This Week's Reads

Tom Groneberg, Adam Johnson, John Rember, and Ian Spiegelman.

THE SECRET LIFE OF COWBOYS

By Tom Groneberg (Scribner, $24) On his first day on a cattle ranch in Montana, writer Tom Groneberg witnessed his first birth. He also saw a lot of cows and calves die during birth. To top it all off, he saw a calf being wrapped in the skin of a dead newbornthe ranchers hoped to trick a cow into thinking the orphan calf she was suckling was her stillborn offspring. That's a pretty heavy first day on the job. But after responding to an Utne Reader ad in the '80s for a job leading horseback rides on a Colorado dude ranch, Groneberg became addicted to the land and life of the ranching West. The result is this earnest, idealistic memoir of an MFA-manqu魴urned-cowboy. After schlepping tourists from Topeka for a few years, Groneberg's tale eventually becomes something much more epic: He hires on at a working ranch, then convinces his retired parents to loan him the money to buy his very own 10,000-acre spread in desolate eastern Montana. "Life is the line between what is true and what is imagined," he writes. Especially if Daddy's cutting the checks. Still, you have to admire the balls of the whole project, following through on a reckless dream. But despite a vision statement for his ranch (plus a prescription for Paxil), it's obvious where Groneberg's cowboy project is headed. Preparing for the change of seasons, he writes, "Hopefully, the winter won't be too bad, and we can struggle through with the hay I did bale." Winters get 30 below zero in Miles City, Mont. There are periodic fresh glimpses of life on today's high plains: portraits of laconic Marlboro Men who read Chomsky; ranch hands who say things like, "I'll undummy Mr. Rabbit"; and a harrowing account of a retired rancher who lives in a decaying home among coffee cans filled with piss. And Groneberg's tale of chickening out during bronc-riding school is self-deprecating and funny. Cowboys is nothing if not honest. Unfortunately, most of the author's candor is either morose or syrupy, which makes for occasionally maddening reading full of scratched souls, beating hearts, and vague pronouncements of love for his girlfriend (and future wife). "You have to be here to believe any of it," Groneberg says of life on the ranch. Since most of us don't have a blank check, we'll have to take his word for it. ANDREW ENGELSON Tom Groneberg will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5:30 p.m. Fri., Aug. 22. PARASITES LIKE US

By Adam Johnson (Viking, $24.95) Stanford creative writing prof Adam Johnson set a record by selling stories to Best New American Voices four years in a row. Last year, his first short-fiction collection, Emporium, won raves for subversive fantasy reminiscent of Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle. Johnson's debut novel is a mess, but a significant mess, teeming with clever conceits, superb turns of phrase, observations as precise as Updike's, and tonal echoes of Vonnegut, Boyle, and George Saunders. The hero is Hank, a South Dakota anthropologist who argues that the Clovis people, the Paleo-Indians who hiked over from Siberia 12,000 years ago, undid their culture by eradicating 35 species with the deadliest weapon on earth: the Clovis spear point. In the course of Parasites, modern technology undoes humanity, ultimately causing Hank and a few friends to flee back across the icy wastes. But the plot is an afterthought. This is no stern, nerdy eco-sermon. The first half is surprisingly like Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, a hip, funny send-up of academic losers. Hank, a bourbon-fueled seducer in a '72 Corvette, inspires prizewinning grad student Eggers to live for a year on the campus quad strictly by Pleistocene technology: mastodon-tusk lodge, goatskin breeches, parka of brain-tanned hide sewn with a heron's-beak needle. (When he's busted for using his razor-sharp, obsidian-tipped rodent stick to pluck Spicy Taco- flavor Doritos from the vending machine, he protests, "I'm gathering!") Then, as the town's cheesy Indian casino breaks ground for a new wing, Eggers discovers a priceless Clovis point and an entire skeleton older than Kennewick Man. He talks Hank into letting him excavate it using Pleistocene technology. So far, so great. Alas, when Hank falls for a skimpily conceived Russian agricultural historian, his team gets busted for grave robbing, he gets sent to a prison run by a crazy ex-cop who secretly breeds Pomeranians for dogsled teams, and the story goes off the rails. Pretty soon we're in a drab rehash of Stephen King's The Stand, written with superior wit and command of English but less imagination, no conviction, and none of the sheer sweeping force of King's narrative. Johnson isn't imagining a world, just brilliantly riffing from scene to scene, incompetently mixing pathos and yuks. But the author is wise, weird, and worth watching. He should write a real novel sometime soon. TIM APPELO Adam Johnson will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Mon., Aug. 25. TRAPLINES: COMING HOME TO SAWTOOTH VALLEY

