Monday, May 19, 2014

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballantine

I want to talk to you today about a wild and wonderful little book by a writer whom I had never read, but who is already much loved by a group of writers and readers of his essays, impressed by his scorching honesty and his loving humor. The book is written in the style of a memoir, and is billed as memoir, but the over-story (the impetus for the book) is the disappearance of a small college math instructor, lending the book the flavor of a mystery. The title of the book like the chapter titles is indicative of the free-flowing narrative within, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. The story takes place on those howling plains, specifically in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska. Like many of his characters, Poe has drifted to this small town for no particular reason; he has drifted from town to town, job to job, all of his life. One of his themes seems to be, “Why do drifters drift?” and “What makes them catch and take hold if and when they do?”

 On one of Poe’s drifts he finds himself in Mexico, where he falls for Cristina, who for two years has  slowly been recovering from being run over by a drunk driver. He describes Cristina as  “…a quiet, serious young dentist who lived with her parents.” Despite their age disparity and cultural differences, they are simpatico; they marry and have a son, Thomas, who  they soon discover displays many of the symptoms of autism, prompting much discussion in the book about this name given to a complex overlapping set of behaviors. Poe’s rambles with Thomas provide some of the most touching moments in this book.

I actually see the book not so much as a personal memoir but as a freewheeling discussion of so many topics:  the meaning of “history,” the function of literature (or art in general), the meaning of autism, what it means to be faithful to a partner. 

Once Poe and Cristina settle in Nebraska, and he scratches out a living for them by cooking in restaurants (one of his most reliable odd jobs), Cristina begins to question him about why he wastes his time writing when he could be working more and bringing in more money. It’s a struggle for her to understand what writing means for him, and a struggle for him to understand why only money-making activities count. “Literature was a waste of time, and though I made a few thousand a year at it, she thought I should get a full time job with the Department of Transportation.”

To Ballantine’s credit, he owns up that he knew what he was signing up for when he partnered with Cristina; he understands her values, her history, and has plenty of his own doubts about why he feels compelled to write. He also understands her resentment about not being able to practice dentistry in this country, and at not being able to adequately express herself in this cumbersome second language.

Cheryl Strayed, a great admirer of Ballantine’s essays, consented to write an introduction the book. She says, “You know who Ballantine is in every sentence he writes because in his mastery he makes himself known. He’s bold and perceptive and utterly transparent. He writes like every word is his last. Like the whole place is about to burn up. He’s like a bird that’s not quite but almost extinct: when you see him, you can’t help but look.”

I think this is a wonderful description of the helter-skelter style of the many segments (chapters?) of the book, some only a page or two. His understanding of small town life, of loneliness and transience, of marital struggles all come out in the journal/diary quality of the book. 

The style and course of the book is announced in its first words:
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
How do we remake ourselves, and how was the west made? Two questions chasing each other throughout this book. In my intentionally unstructured approach to reading, there nevertheless  arise patterns, perhaps due to a kind of synchronicity. In the past few weeks, I have read a half dozen or so books all having to do with the exploitation of the west and with debunking romantic myths about how the west was settled. First I stumbled onto Annie Proulx’s recent set of stories, Bad Dirt, all set in Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. I had loved her novel The Shipping News, but had been unable to get into later novels. This time, I read all three of her collections of short stories under the title Wyoming Stories, and also her novel dealing with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, That Old Ace in the Hole. My partner’s response to my raves about Proulx and my rethinking of western myths was to give me the Ballantine memoir, yet another story about how the west was lost, and I topped all of this off with Wallace Stegner’s autobiographical novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which  Stegner’s dad, another drifter in search of his fortune, led his family through a succession of towns and homes and wild, often illegal ventures—always looking for the big kill, the final deal.

What I have carried away from all of this is a new look at rural life and of how conventional morality so often teams up with economic exploitation to subjugate people and strip the land. The horror stories Proulx tells about the Texas and Oklahoma pan handles [simply by researching and understanding and reciting to us the history of how the rush for oil, and now the rush for water, along with  the pollution of corporate farming (gargantuan hog-farms), pesticide poisoned fields and waterways, has altered the land]. And while creating real, believable characters, she tells compelling stories  about so-called ‘simple’ people, she shows the settling of the west for what it was, debunking the noble cowboy and heroic, civic-minded rail-line constructions versions, and replacing them with a much more rapacious and money-hungry account. 

It’s been a wonderful romp through western literature, though it has certainly not inclined me towards life in a small western town, living with the twin threats of self-righteous, conventional morality (really conventional immorality) and economic domination/obliteration.

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