Montana book review: A fiction fix
By DOUG MITCHELL
A comedic and poignant look at the complicated life of teenager growing up in a Montana. A young-adult novel that offers a first person account of a girl who turns to running after life doesn’t go as planned, and a debut novel from a Montana native that is sure to test readers’ understanding of the human condition. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a handful of books based in or about Montana.
The Last Good Halloween
Tortoise Books, Chicago – 2014
Billings native Giano Cromley has made a significant statement with his first novel The Last Good Halloween. Another fine product of the University of Montana’s creative writing program, Cromley took a circuitous route to this first novel, but the product is well worth the wait.
Part Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Cromley’s book will make you laugh out loud and at the same time think carefully about the fragility of being a teenager.
Set in Montana, The Last Good Halloween is told in the first person voice of the book’s main character, Kirby Russo. Kirby is a teenager with a complicated existence and his story as told through Cromley’s skilled pen is poignant and compelling. And very, very funny.
There are certain lines from books that stay with a person for a lifetime and Halloween has given me one of those when Kirby says, “It’s a cocktail Debbie. And don’t try changing the subject.” You will have to read the book to get the context, but it’s that moment early in the book that told me quite clearly that this book is something special.
The characters Cromley develops are authentic and interesting. Kirby’s sidekicks in this narrative tale are Izzy, a girl from his typing class, and Julian, his best friend. Cromley gives them each a voice and a texture that is unique and important. In so doing, the author creates an interesting tension that gives the book a depth that makes it stand out.
Cromley’s first novel may be titled The Last Good Halloween but this will most assuredly not be his last good – very good – novel.
Giano Cromley answers questions about “The Last Good Halloween”
Montana Magazine: You made the world wait a while for your outstanding debut novel. Has this story been rattling around in your head for a while?
Giano Cromley: I’m glad you thought it was outstanding. If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have made the world wait!
It’s funny because, while this is the first novel I’ve gotten published, it’s the fifth novel I’ve written. Some of those earlier manuscripts were able to stir up a bit of interest from the publishing world, but, for a variety of reasons, none of them ended up seeing the light of day. Of course, each unsuccessful novel was cause for long stretches of despair and career reevaluation, but I also learned something from each failure — about writing and about myself. (I fear I’m not exactly answering your question so far, but I think it’s a useful point to make for anyone who might be thinking of writing, to not buy into the myth that you just sit down at a keyboard and out flows a book that everyone loves. It takes a lot of work, yes, but it also takes a lot of psychic armor to sit back down at that desk with pen in hand when someone’s just told you they’re not interested in what you’ve done.)
At any rate, back to the actual question… My entry point for this novel was the voice of the narrator, Kirby Russo. For nearly a year, I’d sat on a couple pages I’d written in this precocious, angry voice where he’s soliloquizing about the mediocrity of his life. I knew the pages could turn into something, but I wasn’t sure what. The story of what happens to Kirby came a bit later, when I decided to thrust him into a Hamlet-like situation just to see how he’d react to it. From that point on, the story wrote itself rather quickly, probably six months. The whole time I was writing, I never referred to it as a novel because I didn’t want to jinx it. I called it a “project,” as if that might somehow shield me from disappointment should it end up in a shallow desk-drawer grave. Once I was done, though, I was fairly confident that there was a place for this book somewhere in the world. And I suppose time has proven me right.
MM: I’m glad you brought up the hero in our story, Kirby Russo. Be honest with me here…Russo? Is this some sort of writer man-crush?
GC: If you’re referring to Richard Russo, then: Busted. I’m a huge fan of his novel Straight Man. The way he blended humor and pathos was like a revelation to me in terms of my own personal writing style. It’s safe to say that that book helped me find my preferred writer’s voice. Kirby’s last name is definitely a nod to the debt I owe Richard Russo.
MM: Who else in terms of authors inspires your writing?
GC: I’m a literary sponge in many ways. Everything I read and like influences me, or at least inspires me. My own personal Mount Rushmore would probably consist of Richard Ford, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver, and Joy Williams. I also enjoy writers like Walter Kirn and Junot Diaz, who are perhaps a bit closer to being contemporaries. As far as left-field influences, I’d say a lot of the older Mountain Goats songs had a profound impact on my literary development.