By John Rember (Pantheon, $22) John Rember isn't a very notable person; he's just an Idaho country boy turned college professor at Caldwell's rural Albertson College. But what he catalogs in this memoirthe downward spiral of the West at the hands of the federal governmentis very noteworthy, indeed. Rember grew up in Idaho's Sawtooth Valley in the days before the Sun Valley ski resort became a major tourist destination. The region's real growthand declinecame with the construction of dams on the Snake River and its tributaries. As Rember writes, the dams may have created jobs and electrified rural homes, but they also spelled the end of Idaho's native salmon runs. Rember doesn't mince words when describing the horror that has befallen Idaho's once wild rivers at the hands of the feds. While he recognizes that the establishment of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in 1974 brought a degree of protection to the region, he also says it was too little, too late. Along with the sad tale of the valley, Rember narrates his own life story in wonderful language that carries you from page to page. Scattered throughout this narrative are anecdotal reflections upon his youthhow a fence he once built has since decayed; how he cut his face while skiing as a young child; an encounter with a catatonic Hemingway shortly before the writer's suicide. I recently traveled through the Snake River Basin, where I saw the same blight Rember decries of dam after dam holding back the Snake River. I can't help but wonder what Idaho looked like when Rember was a child. Thanks to his vivid descriptions, I have some idea. But, as Rember makes painfully clear, we'll never have the chance to recover what we've lost to federal mismanagement; we'll never regain the vista of an unspoiled Sawtooth Range. For anyone with an appreciation for the Western wilds, Traplines offers a rueful environmental message beyond its fine writing. But even for those urbanites who don't give two shits about the outdoors, Rember's remembrance of things past still makes for humorous, touching, and ultimately philosophical reading. NOAM REUVENI John Rember will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5 p.m. Tues., Aug. 26. EVERYONE'S BURNING

By Ian Spiegelman (Villard, $18.95) Ian Spiegelman's fever dream of desperate, dead-end youth imagines itself a sort of Last Exit to Bayside, perhaps, or a Basketball Diaries without the redemption of the court. And for the most part, it succeedsif a tale of such determined hopelessness and degradation can be judged by that word's usual definition. Leon Koch is a 23-year-old Queens burnout who thrives on the obliteration that alcohol, cocaine, and rough, ritualistic sex provide. Everything else leaves him numb, and other peopleex-girlfriends, street rivals, the ordinary citizens he calls "normals," even his two best friends (recently released from prison)seem unable to change his self-destructive path. When a particularly vehement lover drags Leon to a student rally, he laughs at their "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm" placards and wants no part of Manhattan's "yuppies and foreigners, dead weight, rich homos calling us bridge and tunnel." Yet the cops' clubs and pepper spray oddly exhilarate him. His newfound sense of camaraderie comes not from shared politics, but from comparing injuries: "We were all being so tender with ourselves, with each other," says Leon, "so interested in all of our new flesh and bone, our muscle and blood. They'd been right all along, every one of themwe suddenly meant so much." Between the bare-knuckled beatdowns, the car accidents and suicides, and the graphically brutal sexual role-playing, this debut novel seems a masochist's paradise, a constant burning that threatens to turn the story to ash. Somehow, though, its humanity still sparks, and Spiegelman's sardonic humor helps relieve the bleakness. (Yet he supplies precious little narrative shape to Burning beyond the familiar bottoming-out narrative.) Surprisingly, the man best known as a salacious New York Post take-down artist steers clear of gratuity here. Leon's outer-borough world may be ugly, but it rings true, and that makes his postcards from the edge of that world worth reading. LEAH GREENBLATT info@seattleweekly.com

 
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