The power of place

Ellen Slezak is the author of a story collection, "Last Year's Jesus," and a novel, "All These Girls."

WRITERS write about the same 10 things over and over. Love, hate, loyalty, betrayal, innocence, guilt, birth, death, hope, despair. In fiction, as in life, men will resent their fathers, women will leave their husbands, children will suffer, factories will close, crops will fail, fires will sweep through canyons and cars will crash on icy roads. There's nothing new to write about. In the wrong hands, stories can be too familiar. In the right hands, stories show us how we live.

John Keeble's hands are the right ones. His "Nocturnal America," a collection of loosely related stories, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. The work here is planted in the American Northwest, and it uses as its raw material the wind, rain, fire, snow, horses, cattle, mosquitoes, mud, porcupines and chickens that are plentiful in that place. Keeble presents the brutal landscape with ambivalence, so that a reader is sometimes moved to ask: Who could live here? Only to answer a few pages later: Who wouldn't want to try?

These nine short stories are not easy. A character in one may appear again three stories later, with only a subtle reminder of who he or she is. Young children often go unnamed, as if the writer is warning us not to get too close to anybody so vulnerable. This works as part of the overriding metaphor of the collection: The landscape is demanding, so pay attention.

The opening story, "The Chasm," introduces Jim Blood and his wife, Diane. Jim dreams big. He believes in the honor of caring for the land and for his family. The Bloods and their three young sons are starting a ranch, building a home, living through a winter without any source of heat except a potbelly stove. Their neighbors Lem and Judy have a dairy farm, and the two families help each other clear fields of rocks and winch tractors from mudholes. Good intentions are not rewarded here, and things often end badly. As Jim notes, "There was hazard to a good idea and to family."

Jim comes by his wariness naturally. In "Chickens," it's 1949 and he's a 7-year-old drawn to Hugo Goettinger, a newcomer in town who starts a successful business. Hugo becomes the object of a "Crucible"-like judgment by his fellow townsfolk, spurred in part by a rumor about his complicity in war crimes. Is moral judgment that's rooted in fear, envy and prejudice equal to the crime it condemns? When Jim's father, a minister, says the townspeople will "make use of the law," his mother replies: "Then there's no law but what's to be as twisted as he is." Hearing this -- and having seen things his parents don't know about -- Jim begins to understand that there is no direct route to what is just and good. Life is fraught with complications that will pain women and men.

In "Freeing the Apes," such complications run full throttle. Here, Jim and Diane have established their ranch. Their three boys are grown, and one, the college-aged Pascal (he's finally earned a name), is home visiting. Yet even in this apparently settled state, the couple is in a property dispute with a neighbor. A burial ground and bodies have been found on their land. The story is told from the perspective of another neighbor, Pete, who brings along demons of his own. That the potent plot comes together without a showy explosion is proof of Keeble's restraint.

None of this is surprising, because in issues of craft, Keeble is first-rate. Even his tics enhance his storytelling. He often interrupts a line of dialogue with a few paragraphs of tangent so perfectly suited to the way a mind works that the reader has no trouble following the conversation when it picks up again. Another of his idiosyncratic strengths is that he makes machinery -- tractors, winches, backhoes -- personal. You may not think you care about how to remove a 1,000-pound blown transmission from an International Loadstar tractor-trailer, but after reading "The Transmission," in which three men struggle to do it without killing themselves, you will.

A few of the stories in "Nocturnal America" are less equal than others. The title piece tries to be about too much, and "The Fishers" is also lesser for its breadth. Writers move us most when they go deep, not wide. "I Could Love You (If I Wanted)" stumbles in a different direction. In it, a woman named Lola has lost her job, her mother is dying, her children are young, her lover is married. The familiar is just not strange enough. Still, when Lola unloads her U-Haul trailer by herself, jockeying furniture up the walkway, we feel a pang of sadness and admiration. Nobody should have to move furniture alone, and like so much in "Nocturnal America," it's really something to see.

Bill Meissner's second collection, "The Road to Cosmos," is also grounded in the particularities of a location -- in this instance, the town of Cosmos, Minn. The community has streets called Milky Way Drive and Gemini Avenue, but early on, we learn that it was really named after "some drunken Frenchman named Jacques Cosmeaux, who founded the settlement during the fur-trading years and was eventually killed by the Indians after he raped the chief's daughter."

Our guide through these linked short stories is a character named Skip Corrigan. He's a native son who left and then returned. In the lean and tensile opening effort -- one of a series that appears under the heading "Skip Remembers" -- we learn that in Cosmos, lawns are cut with hand mowers, cops know the names of the speeders they stop and sons do as their fathers tell them. Until, that is, the day they don't. (Although a contentious relationship with one's father is hardly exclusive to men, that aspect of these two collections feels like meaningful coincidence.) To get at this sense of generational conflict, Meissner divides his book into three sections. The first portrays Skip and his friends as they move from adolescents playing dangerous games in the school bathroom to working with explosives at the gunpowder factory, which has reopened because of the war in Vietnam.

Part 2 introduces the town oddballs, including Duane, who builds a Stonehenge out of salvaged cars; Delores, who believes that Elvis is alive; and Stan, who wants to film the inside of a tornado. It's not easy to write believable small-town eccentrics, to steer clear of framing them as one-note. Meissner, for the most part, avoids this trap. "The Road to Cosmos" recalls Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," even without the author's nod to it in an epigraph, but the people of Cosmos are not as darkly troubled as their predecessors. Meissner shades his work with a lighter palette.

Part 3 is both the shortest and the strongest section of the collection. It's all Skip Corrigan. It's all good. Skip carries the weight of his return to Cosmos well. Older now and father to a young son, Skip sees his own father in a different light, and the stories he tells complete the portrait begun earlier. The language in this section is heightened. The stories are thick with atmosphere. Reading them, it's clear that Meissner, who has also published four books of poetry, is doing what poets do so well -- using fewer words, better words, to tell a whole and vivid tale.

Fathers and sons, gunpowder factories and ranches, cars and cows, dearth and plenty. There's nothing new to write about. These two collections prove there needn't be. *

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