No Country for Broken Men in Joseph Scapellato's 'Big Lonesome'

Even at their most impenetrable and monotonous, the stories here are still rich with refined poeticism and imagination.

Big Lonesome

Publisher: Mariner
Length: 192 pages
Author: Joseph Scapellato
Price: $13.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-02

Few figures and genres are as extensively mythologized and romanticized as the cowboy and the Western. In addition to a vast array of American depictions -- ranging from vintage examples like Gunsmoke, The Virginian, The Searchers, and Midnight Cowboy, to modern variations such as No Country for Old Men, Brokeback Mountain, Red Dead Redemption, and Deadwood -- there have been countless foreign representations and modifications, including Italy’s Dollars Trilogy, Japan’s Cowboy Bebop, and India’s Irumbukkottai Murattu Singam (The Iron Fort's Furious Lion). Undoubtedly, these tropes have provided ample templates for artists all over the world for over a century.

In his latest short story collection, Big Lonesome, Joseph Scapellato “reinvent[s] [this] great American tradition through an absurdist, discerning eye... conjur[ing] worlds, themes, and characters who are at once unquestionably familiar and undeniably strange.” Having moved to Central Pennsylvania after earning his MFA at New Mexico State University several years ago, he felt compelled to write stories that explore themes of “American masculinity ... [and] American identity” in the Southwest. Thus, Big Lonesome is a “concept album”, if you will, in that its “thematic resonance is the most important guiding principle -- the stories very consciously complement and complicate one another. They seem to have grown out of each other ...” Although its selections -- which are compiled into three units: “Old West”, “New West”, and “Post-West” -- aren’t always equally compelling (or even coherent), they possess a strong enough coating of permanence, eloquence, and sustained vibe to make most of them appear connected and impactful. Also, its best stories are truly exceptional.

Naturally, “Old West” is the first section, and on the whole, its stories are quirky and imaginative, yet also commonly impervious and tedious. For example, “Horseman Cowboy” (whose titular protagonist, like his spiritual sibling “Cowgirl” later, is literally his namesake) earns points for its continuity -- his journey finds him “fuck[ing]” everything from “a horse, a donkey, a mule” and “a wolf, a cougar, a bear” to “art until art fucks him back” -- but aside from that and his occasional quips with random locals, there isn’t a clear purpose to this story. Also, you can only read the phrase “Horseman cowboy [does something]” so many times before it becomes irritatingly repetitious.

Afterward, stories like “Thataway” and “Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves” are certainly more interesting in terms of their eccentric action and cherishable lines (“What I need is to relieve you from the notion that you can save yourself” and “I been wrong all my life. Music don’t make you feel more. Just makes you feel how much you keep missing”, respectively), but they possess a similar sense of rambled progression. The entries in “Old West” work best as character studies, yes, but neither its people nor its plots are engaging or discernable enough to warrant immersion.

The “New West” section fares better because it counters a comparable type of cloudiness with more perceptible emotions and conflicts. The aforementioned “Cowgirl” packs enough idiosyncratic strangeness and universal pathos in its tale of adolescent peril, rebellion, and uncertainty to appeal, while “A Mother Buries a Gun in the Desert Again” is a brief look at what parents will do to understand and either cover for or reprimand their child. It contains the kind of sacrifice and cognitive dissonance anyone in their situation would encounter.

Unsurprisingly, the correspondingly short “Immigrants” touches upon the struggles and identity crises of foreign citizens with dense poignancy. Likewise, “Small Boy” examines the historical mistreatment of Native Americans through the lens of childhood innocence and wonder. Essentially, a boy asks different acquaintances, “Why did we kill all of the Indians?”, to which he receives all sorts of significant responses (“We didn’t,” says the tall girl he likes, “they did it to themselves by not being advanced enough in their civilization, if they were advanced enough in their civilization they wouldn’t have been erased”). Although its contents still suffer from disjointedness at times, the story offers enough concrete tragedy and societal resonance to flourish.

Without a doubt, “Post-West” shines as the best set of the trio due to its blend of tangible sentiments, players, and circumstances. In other words, Scapellato fires on all cylinders here with almost every entry, producing earnest and heartfelt narratives whose durations are justified by being highly detailed and involving.

The best story in the entire compilation is “It Meant There Would Be More”, an understated but potent telling of how a failed relationship affects its two members and their surrounding social circle. The majority of it takes place in the apartment complex of its male narrator and revolves around reflections on their coupling, assessments of his purpose, and interactions with his neighbors (each of whom, like him, is wonderfully intriguing). Like Kevin Smith’s superb Chasing Amy and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s a surprising level of maturity, conflict, and wisdom beneath several lighthearted moments, as well as many insightful passages:

My three whole selves and me looked at her at once. Through them, in her, I saw three months of sad shared space crushed by one month of hopeful separation into anger, an anger being ground right then by guilt into surrender. Able to stand, I stood. I touched my chest. I said that how I felt wasn’t ever how I looked.

She left: the door, a blade of light, the door.

In me my three whole selves watched, waiting.

There’s also the abstract, page-and-a-half long stream-of-consciousness wonder of “One of the Days I Nearly Died”, the bizarre yet relatable “Dead Dogs” (which is analogous to “It Meant There Would Be More” in several ways), the devastating “Company” (whose second-person perspective allows for a profound exploration into mental illness and the inability to help those we love most), and the equally touching “Father’s Day”, which closes the book on a note of disconnection and denial that spans generations.

Some of the stories in Big Lonesome can be frustrating and off-putting at times (especially during its opening section), but even at their most impenetrable and monotonous, they're still rich with refined poeticism and imagination. Fortunately, more than half of the sequence is sufficiently original and gripping, with several exceptional entries towards the end that reveal Scapellato as a masterful storyteller. The best stories don’t necessarily make up for the weaker ones, but they certainly make Big Lonesome a noteworthy collection cumulatively, as well as highlight the promise of Scapellato's next project.


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