ON MY CORKBOARD, I have this passage from Mark Spragg’s essay collection, Where Rivers Change Direction:
I was a boy, and I believed deeply in the sightedness of horses. I believed that there was nothing that they did not witness. I believed that to have a horse between my legs, to extend my pulse and blood and energy to theirs, enhanced my vision. Made of me a seer. I believed them to be the dappled, sorrel, roan, bay, black pupils in the eyes of God.
Consider for a moment what it took to generate that particular passage. Among other things, an isolated, anachronistic childhood on the North Fork of the Shoshone River, living and working on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming. It took a marrow-deep familiarity with horses. Worldliness enough on the part of the adult to recognize the exotic within his own childhood. Maybe a certain kind of mysticism — that mention of being a seer. A poet’s appreciation of rhythm (dappled, sorrel, roan). But more, and perhaps most of all, it took a novelist’s sense of character, of language married to narrative liberty. Whether the child as described was literally capable of thinking of horses as the eyes of God, or whether it’s the adult imposing his own sensibilities on the child, either way, I’m hooked.
This collection of essays — and taken together I’ve always thought of them in the singular, as a memoir — is one of the best of its kind published in the West. It’s shot through with similar passages. Turn to almost any page and find a few lines just as fine.
“You happy?” my father wants to know.
“I guess I’m as happy as I need to be.” He’s humming a series of single notes that he means to be a tune. “Does it matter?”
He shrugs. “It’s just something that comes to mind when your radio’s broken.”
What makes a writer? The novelist and critic William Gass, in a Paris Review interview, said, “I write because I hate.” Mark Spragg, I would venture a guess, writes because he loves. I’m not sure you could otherwise so skillfully witch the water out of so many dry eyes, be able to so adeptly paint what Faulkner called the “human heart in conflict with itself,” unless you were writing from a well of deep generosity. To do what Spragg does, you have to be gracious to your wick. It has to come out of love. Has to.
After Rivers, and over the course of three published novels, Spragg has thus far traced the fortunes of a handful of memorable characters, residents of the fictional Ishawooa, Wyoming. For some of us, these folks are as familiar as neighbors. They showed up in the Redford movie, An Unfinished Life. Old Einar. His granddaughter, Griff. McEban. Living and breathing souls churned out through the gears of Spragg’s own experiences. Ego bruised and guilty, anxious and grateful and intellectually preoccupied, coming to each other for help and revenge and redemption, they feel real to us because they are real to each other. There are no complete villains in Spragg’s novels, just as there are no complete villains in real life. No unalloyed heroes. There are human beings with varying degrees of honor, integrity, generosity. They’re fascinating and flawed. And you finally read his books because you have to find out what happens to them. Have to.
In Spragg’s newest work, excerpted here — a novel which he’s been working on for the last five years, and expects to finish within another year — he is leaving behind these familiar faces in order to branch out, to spend time in some new territory, to travel ultimately to Nashville and the world of country music. He uses six different voices throughout the book, one in third person and five in first person. These decisions are done in part, as he said in a recent interview, to challenge himself, to force himself to grow as a writer.
Spragg lives in a small mountain town close to the Montana-Wyoming border with his wife, screenwriter Virginia Spragg, and most recently with his nephew Neil, who is also a writer and is collaborating with Virginia on a project. It’s a quiet life he’s built for himself. “Hermetic,” he said. But he seems comfortable within it. The three of them have taken to editing each other’s work. Providing feedback, reassurance, collaboration, consolation. A good kick in the ass when needed. It seems to be a pattern with him, this kind of isolation. In Spragg’s essay “Wintering,” he talks about how he worked as caretaker of a ranch at 7,000 feet outside of Cody. Before the big snows fell, he brought some books and a typewriter, some paper. He unplugged the phone because he “didn’t want to run the risk of communication.”
From that self-imposed isolation, and out of the years since, has arisen one of the pre-eminent bodies of work in the American West. You read his work for its sense of language, its insight into the human heart, its authenticity. But most of all, you read because you have to find out what happens next. Have to.
