’s a jungle rather than a desert.”

Big Sky Lit

Reviews of new releases by home-grown writers

Hummingbird House
by Patricia Henley
(MacMurray & Beck, cloth, $22)

In John Sayles’ 1998 film Men With Guns, we never learn the geographical or political specifics of the conflict that dominates the lives of the main characters. Through cinematography and language, we can gather that the setting is a Central American country where the army and guerrillas have devastated an indigenous population. The particulars of the stage aren’t set beyond these generalities, because Sayles is more interested in the moral and emotional quandaries that permeate any circumstance of violent oppression. The narrative is circuitous and enigmatic at times, but as we move further into the film, it becomes clear that its external particulars aren’t really important. Instead, Sayles’ fascination is with the complex emotional landscapes that emerge from living under the constant threat of violent and random death.

Hummingbird House, the debut novel by Montana Book Award winner Patricia Henley, operates under a similar system of values. While she’s a little more specific than Sayles (who praises the book on its jacket), placing us with American nurse Kate Banner first in Nicaragua and then Guatemala, her taut and painful story smacks of authority and authenticity without venturing anywhere near the journalistic. Like Sayles, Henley is primarily interested in presenting the emotional truths of individuals mired in an impossibly complicated situation. In fact, it is precisely Kate’s lack of concern with providing the broad framework of her situation that renders her thoroughly believable; she shows us violence-riddled Central America through a microscope, through the women, children and activists who suffer acutely and uniquely there on a daily basis.

Kate is a Midwesterner who has been birthing infants and nursing the sick in Nicaragua for too many years. Early in the novel, she travels to Guatemala to stay with other Americans until her best friend Maggie has resolved a romance in Nicaragua and can join her to travel back to the U.S. Kate is in fragile condition when we meet her: weary of illness and poverty, tired of living in fear, and heartbroken over the end of a long-term relationship.

While the events in Guatemala are dramatic and often wrenching, the most compelling pages of the novel take place in Kate’s own mind. Henley alternates between a first- and third-person narrative, a risky device that works beautifully here, creating a sort of perfect intimacy between character and reader. We understand Kate, to a degree, but we question her. The nature of her motives are always blurred—while she is undoubtedly noble and compassionate, her love life is perpetually at the forefront of her decisions to remain in Central America longer. (Interestingly, she falls in love with a priest, which raises all sorts of problems.) In a sense, the novel is as much about Kate’s relationship with men as it is about her devotion to humanitarian causes. Or rather, it is about her relationships in general—with men, with an orphan named Marta, with Maggie and various Guatemalan women. And that’s why I loved the book. It’s fundamentally political (a portion of the royalties are donated to human rights organizations) and fundamentally human. Like we do with Men With Guns, we experience Hummingbird House against a backdrop of poverty, guerrilla violence and fear. Henley’s novel is equally successful (perhaps more so, in my opinion) because it manages to invest us in its characters in a way that transcends the sympathy inherent to their situation—before they are martyrs or victims, they are simply people.

Caeli Wolfson

My Russian
by Deirdre McNamer
(Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $24)br>

Disappearing from your life is a classic fantasy. Coming back to spy on it is the stuff of inspired obsession. Your most restless, inquisitive, and mortal self leaves home with an alibi and then returns, disguised, to watch. Holding death at bay, you rove through memory and inspect the present, all with the aim of correcting your course.

Deirdre McNamer’s latest novel, My Russian, offers just such a fantasy through Francesca Woodbridge, a 47-year-old wife and mother who looks “like an ad for an investment firm.” When the novel opens, Francesca has flown to Greece with a tour group for some R & R after a break-in and shooting her home.

But from Athens, Francesca travels to “an off-the-track island,” where she treks to the sea and leaves a rucksack with some clothes and identification beneath a boulder on the shore of the Aegean. The plan is that the bag will be found, and Francesca will be thought drowned, vanished.

In the meantime however, under an adopted identity, Francesca has come back to town, “to spy on [her] waiting life.” Her husband Ren, a “pal” she met in college and married, is a good man turned ethically compromised corporate defender. Her 17-year-old son Mack is newly sexual, wary of his parents, and dressing “like a reporter on the old-movie channel.”

Her family thinks she’s in Athens, but Francesca has checked into a room at the Trocadero motel, in a western valley town, the descriptions of which will ring dear and poetic to Missoulians.

The mystery that frames My Russian is that Ren has been shot in the Woodbridge home, his spinal cord “winged” months earlier by an intruder the police are still searching for. The investigation parallels Francesca’s own survey—of her life, the town, and the times as the suspects all hold intimate places in her memory.

