Five Best Books About Big Sky Country

From  a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Five Best Books About Big Sky Country”:

Selected by John Phillips. author of “Four Miles West of Nowhere: A City Boy’s First Year in the Montana Wilderness.”

The Ploughman
By Kim Zupan (2014)

1. In this unforgettable novel, set in Montana’s Missouri River Breaks, John X. Gload—an aging lifelong con man and killer now, at last, awaiting justice—elicits conversation from Valentine Millimaki, his young prison guard, over many grim late-night shifts. Deputy Sheriff Millimaki, a gentle and luckless missing-persons expert, is in trouble: his wife is cheating on him, and his senior officers are plotting to fire him. Prisoner and deputy, both heart-soiled souls, soon develop a weird rapport—a camaraderie derived from the personal wounds and secrets they share. Gload, whose still-strong hands could “squeeze juice out of a stove log,” also knows how to wring out a soul—to turn another’s weakness to his own advantage. The book, Mr. Zupan’s first and only, is currently being adapted by Hollywood, with Robert Duvall cast as the 70-something Gload. One wonders if the film will stay true to its portrayal of a relentlessly melancholic humanity or to the gruesomeness with which the author dispatches it. Mr. Zupan is by trade a carpenter, and his prose reads as if it’s been buffed in a one-sentence-a-day regimen of the starkest Deep West artistry.

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West
By Bryce Andrew (2014)

2. Bryce Andrews, a Seattle native sympathetically fascinated by the West’s wild predators, spent a year after college toiling on the 25,000-acre Sun Ranch in the still-unspoiled southwest corner of Montana. In this memoir we learn that his principal job there was to protect the ranch’s cattle from the menace of wolves. Mr. Andrews writes as a non-sermonizing ecologist, meticulously but colorfully adding and subtracting the value of a Whopper from the value of a wolf. Eventually he must, regrettably, kill a pack member, which causes him to brood over the consequences of humans and beasts occupying the same space on the planet. “Man marks landscape,” he writes. “But a place also marks a man.” Montana marked Mr. Andrews: While working cattle under the postcard sky, he writes, “it occurred to me that I had achieved a rare thing: I was living at the center of my heart’s geography. And I knew it.” Mr. Andrews’s prose is elementary, austere. Its austerity is his solution to the complicated environmental entanglement with which he collides. “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think,” said ecologist Frank Egler, “they are more complex than we can think.” Rarely has mending barbed wire on a ranch served, as in this case, as salve for one man’s emotional pain.

A River Runs Through It
By Norman Maclean (1976)

3. The first line of the novella “A River Runs Through It” is a sentence all Montanans can quote: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” The story is a first-person account of an adolescent boy’s love for his troubled, unknowable older brother, a man’s man who, among much else, is a sort of ideal of the Montana sportsman of a century ago. The book was an instant success and has become the unofficial state book of Montana. In the early 1990s, Hollywood and Brad Pitt arrived to make the inevitable movie, which did for Montana what “All the President’s Men” did for investigative journalism. Fishermen and inner-tubers flocked to the Blackfoot River, hurling beer cans and litter into its crystalline waters. True, it was never Montana’s most charming waterway to begin with.

Fourth of July Creek
By Smith Henderson (2014)

4. In Smith Henderson’s mesmeric tale of suffering, social worker Pete Snow is assigned to ensure the welfare of a boy living a life of utter deprivation under the insane tutelage of his survivalist father, Jeremiah Pearl. Father and son subsist off the land in Montana’s wild Yaak region, though the social worker regularly trudges up a mountain to deliver canned food and clothing. During each visit, the elder Pearl launches into a deranged rant. Snow’s job is made tougher by his own life’s unraveling: his father has died; his girlfriend is a secret prostitute. The sad proceedings are rendered credibly, thanks largely to the novelist’s capacity to induce feelings of compassion for—even identification with—wrathful and ignorant characters whose lives seem to be destined to end in one deadly, ongoing crash. As Mr. Henderson writes: “[Pearl] is burned through, cauterized, a scar, and for all that, familiar as whatever it is Pete sees in any mirror. Pearl is Snow is himself is everyone.”

Nobody’s Angel
By Thomas McGuane (1982)

5. Any archive of Big Sky narratives must include a work by its most famous living scribe. Now 82 years old, Tom McGuane continues to cast a seductive literary net. Many McGuane aficionados would agree that his most appealing novel is “Nobody’s Angel,” though it follows a formula by now thoroughly familiar: a son, recently returned from the Army, inherits the family ranch as well as a mental state filled with regrets, misplaced love, cynicism, and a general sense of loss. In this tale, Patrick Fitzpatrick cares for his senile grandfather and a barn full of horses, consumes quarts of whiskey, and busies himself bedding another man’s wife. In short, his life goes ugly early but in unpredictable, often comically nihilistic ways. “Remember,” Mr. McGuane has said, “when you back your horse into the box, there are about five hundred million people who don’t care whether you catch the steer or not. I always think of that when I’m writing.”

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