FROM THE NOVEL
Beautiful When It's Mine
written by Mark Spragg
Lyric was riding in the backseat with Reba the afternoon his dad
got killed. He was 7 and Reba was 2-1/2. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving. Black Friday. Easy to remember.
They’d been over to visit him that morning at the Bridge House, hung out together for an hour of Daddy-bonding, and he’d seemed OK then. His hair was freshly cut, and he’d shaved off his soul patch and clipped his nails, and Lyric thought he appeared brighter than he had just the week before, more intense. Like being in prison had faded him but every day he was out he was buffing up shinier. And he was chattier than he’d been the other times, looser and happy-acting.
He told them he’d started going for a walk each morning and that the exercise was helping his lungs adjust to the non-penitentiary air and how one of his housemates had found Jesus while out hiking in the mountains and that he was keeping an eye out for Him too.
He told them he’d landed a job he felt good about. Ten-thirty at night until 6 in the a.m., stocking shelves at Target.
Nice quiet work, he said, the kind of work that gives a man the opportunity to think about his life.
He said he’d been thinking they could all go to a movie next week. My treat, he said, Grandma and Grandpa too, and looked over at their mom but it was like she hadn’t heard him, didn’t understand what he was saying, like she was gazing into their future and saw he wasn’t going to make the trip.
At the end of the hour they all walked out onto the porch and Lyric said maybe he’d apply for a job at Target too, when he was old enough, and his dad said, Sweet, and they did a goodbye high-five. Then Reba latched onto his leg, straining up on her tiptoes, hugging tight, butting her forehead against his thigh, whispering, Daddy-Jack, Daddy-Jack. It was something she’d done every week and she wouldn’t let go until he pried her off.
After that his mom drove Reba and him across town to Le Boutique & Tan. To get her nails done. Then over to the mall so she could check out the holiday sale racks at Dillard’s and Nordstrom and Victoria’s Secret, and Lyric settled out on the tiled floor by the indoor fountains, at the hub of where the broad corridors of stores branched away.
He balanced Reba in his lap and steadied a tablet of drawing paper across her legs. So she could fill the fresh white pages with crayon squiggles, but after an hour or so, when she began snapping the crayons in two, he bagged-up the art supplies in her pink princess tote and walked her over to the men’s room.
He stood outside her stall until she said, All done, then boosted her up at a sink so she could get her hands wet and waited while she turned them under the hot air dryer, squealing, Tickle, tickle. On the walk back to the fountains he bought a medium-sized Orange Julius and let her drink as much as she wanted.
Photo by Jim Hill
Then he sat just so again and she snuggled back into him like he was her own personal beanbag and he wrapped his arms around her, rocking slow and lazy, both of them humming quietly along with the Christmas music playing over the sound-system — “We Three Kings,” “Joy to the World,” and “Jingle Bells” — watching the shoppers crowd past, enjoying the light, pleasant tickle the humming set up in their chests.
When his mom was done with her bargain hunting they hit the drive-thru at Taco Bell on the way home. For some Stuft Burrito action, but hadn’t even got back up in the Heights again before Reba had dropped hers in the floor well, reaching for it, straining against the safety-seat’s harness, whining, Need it, need it.
She had black beans and guac smeared across both cheeks, in her hair, her hands gummy with bean mush, and when Lyric finally leaned over and retrieved it for her, she just giggled and threw it on the floor again and he scooted further away from her, over against the door’s armrest, staring down at his Game Boy, leaning through a course of Mario Kart, enjoying the drift, enjoying the fact that she couldn’t get to him, couldn’t get to her burrito either.
He’d switched the sound off on the Game Boy so they could listen to the radio without distraction and then the Country Now DJ cut in over Toby Keith singing “Me Too” to let his listeners know a man had been shot to death trying to rob the Kum & Go on Central. Where it crossed Four Mile Road. Breaking news. A 29-year-old white male out on parole. Details awaiting family notification.
