WINTER 1998 Montanan - Volume 15, Number 2
Cookbook writer Eileen Clarke explores Missoula and its inhabitants in her first novel, a comic rendering of one woman's journey of self-discovery. Evelyn Holloran is from New York, but in her early twenties, when she finds herself jobless, she does the necessary, reckless thing of hitting the road alone and searching out her own version of "lanky, long Gary Coopers and gap-toothed Slim Pickenses." Soon she is surrounded by an oddball assortment of local color in her adopted hometown, Missoula.
After a discouraging search, Evelyn finds temporary work in a dental office and is befriended by Jaymie, a patient, whom Evelyn describes as "the other side of me." Jaymie is actually everything Evelyn yearns to be, and she develops an intense crush on this spirited woman. Jaymie, in turn, leads Evelyn into an unexpected web of intrigue, gradually entangling her in a family history that provides Evelyn a true home.
Overflowing with detail, The Queen of the Legal Tender Saloon is part comedy, part mystery and borrows styles from both genres. Evelyn is alternately a babe-in-the-woods narrator who seems charmingly agape at the real wild west; she can also be a sassy and smart-mouthed observer, wicked about the tiniest aspect of dentistry.
Clarke may have written the first dental novel and, with it, the best line for her new genre. When Evelyn at last leaves her demeaning job, she demands an employment termination agreement. Her indignant co-worker asks her, "You want a plaque, too?"
Clarke accurately conveys the spirit of Missoula, its legacy of vagabonds and orphans, born-agains and wanderers, a growing city filled with people who just happened to get off the bus or run out of gas at the Orange Street exit or find themselves in a beat-up motel on Broadway.
"A plane crashed" is the first sentence of J. Robert Lennon's book. The rest of this first novel is a meditation on fallout-physical, mechanical and emotional-set in the fictional town of Marshall, Montana, known to readers as Missoula. Using this tragic event as a catalyst, Lennon draws a portrait of the town from its disparate inhabitants.
In the chilling early pages, the writer deftly conveys a sadness and horror, imagining what it would be like to hear that a girlfriend, nephew or errant husband were on that plane. Scenes of confusion and chaos at the airport are powerful and real and work the magic of a good novel: They transport the reader.
At the center of the book stand Paul and Anita Beveridge, a young couple transplanted to Marshall for no particular reason. Much of the cast seems to have found Marshall in the same random way, the writer's comment, perhaps, on our modern apathy and detachment. The Beveridge cabin is sawed in two by the crashing plane, leaving the couple to live in an exposed, raw hole of a house filled with the sounds of fluttering plastic, taped and fastened over the wound. The crash is the death knell for their marriage, and they spend the novel drawing together and pulling away from each other. There is no recovery, no undoing an event such as this.
Lennon has an energetic style and an abundance of talent and enthusiasm in his voice, which gives many of the novel's descriptions a stately beauty. These descriptions stand apart from the story itself or the characters, and the reader must appreciate them on their own. The author sometimes reaches too far, trying to capture many lives in a single book. He does, however, meticulously document the place he calls Marshall and its surroundings.
Poet James Soular writes of a diminishing world in his collection of Vietnam poems, The Thousand-Yard Stare. In spite of the poet's urgent efforts, piece by piece and bit by bit, land and people are catastrophically erased, and an extraordinary, almost unbearable loneliness emerges. Soular is the chronicler, appointed by default, the last one left standing and a voice sober and rich with the histories of others now dead.
And Soular does them honor, memorializing his innocence and his fellow soldiers as he writes with unnerving control of this ghastly experience. Writing from an inner territory laid barren by physical and psychic horror, the poet creates a vivid and treacherous landscape.
Soular's lucid images of wartime Vietnam, the "land of awful noise" and "lead-spattered skies," are brutal. In "The Agent," he describes the physical effects of Agent Orange as feeling like "you were the victim of a severe beating." "Tripwire" contains a final image that will haunt the reader as it has the writer:When Jones tripped
the wire that exploded
the buried 500-pound bomb,
he was blown up
Jones ceased to exist
except for one combat boot
pointing down the jungle trail
and a fine, red mist
With a film director's obsession for detail and ability to shift points of view, Soular recreates his own witness and imagines the dead buddies, new widows, anguished mothers and tragic sweethearts. In "Missing," a pair of Marines comes to the door to tell a soldier's wife that her husband is missing in action. "Finally, they leave and you hiss at his picture,/'You bastard! How could you have done this/to us? Come back, damn it, or I'll kill you!"'
In "Letter to David, Dead These Twenty Years," the poet says he wished he'd traded places with his friend, then admits, "But I'm no longer sure-/it may simply be bravado/since I'm alive and safe and here." Later in the same poem he describes his own fate:Somewhere in there
I met my wife, or ex-wife, got her pregnant
and married her-had to do the right thing,
didn't I, same thing we said about going to Nam?
The comparison is chilling, a glimpse of how the Vietnam War taught Soular to see the rest of his life, and how it ruined living. These raw poems are undeniably powerful, an important addition to the war literature canon.
Jean Arthur opens her primer of histories, anecdotes, photos and memorabilia of a half century of skiing culture in Whitefish with a vivid description of Big Mountain's early days. "In the depression-poor years of the 1930s, a carload of young Whitefish adventurers pooled their nickels for gasoline. They drove a Model A Ford coupe to the end of a snow-covered trace. Wearing leather boots, wool slacks and hand-knit sweaters, they strapped on handmade wooden skis outfitted with fur-skinned climbers....Scrappy, energetic and adventurous, these explorers mustered their way up to the burns, glades and bowls of the biggest mountain in the peaks." Arthur interviewed 140 Big Mountain buffs and assembled a fine collection of ski patches, from the earliest Whitefish Lake Ski Club devil-on-skis to the tamer 1990s pine tree patch. Many of the 130 black and whites were shot by award-winning photographer Marion Lacy, who hauled as much as 40 pounds of camera equipment up the slopes to snap hot-doggers, ski teams and ski pioneers racing through snow-laden trees, known as snow ghosts.