MM: “The Sportswriter” or “Independence Day”?
GC: You’re killing me! I love both those books so much. I admire The Sportswriter for its clarity of purpose. And I adore Independence Day because I think that’s the one where Frank Bascombe’s voice really touches on transcendent truths. Equivocations aside, deserted island and I can only bring one of them with me? I’m going with Independence Day.
MM: Atta boy. Ford has owned a place in Chinook for a long time. Senator Baucus and I visited him there for coffee a lifetime ago. When you buy your place back home in Montana where will it be?
GC: I’ve heard about his place up there. I drove through a number of years ago, thinking I might just happen to see him strolling down the street. My early relatives homesteaded (somewhat unsuccessfully) around Chinook, but, personally, I’ve got mountains in my blood. I’d be thrilled to buy a place pretty much anywhere in Montana, though I have to say I’m partial to Red Lodge and Livingston.
MM: So what’s next for you as an author Giano?
GC: Right now, I’m working on a sequel to The Last Good Halloween. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d write one, but a while back the idea for what would happen next to Kirby just kind of organically popped into my head. It’s rare when I know almost the entire story arc before I start writing the story.
This one picks up a couple years after the first one ends. And I think I struggled for a bit initially because I kept writing Kirby as if he were still fifteen. But he wasn’t anymore. There’s a big difference between 15 and 17, and I had to wrap my mind around those changes. Which ended up being one of those writing lessons that’s applicable to life in general: You have to let people grow and become who they’re going to be, even if you’re not entirely thrilled about who they might be turning into.
MM: I had the privilege of knowing your dad from his time in the Montana Legislature and enough about your growing up in Billings to know that Kirby’s story is not autobiographical. So, where did Kirby come from for you?
GC: You’re right that the story is not autobiographical. In fact, the setup of the story is a pretty shameless rip-off of Hamlet (a little known play by some English dude, or so I’m told). As for where Kirby came from, that’s a much harder question. The straightest answer I can give is that he emerged from a vague, shapeless feeling. I was dwelling on the idea of a young person who felt aggrieved by the total averageness of his life. He had the vision to see where his path might be headed, and the audacity (or naiveté) to think he might be able to change it. How exactly that feeling turned into a fully formed literary character is part of the finger-touching-Adam thing that goes on in writing. I can’t exactly explain it other than to say that I made myself feel those things deeply and tried to write Kirby from that feeling.
MM: Thanks so much for taking the time Giano…but I can’t let you go without one last question: what’s your favorite Mountain Goats song?
GC: Hands down, my favorite Mountain Goats song is “Going to Queens” off the Sweden album. It’s kind of my wife’s and my song, since it played a rather large role in my early efforts to woo her. The last line where they sing, “I will know who you are yet,” strikes me as one of the truest things you can say about the human condition — we go through life struggling to know people, vowing to know them, yet despite our best efforts, there is always something we are missing, there is always more to learn. You could say it’s served as a lodestar to most of my writing efforts.
On The Road To Find Out
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York – 2014
As a 54 year old male, I may not be the target audience for Rachel Toor’s young adult novel On The Road To Find Out, but I loved every single page. Charming, thoughtful and beautifully written, On The Road To Find Out represents a remarkable fiction debut for Toor, yet another noteworthy graduate of the University of Montana’s graduate creative writing program.
This is the story of Alice Davis, an awkward teenage girl who has just been rejected from her dream college (Yale) and who decides at the urging of her best friend Jenni to make a New Year’s resolution. You guessed it: Alice decides to take up running.
This story is a natural fit for Toor, an accomplished marathon runner herself who also worked as an admissions officer at Duke University and who has published books about each avocation in two of her previous nonfiction books.
But make no mistake, On The Road To Find Out is not a compiled fictional account of Toor’s other books. This is a fresh, wholly new tale that, while it tills familiar soil, results in a harvest of discovery for reader and writer alike.
Toor writes the book in the first person and Alice owns the tone and pace of her story from the very first page. That’s how Alice lives and so Toor writes her that way. That is one of the qualities that makes On The Road To Find Out so special. It is told in the genuine voice of the main character and we learn about the other, rich characters through that lens. This gives us as readers not only the ability to learn about the characters themselves, but to judge how and why the narrator, Alice, perceives them.
