Aching to Be
The boys from North Dakota
They drink whiskey for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns
And they look across the border
To learn the ways of love
Lyle Lovett, North Dakota
He is a teenage boy of the barren American West, the land of oil and gas wells and low wages, not the romantic landscape made famous by John Wayne and Ansel Adams. This is Idaho, in the heart of what might be called Dick Cheney Country, a place where dreams, if they exist at all, are tailored to the appropriate scale. Its residents are winter people who pride themselves on their ability to endure, rather than thrive.
Kenny Swanson wants only to grow up faster in order to pursue his twin passions: rodeo and the alluring, older Cynthia Dustin, whom to Kenny is as untouchable as Mars. But his life, as might be expected, isn’t nearly as clear-cut. He and his mother, Lenna, are on their own, his Air Force father gone from the scene. Lenna won’t allow Kenny to ride for the school rodeo team because they don’t have health insurance, and to satisfy his appetite for bronc bustin’, Kenny is resigned to merely watching his idol, local rider Roddy Moyers, from afar, sneaking into the rodeo grounds after school.
Love and Country, a novel by the late writer Cynthia Adam, captures a longing as wide as the open spaces these characters inhabit. All of them are searching for something more, something better, but what that thing might be seems to be almost inexpressible. And the path toward it is obscured by the darkness and entropy that surrounds their lives. In the meantime, there is death and violence, inhumanity and decay, and, of course, more chores to be done.
Using language as spare as the landscape, Adam seeks to demythologize the West as much as possible. Aside from tourist-fueled towns like Aspen and Santa Fe, which might as well exist in a parallel universe, much of the modern Rocky Mountain region lies on the edge of poverty. For its working-class inhabitants, the choices lie somewhere between eking out a living on a ranch or risking life and limb in an oil patch. Existence is the goal; romance is left for other places, other people.
The novel opens with the funeral of a toddler, run over by her own father not in some sort of clichéd alcohol-soaked act of carelessness, but in a simple accident. With this, Adam rejects at the outset any notion of karma, that people encounter the fate they deserve. She suggests instead that this hard land treats all people as it finds it. Your good intentions, well, they don’t matter all that much in the face of larger forces. It heightens our concern for her characters, likeable souls mostly, as we witness their collective vulnerability.
As the book traces the passage of a single year in the early 1980s, there will be further death—and abuse, betrayal and heartbreak. Kenny, Cynthia, Lenna and Roddy’s lives will become intertwined not through simple twists of fate, but because of the one unavoidable fact of small-town life: Everyone eventually knows everyone. As such, emotions run hot (think of boiling water molecules colliding), but forgiveness comes right there with it. You can hold onto grudges if you want, but it’s a long winter.
At times, the geography looms as the most pivotal character. Employing a minimalist prose reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (to which this work has been frequently compared), Adam makes clear that this is a place that subdues its denizens, rather than the other way around:
Hers was an old neighborhood of small frame houses set far apart, without foundations or porches or shrubs. Only a few spent lilacs stood in the yards, their blossoms dried and shriveled into curly knots. The whole neighborhood looked temporary as if the houses could be pushed from one yard to another. For the first time, Lenna felt ashamed of where they lived. She tried to take comfort in the massive cottonwoods rising over the houses, shimmering with heart-shaped leaves.
Admittedly, Adam treads on dangerous ground here, both literally and figuratively. In the wrong hands, a concoction of adolescent boys, absent fathers, lonely mothers and an untamed land could shove the entire enterprise into Hallmark Hall of Fame territory. But Adam’s writing is too assured to allow that to happen. She demonstrates that sometimes a writer’s greatest gift is that of restraint. Her characters keep their feelings close to the vest, and as a storyteller, Adam does the same. The narrative never lapses into melodrama, despite the ever-present temptation.
Instead, Adam fashions a clear-eyed tale of modest ambitions, where progress is measured by an unbroken succession of unremarkable days and where dodging tragedy feels like victory. At the end of this brief novel, lives have been altered - but only just a little.
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