Montanan - Volume 15 Number 1
Dry Rainby Pete Fromm. Fromm '81, the author of four books, lives in Great Falls. New York: Lyons & Burford, New York, 1997. 215 pp. $22.95 hardcover.Pete Fromm takes us to Marlboro Country, but his short story collection, Dry Rain, is not about rugged, stoic cowboys. Dry Rain captures the faded world of the cigarette billboard, sun-blistered and peeling, a world of sheepishness and lying awake at night. And in this book, that's a man's world.
Told in a confessional first-person voice, most of these stories are about men, and a common life runs through them. The Fromm protagonist would describe himself in the words of the narrator of "Helmets": "While perhaps I was never the Department's most brilliant design engineer, I was steady." He is candid about the minute agonies and humiliations of his ordinary days. He takes pleasure in the details of baseball plays and household chores. He loves his wife with a lazy passion for the familiar. Things haven't changed in years, and he'd be scared if they did.
Fromm sets up his stories like algebraic equations. In "The Baby-Sitter" a man welcomes his parents for a visit while he is waiting for news of his disappeared wife. In "The Topic of Cancer" a widower drives his four-year-old son to the ocean so they can escape the sadness of the wife's death, and when left alone on the beach, the boy fears for his father's life. The tree man who narrates "Feller" asks for nothing more than a big contract until he realizes his wife is leaving him. "Lifesaving," the one story that nears the complicated soul of the narrator, allows him to appreciate his wife after flirting dangerously with a coworker.
Montana, where most of these stories are set, grants the men enough room to confide in us. In that anonymity, these worn and weathered men renew themselves.
The High Road: Romantic Tourism, Scotland, and Literature, 1720-1820by John Glendening. Glendening is a visiting assistant professor of English at UM. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. 282 pp. $45.00 hardcover.
Why do we travel and when did we start? To answer the question, John Glendening focuses on the rise of middle-class British tourism to Scotland in the eighteenth century. For guidance he depends on Daniel Defoe, John Keats, Tobias Smollett, Samuel Johnson, Dorothy and William Wordsworth and Scottish influences such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.
To the British traveler in 1800, Scotland offered the foreign and the familiar: a "simple pastoralism" and a "noble primitivism." In this discussion, Glendening implies that many things about tourism have remained consistent. "The tourist, usually middle class, typically leaves home to escape the workaday world of familiar routines and surroundings, to discover novelty, to gain status...and to commemorate or validate the experience with mementos of one sort or another."
Those of us who have made a weary ascent to the crumbling Parthenon will recognize the dichotomy presented to Keats, who was so cranky and tired with travel upon reaching Burns' tomb that he couldn't concentrate on his hero. "The average tourist," Glendening writes, "is caught between, on the one hand, the exigencies of time, money, and career and, on the other, the desire to approximate the first-class experiences of the wealthy."
Densely academic, The High Road is layered with research and references, and the prose often lapses into esoteric scholarliness, (e.g., "a sought-for-alterity validates the person"). But Glendening explores the urge to wander with provocative insight, astutely observing that the literature of travel is designed to "expose the dynamics of ego" because it is a genre that "encourages the dropping of masks." Above all, the author reminds us to seek ourselves, even in remote provinces.
Her Slender Dressby Susan Yuzna, M.F.A. '95. Yuzna's book won the 1995 Akron Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award. Akron, Ohio: The University of Akron Press, 1996. 73 pp. $12.95 paper."There was a time I would have set myself on fire," writes Susan Yuzna in the first line of her poem "Positively Minneapolis." This characteristic admission draws a distinct line between the time of writing and the memory of experience. Experience fuels Yuzna's majestic debut, Her Slender Dress. Yuzna's poems are addressed to lovers, children, exes and herself, and each has the quality of a letter to the dead. Yuzna specializes in a dual perspective, aligning memory with the present to startling effect. In "The Radio" the speaker ruminates on a lost lover who ended up in detox, and she starts the poem:
I still have it,
the radio you bought
that time a heroin deal
fell through, and you didn't know what
to do with the money.
Many of these poems seem like a private law because Yuzna combines the speaker's experience with razor language that evokes Sylvia Plath. "Meat and Potatoes" contains a guttural strength. The final line is a surprising gasp, a mix of nastiness and beauty.
I have done it, escaped the bad marriage.
I will eat potatoes forever. Always, the price,
I hear my friend say, as I drop the brown spiral
into the disposal and grind it to mush.
With the flip of a switch, a certain relish.
How quick, the blades. Just noise.
In "On the Way to Lolo Hot Springs," Yuzna writes with a haunting melancholy of the great divide between parent and child, between mother and son. She imagines how her behavior might embarrass her son; even her conversation bores him as she tries to interest him in the natural world. As they drive, he concentrates on "moving a minuscule blue hedgehog/over a two-inch screen." The son's actions are as eccentric as anything the mother envisions for herself; her interest in him sure and steady as his in his hedgehog. Yet Yuzna captures their separation with understated longing.
Yuzna's candor in her naked poems reminds us that every soul is tempered, shaped and haunted by something. Her Slender Dress contains an unexpected kind of heartbreak, not the sort to do with loving. This is the heart broken by living, a heart stitched and mended again, the scar forever visible. This is the heartbreak of knowing.
The Portable Western Readeredited by William Kittredge. Kittredge is a UM professor emeritus of creative writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. 600 pp. $14.95 paper.In his introduction to this anthology, editor William Kittredge writes that "Western writers are learning to tell their own local, particular stories...storytelling that is useful because it helps us to witness ourselves as we are in the world." Kittredge has gathered together the work of more than seventy fiction writers, poets and essayists to explore the vast range of Western experience. Kittredge divided the book into four parts to help readers "make sense of a discrete series of transitions...in the way the world has defined the American West in story and in the ways Westerners have used storytelling to define themselves." Selections run the gamut from Indian myths to writers such as Bud Guthrie and John Steinbeck, who challenged nineteenth-century western stereotypes; from writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Richard Hugo, who redefined the West in the 1960s, to a new generation of western writers that includes Leslie Marmon Silko, Marilynne Robinson and Sherman Alexie.