On The Road To Find Out is one of my very favorite books of the year and I believe it deserves a readership well outside the young adult section.
Rachel Toor answers questions about “The Road to Find Out”
Montana Magazine: This is your fourth book, but first novel. How different was the experience of writing fiction for you?
Rachel Toor: The biggest difference is that it was really fun. I find writing nonfiction, or at least, the thinking that’s required, hard and painful. Writing the novel was more like play. Often when I’ve heard novelist friends talk about writing I think: Are you freaking kidding me? You *like* to write? They said things that I thought sounded nutty, like: “I’m just so interested to see what’s going to happen.” I’d think: As if you’re not in control? Well guess what? You’re not. Stuff comes up and you wonder where it came from. For me, I was shocked at how much mother-daughter dynamics came into the book. I didn’t think that was what I was writing about. And then there are these things that kind of echo throughout that you weren’t aware of putting in. It makes me think the whole enterprise of literary criticism, at least the way it’s taught in English departments, is kind of suspect.
MM: So you started from a familiar foundation; running and college admissions, and just let ‘er rip?
RT: I’d been working on a nonfiction book proposal for about a year and my agent had finally sent it out to publishers. Then I got an email from an editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux who had just read my running book and asked if I’d ever considered writing a young adult novel about a teenage girl who starts running. I had not. I was flattered, but told him I couldn’t write fiction. Ridiculous, he said. So I wrote a bunch of bad pages, sent them to him, threw them out, wrote more, realized they were terrible, but soon, with his help, I started figuring out how to do it. And had a lot of fun. When we got an offer on the nonfiction book I decided I was way more interested in working on the novel. I had no interest in writing another book about running and realized that I didn’t have to: running would provide the vehicle for me to look at a whole bunch of things I was interested in, like failure and loss and how to figure out what your passions are.
MM: Your passion for running comes through in many of the characters. If you had a bib on Joan’s wall at the running store, which one would it be and what would it say?
RT: This is going to sound horrendously corny, but for me, my bib might say something as embarrassing as “running=love.” I only started running because a man I was dating would take my dog for runs and eventually I decided I didn’t want to be left behind. We had all our hard relationships talks during runs. The races I care most about are not those where I won or ran well, but where I made a connection: had a great conversation with another person, figured something out in my head, or was in a beautiful place and felt at home in the world. My most profound experiences have always come from serving as a pacer; I’ve led pace groups at marathons, accompanied other runners for the last 40 miles of a 100 mile race, and have jogged beside a friend in her first race. Those are the times when I cry after crossing the finish line. Often when I’m running my heart gets full of love. It’s that simple, and that corny.
MM: I loved your term “happy brown sign” – what’s your favorite “happy brown sign”?
RT: “Happy brown signs,” no matter where they are or what they’re marking – trailheads, camping sites, historical sites – always delight me. There’s one near volcanic Mount Adams in Washington that says, “Big tree.” It’s a giant ponderosa pine, one of the biggest. And it has its own happy brown sign. Generally, though, when I see a happy brown sign with the two hikers on it, I start to swoon.
MM: I was in Tread Lightly the running store here in Helena recently and the owner Sarah said she had met you at a race and that running wise you are the real deal. What’s your favorite race in Montana?
RT: I met Sarah during my favorite Montana race, one of my favorite races anywhere, the Elkhorn 50K. Even though I’ve gotten lost on the course a number of times, and have finished it bloody, bruised, and practically crying for my mommy, I love, love, love that race. We camp out at the start the night before (sometimes I sleep in my car if I’m too lazy to put up my sleeping bag) and the day run until it hurts–and then keep going. At the top of the hardest summit the volunteers cook bacon and salmon and offer you whiskey. It’s beautiful and challenging and full of good people. What more could you ask for?
MM: What’s on your “must read” list these days?
RT: The books I’ve read recently that I’ve loved are a real cross-section: Chimanda Adichie’s Americanah is my favorite novel in recent memory; Scarcity, a book with big ideas about poverty by a Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist blew me away. I loved You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You, and I’m looking forward to digging into Michael Lewis’s new one, Flash Boys and Joseph Finder’s Suspicion. As always, it’s an eclectic mix.
