No escape

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Bay Area writer Paul Wilner is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

“A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,” Joseph Conrad wrote. Mary Clearman Blew’s stunning first novel gives us an example -- if any is required -- of why fiction is still necessary and what it uniquely offers.

It’s an understated achievement that recalls the early works of Larry McMurtry, along with the tough, febrile voice of S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and the emotional intelligence of William Maxwell. Willa Cather’s work also comes to mind; it’s no accident that “Jackalope Dreams” is part of the “Flyover Fiction” series edited by novelist Ron Hansen for the University of Nebraska Press.

It’s told from the point of view of Corey Henry, fired from her job at a Montana middle school for slapping Ariel Doggett, the 13-year-old daughter of some new Westerners who have moved out to the country from Santa Monica, ostensibly to find a better life but actually to escape their sketchy past.


“How Rita loves Hailey!” Blew writes of Ariel’s parents. “And now she lives with him in the newness of an authentic past, a constantly renewed newness that belies the passing of days and years.” But, as we painfully learn, the repressed always returns. There is no escape from a past -- or present -- that one has not come to grips with.

Corey’s dismissal, and the school’s subsequent closing, is the backdrop against which Blew, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford who teaches writing at the University of Idaho, depicts a disastrous series of events. These include the suicide of Corey’s father, Loren, in apparent despair over her situation. (Cowboy-style, he leaves no note.)

Although Corey has lost her job through the meddling of Ariel’s father, a failed day trader and a methamphetamine dealer, the girl turns up at her door. She’s taken in by the teacher -- who is also a frustrated painter -- partly out of loneliness (Corey misses her father), partly out of pity and partly to help the girl deal with a Faulknerian family back story, whose details are best left to readers.

Loren’s death, and Corey’s burgeoning romance with John Perrine, a bluff, good-hearted lawyer who comes to town to escape his preppy past, reconnect Corey with her sexuality and her artistic ambition. She also helps Ariel untangle her family trauma, come to terms with her anger -- which is more than well-deserved -- and make a new start.

But reciting plot points doesn’t begin to do justice to this remarkable work. Sentences seethe with urgent, unhurried energy, and the description of the land the author so clearly loves is in service of the story, not showing off. You come to care deeply about these people, caught between an uncapturable past and an uncertain future. “Jackalope Dreams” is a small masterpiece; it deserves the attention it makes a point of not seeking.