#tobyreads: Lonesome & Crowded — Rudolph Wurlitzer, J. David Osborne, and Gretel Ehrlich Send Dispatches From the West

These catfish mean business.

I was born in upstate New York. Eleven months later, my parents moved to the middle of New Jersey, where I came of age. I went to college in Manhattan, moved back to New Jersey for a couple of months, and then moved to Brooklyn. I’m not proud to say this, but the longest stretch of time I’ve spent outside of the New York metropolitan area has been two weeks in the late summer of 2006. Sometimes, when I’m at a low point, it leaves me feeling provincial. I like it here a whole hell of a lot; it feels like home. It feels comfortable.

Much like how, as an only child, I can never quite grasp the intricacies of the relationships that friends have with their siblings, I find myself oddly mesmerized by accounts of life  in regions where you could look for dozens (or hundreds) of miles and not see anything along the way. I’m drawn to narratives like this. I flat-out loved Tete-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland; I devoured Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. I’m hoping to get to Leigh Newman’s Still Points North in the next few weeks. And fiction that evokes these spaces  (Though I realize that this does run the risk of heading into Eli Cash territory.)

There’s a passage in Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces wherein she speaks of the space around her. Through a series of linked essays, it tells the story of several years in her life, beginning with the circumstances of her arrival in Wyoming and segueing into the ways in which she became part of a community there. Parts of this are unbelievably sad; others summoned spaced that I’d never seen to a point where I could swear I could sketch them from memory. At times dense with imagery, at others rich with cultural and personal details, this is a powerful read.

Rudolph Wurlitzer knows the dramatic value of open spaces. I’d previously read his 2008 novel The Drop Edge of Yonder; I’ve also seen Two-Lane Blacktop, for which he wrote the screenplay. On a visit to Hudson, I stopped at Spotty Dog Books & Ale and picked up a few of his novels, and I decided to start at the beginning, with Two Dollar Radio’s edition of his 1969 debut Nog. The narrative begins with the narrator musing on the possessions left to him by a drifter named Nog, a man of Norwegian descent with a beam of light emanating from his chest. The novel begins somewhere on the west coast, its narrator musing on a past that’s unknown to him. Soon enough, archetypal narratives begin to arise: violent lovers on the run, noir-infused double crosses, and sudden outbreaks of passion. And yet it’s also a jarring read: characters swap identities; memories fail; the action occasionally jumps in unexpected ways. If the outline of the novel seems familiar, the actions filling it are anything but, and attempts to line them up will only yield more questions — and more mysteries.

A few weeks ago, I heard J. David Osborne read from his novel Low Down Death Right Easy — specifically, a passage in which a couple uses Google Maps to vacation, in lieu of having the money on hand to do traveling of their own. It was tenderly written and finely observed — a moving section of prose that made me care for and understand the characters described, their frustrations, and the ways in which they found some kind of bliss.

Low Down Death Right Easy is set in Oklahoma, and it takes its time revealing what exactly is taking place. In the broadest sense, it’s a book about family: the uneasy relationship between Arlo Clancy and his brother Sepp; and the methodical way a man on the wrong side of the law named Danny Ames searches for his vanished brother. Slowly, these two plotlines converge. This is the sort of novel where, from the outset, you suspect that the ending won’t be happy; the real question is what form the unpleasantness will take. And it’s probably not coincidental that Arlo, the closest thing this book has to a protagonist, is constantly reading Thomas Hardy — a different way of fate reaching into the lives of those who strive for something better, but one no less effective. If you’re enamored with the stark, brutal narratives that writers like Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock are creating, Osborne’s steadily-paced novel is well worth your time.

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