When it comes to books I think other people should read, I’m in a great position because, as a professor, I get to require my students to read them. Some of the nonfiction books I often assign are Thomas Lynch’s collection of essays, The Undertaking (he’s a poet-undertaker from Michigan–yes, you read that right), Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, Fun Home, the essays of Joan Didion, the books of John McPhee, and George Orwell’s pieces “Politics and the English Language” and “Shooting an Elephant.”
MM: One last question Rachel, what’s next for you writing wise?
RT: Same old, same old. I do a monthly column on writing and publishing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a bi-monthly one for Running Times, contribute periodically to Athleta’s Chi blog and an outdoors magazine based in Delhi, India. So I’m always behind on something. But since writing this novel was so much fun, I’ve started on another one. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, and love doing.
MM: Thanks for taking the time Rachel – see you on the trails!
Fourth of July Creek
Harper Collins, New York – 2014
I found myself oddly unsettled by Smith Henderson’s powerful debut novel Fourth of July Creek. I mean that to be taken as a compliment to the writer and a challenge to the reader.
This book will move you in unexpected ways and take you places in a way that somehow both deepens our understanding and questions what we think we understand about the human condition.
Set in Northwest Montana, Fourth of July Creek is the story of a Montana Department of Family Services caseworker named Pete Snow. To cast Pete as a hero would be, in my view, to badly misunderstand Henderson’s book. And yet one spends 400-plus pages rooting for Pete and for something good – something right – to happen for him.
I couldn’t put this book down. The writing by this Montana native is exquisite, the story compelling and the style innovative and finely executed.
Part mystery and part morality play, Fourth of July Creek is set in the early 1980s and follows not only the daily journeys of Pete Snow, but in very interesting fashion breaks away from that narrative to use the voice of Pete’s daughter, Rachel, as she travels a different but intersecting path. Henderson pulls no punches, in the style of Cormack McCarthy, but you just can’t turn away from the brilliance of the tale.
Here’s Henderson turning his pen into a paintbrush; “How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once.”
Fourth of July Creek is a truly stunning debut by a truly gifted writer who is just getting started on a career that promises to be –“like a flash of sunlight all at once” – very bright indeed.
Smith Henderson answers questions about “Fourth of July Creek”
Montana Magazine: This is a complicated book. I take it the words did not just fly on to the page, but rather each page and each chapter was carefully constructed. Tell us a little about your writing process.
Smith Henderson: Every day (when I’m working on a novel), I get up, brew a pot of coffee and write for a couple hours. Been doing that for about 10 years. I work on a different problem on different days. Sometimes it’s just banging out the prose, other times it’s deeper plot stuff. Sometimes, early on, it’s just exploratory writing.
Books are just made out of thousands of pages of stuff that will never see the light of day.
MM: The chapters written from Rose’s perspective have no page numbers. Is that intentional?
SH: Those are also written in Q&A format. It was entirely intentional that the sections about her be inquisitive, speculative, full of anxiety and doubt. Leaving the page numbers out just added to the conjectural quality of her story.
MM: How did your growing up in Montana, if at all, impact your decision to make Montana the location for Fourth of July Creek?
SH: It was key. Once I realized that the Montana I know and love was interesting and borderline exotic to others, I just dove into my knowledge and memory. There was really not much of a decision to make. It’s my bio-geography. This book had to be set in Montana.
MM: I’m curious about the naming of our two main characters. What should I read, if anything, into your naming them “Snow” and “Pearl”?
SH: I think Pete is fleeting and melting and falling. Jeremiah has hardened, calcified. They are both white men, which was something I wanted to indicate in their names, their lack of color. Not just racially, but in some sense they have drained their lives of color. Pete is less judgmental, but both see themselves as good guys in white hats, I’d say.
But it really wasn’t all that intentional. I just thought it fit.
MM: OK, last, as a Montanan, I couldn’t help chuckling about your use of Wyoming as a verb. Where did that come from?
SH: I like to pull language apart, pull words away or towards their more esoteric meanings. In the case of Wyoming, however, I have no earthly idea what the origin of that word is. I rather like to think of “wyom” as a verb. It feels like the definition in the book is right—it’s about heartache on the road.