If Theodore Dreiser, pioneer that he was, can be hammered down by a couple of broad tacks, they must relate to the conjoined concerns of desire and human-scale ineptitude. Subject to nature, to opportunism, we fail by degrees. But if we are to blame for the missteps of blind enthusiasm—not in the name of survival but for the sake of mounting success—then at least the artists among us should seem to court redemption, construing from the strain of renewed surfeit, new orders of beauty. Though Dreiser, trained as a hard-scrabble newspaper man, hewed a naturalist literature, his views on biology did not distort his political perspective. He extended sympathy to the downtrodden and hoodwinked, both in fiction and in biography, and if his prose veers towards the expository, it does so with the purpose of achieving an empowering comprehension of life and death on earth.
“You aren’t supposed to strive in Wyoming,” says city reporter Melanie in a selection from Alyson Hagy’s newest title, a series of short stories set amidst the raw and heavy American West. Despite Melanie’s claim though, she and a fair share of the folks populating Ghosts of Wyoming do the apparent opposite. No poets or philosophers—at least in the conventional sense—number among Hagy’s characters, but nearly each performs a peculiar artistry. They run the gamut—petrol men and engineers, a 14-year old rancher and a 14-year old runaway, a terminally ill mountain climber, a priest—and their speech rings as if pulled from the air, their psychologies even bleeding through Hagy’s third-person narratives. Many of the pieces assume a near anthropological approach to their fictions, not in tone—thanks be for that—but in form. “Oil & Gas” divides into chapters that track interweaving first-hand accounts, each vignette headed by a set of coordinates or a rough address, as if one could drop by Campbell County Memorial in Gillette and ask for Petra, or hike out along Echeta Road to find Andy Josling’s truck idling. “Lost Boys” is likewise comprised of spatially and temporally related plot lines, and “The Sin Eaters”—an engrossing take on true crime—juxtaposes frontier tragedy with mundane journal entries, a log of dates, locations, and expenses at once reminding of the paucity of historical fact and the power of imagination.
Sure, Ghosts of Wyoming has its peaks and valleys, but overall it flies. “Border” serves as a lesson in good first impressions. However, “Superstitions of the Indians”—perhaps the closest in the collection to an actual ghost story—works its yarn a tad too close to the allegorical, and the final paragraph hands over resolution like a term paper. “Brief Lives of the Trainmen,” inspired by Plutarch’s treatment of Roman heroes, retains traces of a portentous tone, but is nonetheless outfitted with solid analogs and evocations of a “national wilderness of industry and theft,” where the drifting laborer “tumbles free of his dreams like a circus aerialist.” If not for Hagy’s adventurous prose, indeed, many figures in the collection might have come off as distasteful parodies of rubes and loners. Instead, we get depth and range. We get risk and reward. We get the benefit of a rich and authentic language, one which trades handily in varied voices, and which grants the ordinary travails of ordinary citizens a heroic dimension. The minor-key splendor of otherwise inscrutable lives is laid out for us with a careful, captivating style, and like those who either chase fortune or linger after dust, we find ourselves wanting more.
Ghosts of Wyoming is out now from Graywolf Press.