She is so bold. We know this after reading her first book of short stories, “Cowboys Are My Weakness.” With that book Pam Houston created her own genre, party of one. Western Wilderness Females. Sure, there are other women in the West writing fiction, but Houston’s narrators actually get outside; they need love in a genderless way, and she writes with the kind of authority and humor that can save a drowning reader. “Cowboys” brought her a faithful following of grateful women and men who want to meet someone like her.
Houston’s stories are so full of usable wisdom that she makes it seem like that’s the least we should expect from the books we buy. In “Waltzing The Cat,” a story collection with a single narrator, an adventure photographer named Lucy O’Rourke, you can expect to learn ways to be larger than your fear; to be faithful not to another person but to yourself; to be strong, in the sense of open enough to let the universe guide you in the directions you are meant to move--these are the marathons her characters train for.
Houston’s wisdom is constantly tested and reconfigured, so that it becomes more and more comprehensive. She does not deliver itfrom a high peak; she chases after it. She picks up rocks to find the intelligence under them, trying as it does to wriggle away from her: In these stories there is the Amazonian guide who asks, “Is this what they tell you in America: that Paradise is a place without pain?”; the jewelry salesman who asks, “You got some synchronicity happening in your life right now?” “So much so,” Houston’s narrator replies, “that it’s threatening to [screw] with my normal level of cynicism.” The policeman who stops Lucy for any one of five possible violations listens to her father berating her from the passenger seat and decides to give her nothing more than a warning: “I hate to say this, Ms. O’Rourke,” he says, “but there’s nothing I could do to you that’s going to feel like punishment.” These are just a few of her unlikely oracles.
“Cowboys” and “Waltzing” are similar in superficial ways and vastly different beneath the surface. Narrators in almost all of Houston’s stories resemble each other and their creator. The situations they find themselves in are also similar. I have heard Houston speak about writing and have watched her lead workshops, a thing she loves to do almost as much as white-water rafting. “I always write 11 days ahead of my life,” she once replied to the often asked question of whether her stories are autobiographical.
In “Cowboys,” the narrator fell prey to various internal and external predators. But in “Waltzing,” Lucy O’Rourke is described repeatedly in a different moment: the moment of waking up, of not making the same mistakes over and over, of not continually looking to heal relationships from childhood using relationships in adulthood, of believing in herself instead of listening to the family members and angry lovers who say she’s worthless. If you had fun laughing at the woman in “Cowboys” who keeps entering the ring, falling in love again and again with the same man in different bodies, you are really going to enjoy the company of the woman who actually wins a few rounds.
Houston is authoritative and strong, even more in these stories than in “Cowboys,” because she is deep in the fray, always in danger of drowning. In “Cataract,” Lucy finds herself rafting a piece of river she cannot handle: “ ‘I don’t want to run it,’ I said, for the very first time in my boating career. ‘It’s too big for me.’ ” Of course, she runs it anyway, but the narrators in “Cowboys” wouldn’t have made that concession to their own vulnerability.
The other tool in Houston’s arsenal (besides the continual influx of new material from her own life) is metaphor. It is not a command over metaphor that we are talking about. Houston rides hers. It is as though she goes through her life watching for metaphors that will be home base in her stories, like the observation Lucy makes in “The Whole Weight of Me” that in the 20th century, it has become impossible to “tell the difference between a Saturn and a Lexus or a Camaro.” Instantly we know she’s talking not only about automobiles, but about lovers as well. She does not want to keep making the same mistake in choosing some version of her father over and over again. The stories seem to grow up around these metaphors. In “Cataract,” the idea is of being crushed: “There was a man named Josh who didn’t want nearly enough from me, and a woman called Thea who wanted way too much, and I was sandwiched between them, one of those weaker rock layers like limestone that disappears under pressure or turns into something shapeless like oil.” When, in the same story, Lucy O’Rourke comes to the place where the river takes control: “It is white, and it is alive and it is moving toward me from both sides, coming at me like two jagged white walls with only me in between them.”
Houston tightly controls this metaphor. She has obviously thought about it a great deal and has used it to ground “Cataract.” There are some metaphors in these stories, however, that Houston does not rein in so tightly, like the rising scream that makes an appearance in several stories. “I dreamed,” she writes in “Cataract,” “of the place where the scream lived inside me.” In “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,” Lucy, at wit’s end with a jealous boyfriend, gets in the back of his Pathfinder and “let[s] go with one earsplitting head-pounding scream after another” to get him to get back in the car.
Houston has worked for many years as a river guide, a profession in which one must maintain a high level of control over the passengers and the path. In her writing, she holds on just as tightly, for control and for dear life, both. In this collection, there is only one story that she really allows to ramble, one story in which a reader does not feel guided by her, and I look forward to more like it in the future. “The Moon Is a Woman’s First Husband,” is a story about wanting and being wanted and not wanting and not being wanted. It is the only story that doesn’t tell me what I should do if I find myself in one of these roles. While waiting for an answer, as Lucy does, one watches the stars and tries to remain vulnerable.