His mom shook her head once real quick. Like she was dodging a wasp that had flown at her eyes, and cranked the steering wheel hard right, over against the chipped yellow curbing for a hundred yards before she got them stopped, and Reba quit her need it tantrum and Lyric set his Game Boy down on the seat. It was dark enough the streetlights had come on, and Toby was twanging away again on the radio, I’m not too good at sayin’ what you need me to say.
His mom said, Isn’t that just great, but in her fake-astonished how-much-more-could-the-world-possibly-screw-me-over voice. Just great, she said. She was staring at him in the rearview mirror, locked on.
You don’t know if it was Dad, he said, not for sure.
Yeah, right. She snorted out a short laughter-burst, meant to remind him how tragic it was for her to be the parent of an idiot child. Who else would it be?
Reba was reaching toward the ceiling, grabbing at air, at nothing, babbling along with Toby, me too, me too, and then the car strobed bright white, caught in the headlights of a big truck as it swept past, and she squealed and cupped her hands over her eyes.
Lyric said, If it was Dad the cops would’ve called to say it was.
His mom said, I know it was him and you do too, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend it was somebody else.
She ducked her head down, felt around in her purse, turned it upside down in the passenger’s seat and stirred through the scatter of cosmetics and medications and tampons, gum and breath mints, found her BlackBerry and checked her messages, thumbed the volume up and reached it over the seatback.
Here you go, she said. She wagged the phone at him. Dial 911 and tell them who you are. Say, Hey, my name’s Lyric Eccles and my mom says my dad got killed robbing a convenience store but I just saw him at his halfway house this morning. Go ahead, she said, knock yourself out.
He took the phone but only held it. He didn’t even look at it. I hate you, he said.
I hate you too. She looked up in the mirror again so he could see her face, see she wasn’t kidding. You’re pouting now, she said, good to know I can count on you.
It could have been anybody, he said.
That’s not how life works, she told him, and drove a half block mostly over in the bike path before she turned into the overflow lot at the Quick Draw Casino, rocked the front wheels up against the first open parking bumper she found and pulled on the emergency brake.
There was a mural on the side of the building showing an old-timey saloon with a row of can-can girls dancing on the bar top, kicking up high, and wedged down tight between the end of the make-believe bar and the side of an actual blue metal dumpster was a real live guy scrunched down out of the wind, turtled down into the collar of his coat, ski cap pulled low, just a pair of worn-out eyes showing between, and his mom leaned up and over the steering wheel and scowled at the guy, studying him — like she already knew him and had a good reason to hate him — then shuddered and relaxed back in the seat and shook herself right again.
She clicked the blinker and headlights off and reached over and scooped everything back in her purse and dragged it and her coat into her lap. The engine was still idling with the radio on, the Country Now DJ doing a between-songs weather report, warning his listeners of the effects of wind chill.
Your mother needs a break, she said, and stepped out and slammed the door and swept her coat back across her shoulders, holding it closed at her throat, the arms flapping empty.
The sky had been bad-looking all day, sagging down heavy, and now it started to snow and Lyric sat watching the flakes slant in, the wind lifting the street-grit up in puffs along the curbing, trying to remember if he had enough money for Reba and him to ride the bus home.
Then his mom stooped down and rapped on the back window and he cracked it a couple inches.
You guys are good? She squinted in at them like she wasn’t sure if they belonged to her.
Sure, he said, and then, you’re probably right about it being Dad.
The air streaming in at the top of the window made his eyes sting, well with tears, and the DJ launched his next playlist, Reba singing, Dead-Daddy, Dead-Daddy-Jack, to the cadence of Alan Jackson’s gettin’ paid by the hour, older by the minute.
We stopped there once, Lyric said.
Stopped where? his mom asked.
Her hair was snapping around her face and she hooked it away with her free hand, held it away, and then the homeless guy staggered up all wobbly, having to lean in against the side of the dumpster to steady himself. His coat was evergreen-colored, one shoulder duct-taped silver, stained so dark down the front it looked like it needed an oil change. The oil-change thing was something his dad used to say about clothes and sheets and the armrests on his favorite La-Z-Boy at the Bridge House. Some things about a person you can remember clear as the words to a song.