A Sudden Country
Random House: 374 pp., $24.95
IN Karen Fisher’s mesmerizing novel, a wagon train snakes its way westward toward the Oregon Territory in 1847: It’s a traveling microcosm of a younger, wilder America, the great-great-grandparents of the modern West venturing into the unknown. (The tale is rooted in Fisher’s own family lore.) But Fisher doesn’t treat this well-trod historical episode as a textbook saga of nation-building and land-grabbing so much as an arduous internal journey, in which two pioneers on the Oregon Trail -- an American woman and a Canadian Hudson’s Bay Co. trader -- venture into the trackless wastes of the soul, a challenging landscape of lust, adultery, loss and regret.
Expansionism has seldom seemed so fraught, or so human. Lucy Mitchell is still mourning the death of her first husband. Along with her brood of children, various livestock and wagons, she brings a mounting resentment toward her dutiful second husband, Israel, an expert marksman and figure of respect among the trail-bound community. Lucy is as raw and open to exploration as the Oregon Territory itself when James MacLaren, the wandering trader, hooks up with the wagon train. MacLaren’s troubles run deeper than Lucy’s: He’s lost his children to smallpox and his young Nez Perce wife has vanished.
Fisher weaves Lucy and MacLaren’s paths together amid the hypnotic daily life of the Oregon Trail: milking goats, picking berries, reading Wordsworth, watching Indians fish, dreaming of the comforts -- cake with butter icing, the rich farms of Pennsylvania -- left behind. There’s the occasional buffalo kill, Indian massacre and spread of measles. “You see your place on earth,” Lucy says of the trail’s intoxicating power. “Your own inconsequence.” The effect is liberating, but as Lucy and MacLaren veer into a sweaty liaison, it becomes clear that the party’s cargo includes all the oppressive strictures of life back East.
At times, this sprawling and scrupulously researched novel resembles D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” set against a rough-hewn panorama worthy of frontier photographer Carleton Watkins. (There’s an overheated quality to Lucy and MacLaren’s pioneer pas de deux.) Fisher’s episodic, gauzy storytelling can often demand feats of readerly stamina, much like Lucy coping with a long, disorienting day on the trail in her ill-suited shoes. But, like the Oregon Trail itself, “A Sudden Country” has the power to deliver hearty souls to strange new territories.
Free Press: 216 pp., $14.95 paper
IN “Africa,” one of the 13 stories in this breezy collection from Holiday Reinhorn, a guy finds himself at the wheel of his ex-girlfriend’s refrigeration truck, hauling six containers of prized Lipizzan stallion sperm from Yakima, Wash., to New Mexico. It’s the kind of oddball enterprise -- brimming with emotional blowback and a certain gross-out factor -- that pops up again and again throughout “Big Cats.”
In “Charlotte,” a girl convalescing with a broken pelvis becomes obsessed with spying on her next-door neighbor, the buxom Mrs. Charlotte Linkabaugh, as the woman seduces a tow-truck driver and secretly entertains her on-the-lam husband.
The title story finds two 14-year-old best friends taking summer jobs at the zoo, where they consider “making it with a forklifter,” and find that they’re just as prone to violent outbursts as the lionesses in their fake African environment.
“Last Seen” is the story -- told in jump-cutting, documentary form -- of a high school volleyball star who becomes the target of a prank involving a soiled pair of boys’ underwear.
And in “By the Time You Get This,” the best story here, a well-off L.A. couple deal with their daughter’s ostentatious suicide and the uninvited ministrations -- house blessings, visits to a creepy psychic -- of their bossy Salvadoran housekeeper.
“Big Cats,” which is set up and down the West Coast, is an entirely inhalable collection. Even if Reinhorn’s material occasionally feels thin and her execution a bit hasty, she has packed these stories full of momentum, humor, daring and, like the guy from “Africa,” characters not afraid of bodily fluids or of charting their own bizarre course in the world.