Elise Prentice is the next-door neighbor, who smugly tends Ren when Francesca leaves. Jimster Reese is Macks’ childhood friend, a sort-of stepson, upon whom Francesca bestowed both maternal care and indiscreet affection. Yuri Petrov is the Russian gardener of the title, Francesca’s lover, an elegy of a man, like “another country,” who has disappeared before the shooting occurs. And there is Andrej, Yuri’s mobster cousin, who makes a living cashing in on the life insurance policies of suspiciously dead friends and relatives.

The other situation in My Russian is the alert and varied mind of Francesca, which blooms on the page as she contemplates mortality.

Having grown indifferent toward her husband, fraudulent with her son and contemptuous of the “opulence and verve” of her lifestyle—senior partners with fancy matching suspenders, trophy homes and trophy wives—Francesca feels emblematic of a resignation made by many men and women of her generation, of relinquishing romantic and moral ideals, choosing coherence over yearning, protection over exploration, the settled-for over the beloved.

Not unlike a dying person whose life flashes before their eyes, Francesca feels “that zing of new knowledge down the bones.” She culls connections from everywhere: her life, real and imagined, dreams, old movies, televison. Hers is a questioning sophistication unmatched by the other characters, and Francesca is lonesome, complicated, perched at a melancholy distance from her “waiting life.”

There’s a tension among the elements of My Russian, a lively clash between Francesca Woodbridge, the black comedy of the supporting cast, and the epic breadth of scenes, spanning nearly 30 years. What holds them together as one world is McNamer’s vision, which is generously strange, and her language, which is surprising, lushly descriptive, and forcefully alive.

Maria Healey

A Clever Base-Ballist
by Bryan Di Salvatore
(Pantheon, cloth, $27.50)br>

Your basic baseball book generally sticks to topics of low ERAs, batting mechanics, the range of middle infielders or the pros and cons of pitching out of the stretch. It takes a Missoula writer to work in passages about King Kalakuau of Hawaii, the state of theater in turn-of-the-century New York, admission requirements to Penn State in the 1870s, and long passages about Samuel Gompers, the union activist who founded the American Federation of Labor.

But then, Missoula writer Bryan Di Salvatore’s new biography, A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward, isn’t so much a baseball book as it is a window on American life in the late 19th Century, as seen through the prism of baseball. Sure, the book is somewhat about a Hall of Fame pitcher and wily bunt-aboard-and-then-steal-second hitter. But it’s also about the American labor movement at a time when it first did battle with big capital.

In this case, the workers were major league ballplayers making, if they were good, maybe $3,000 a year. “Big capital” meant the team owners in the recently founded National League. And the labor movement was Ward’s unionization of the ballplayers, an effort that culminated in 1889, when most of the ballplayers formed their own league to share a cut of the profits.

Di Salvatore, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker and other publications, says he wrote the book after working on a magazine piece about the NFL players’ union. He came away from that experience strongly backing the players’ side, and you can sense that in this biography.

Di Salvatore portrays Ward as a small-town, jug-eared kid from Pennsylvania who fights his way into the majors, where he finds that team owners can sign players into indefinite servitude, where players are regularly fined for making a bad throw to second, and where players are blacklisted permanently for trying to stand up to owners. Ward becomes one of the great players of his era, earning good money, marrying a famous actress and traveling the world. But he also becomes a fierce fighter for players’ rights, as stated in the players’ “Brotherhood Manifesto” delivered to owners on the eve of formation of the players’ new league.

“There was a time when the (National) League stood for integrity and fair dealing;” Ward once said. “To-day it stands for dollars and cents. Players have been bought, sold and exchanged as though they were sheep instead of American citizens.”

The defection to form a new league posed a true threat to the National League owners. That season, the new league—in which the teams shared gate receipts, players received a share of profits, and from which players could not be blacklisted—drew bigger crowds than the National League. Poor business decisions and defection of a few key players quickly crushed the new league. But the effort drew baseball, that supposed pristine realm, into the social turmoil that marked the labor movement in mining, steel and other growing American industries. It’s an interesting story, but an obscure one.

Fortunately, there are themes here that will hold many readers’ attention. First and foremost, this is a baseball story. If you’re a baseball fan—if you like baseball history and the quirky arcana that seems to cling to that sport—the book should keep you mesmerized. If you’re a history buff, this is one of those little side-channels that take you into areas where you’ll learn stuff you didn’t know before. And if you’re among that sadly shrinking breed that cares about organized labor and the benefits it has brought to working people, the book is an affirmation that one person can effect change by raising a voice.

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