Novelist Thomas McGuane says there are cowboys who are as “deluded” about their trade as are workers in the “entrepreneurial class.” Romance about ranch work means “their hold is tenuous and they're always on the cusp of violence or rage about being in that situation, and they're naturally in conflict with their bosses.” Cowboys used to be in it for the long haul; they were “lifetime admired.” Now the ranks are filled with “mostly angry temporary help.”
McGuane’s pessimistic observation could serve as an endorsement for Far Enough: A Western in Fragments, the newest book from fellow Montana writer Joe Wilkins. The tension in Far Enough pulses in a similar pessimistic strain, one encapsulated by Wilkins elsewhere: “We hurt the land, and it hurt us.” Far Enough arrives in taut, prose-poetic vignettes. Most sections appear on single pages, but Wilkins delivers a full fictional arc in bursts by turns melodic and sharp.
Willie Benson, a twenty-year-old cowboy “sprawled on a chair at the Ryegate Bar,” spins a tale of how he lost his right thumb while roping calves. Wade Newman, who owns the ranch and employs Willie, set up the bar party to help the injured cowboy “cut loose.” Young Willie is a hard worker but in over his head. Wilkins’s physical descriptions suggest a young man who is all flesh and promise, but little bone: “Willie’s thin legs scattered underneath him, his right arm tight at his chest in a sling, his left arm lying across the carved-up tabletop in a puddle of beer.”
Although Willie’s accident begins the book, Wilkins develops a wide scope within the work. Killing the Murnion Dogs, his first book of poems, shows how Wilkins dramatizes both the emotional and topographical West. Wilkins is lyric and laconic when sketching place: “Dust roostertails over the county road, blossoms like a dirt flower above the cottonwoods, rains down on our hands and faces as we splash through what’s left of the river.” In the poetry book’s title piece, the narrator’s father dies but remains “everywhere”: “He rises with the moon, // his arms the gnarled stalks of greasewood, / his breath the hot wind on the plains. // He is river dust and sheep’s blood / and any sky from ice to water.”
Wilkins extends this theme of personal transfiguration to the land. The literature of the American West has always been marked by the tableau of character against place, the agony of expanse. William W. Savage, Jr. has called this interaction the moment “myth becomes burden.” Wallace Stegner spoke of this burden when he said Westerners seek “a society to match its scenery.” The hard character of the cowboy in Western literature, then, acts rough but is sketched on the page with the sentiment of poetry. For lesser writers, the juxtaposition creates melodrama: every inch of sinew and line of speech of the cowboy is imbued with grandeur of a Thomas Eakins painting. The riding of a horse, certainly a skilled and beautiful action, becomes an act of God with each trot.
Susan Rhoades Neel succinctly identifies this storytelling burden: “Out West...nature has worked some kind of wonder, transforming the ordinary into the remarkable, the old into the new, molding us into a more audacious and egalitarian people, or...into a society of extraordinary villainy and rapaciousness.” Wilkins’s West in Far Enough is framed by a decade-long drought that has bankrupt a slew of ranches along Montana’s Musselshell River. One summer the river “slow[ed] to a trickle,” leaving “carp and bullhead twisting in the mud, the cattle tromping down to suck hot, stagnant water.” Dried-out, the land is marked by dust, which becomes an almost overwhelming refrain in the book. The sky is "wide and hot with dust.” Dust rises under tires. Wind blows dust into eyes. Even the “high-priced whiskey” at the bar is a “dusty row” of bottles.
Wilkins has mined the parched West before, albeit his personal version of the region. His memoir The Mountain and the Fathers documents the dry land north of Montana’s Bull Mountains, where he grew up. In one scene, Wilkins knows a flood will “rot and drown” the alfalfa, but “right now I don’t care.” He takes off his boots and runs “barefooted back into the flood.” Similarly, the recursive effect of drought in Far Enough is cumulative rather than distracting: the characters are suffocated by their space. Willie is stuck in this town. Teased with the escape of going to a vocational school in Great Falls, he is rebuffed: “They told him a guy had to have two thumbs to hang on a power pole—Sorry.” Willie is not alone in suffering. Wade fears his ranch will be next on the chopping block. He sees Willie as a symbol of the dying West: immature, temporary, and pitiable. Wade cares about Willie as more than hired help; Willie moved in with the Newmans during high school, after his father died.
Wilkins increases the domestic drama with a complication: Jackie Newman, the rancher’s daughter, has fallen for the young cowboy: “Willie circled and circled, and Jackie saw the setting sun and shadow slip across his face in time.” While her father is distraught about his failing ranch—as their last financial hope, an operating loan from Billings, does not come through—Jackie is dreaming of being with Willie.
Jackie thinks Willie is a man, but he is far from it. Wilkins keeps Far Enough honest through continuous revision of the Willie myth. In one scene, Willie fixes a fence, pounding steel posts despite his bandaged hand. He then “napped in the shade of a jackpine and woke as the evening shadows strung themselves across the prairie.” Those lyric lines recall Billy Parham after a hunt in Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, how he “fell asleep with his hands palm up before him like some dozing penitent.” Wilkins’s cowboy is frailer than Billy. Willie can’t hold a drink, let alone tame the land. At his twenty-first birthday party, he gets sick before noon, breaks a pool stick, curses everyone within earshot, then breaks a bottle “on his boot heel and swung the neck of it around.”
This embarrassing episode is directly followed by Jackie’s swoon: “She thought [Willie’s] story about the mountains had been just wonderful.” (One benefit of Wilkins’s vignette approach is that single-page scenes are enjambed like poetic lines.) Willie enjoys the attention, but he is not satisfied in this town. At various points in the book, he rides in search of Great Falls, a place that he nears but can never quite touch: “For the shadows and the wind, he wasn’t sure how close he was, just how far he’d come.” After Willie spends a December night out in the cold, Newman berates him: “This is real shit, Willie. The RL’s in trouble. You can’t hang-dog around here 'cause you lost a daddy and a thumb. We all lose a daddy.”
Willie might not consider what happens next an act of revenge, but Wade does. Far Enough is a book told in blocks. The narrative progresses at an even clip, but these vignettes ultimately exist independently, as crafted paragraphs of poetic import. In a text such as this, white space serves two purposes. The first is to give tense descriptions room to breathe; we see the vanilla of the page before the next scene begins. The second purpose is more complex. The burden of literature of the American West is the same element that draws writers to the region: it is a land of stark beauty, of requisite myths. The West’s grandness makes it easy to speak of the region in the sweep of a sentence. Far Enough is more accurately a Montana book. When Thomas McGuane moved to Montana in his twenties, he at first felt like an outsider, but was soon reassured “that most Montanans feel the same way—they’re mostly from somewhere else, and their history is so recent that to be one of the migrants is really to be one of the boys.” The character of Willie Benson is an elegy for the itinerant Montanan. And the tension between Far Enough's place and promise fractures a family while piercing a myth.
Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions and has contributed to the Atlantic and Esquire. His newest book is Ember Days, stories.
Far Enough: A Western in Fragments
by Joe Wilkins
Pittsburg, PA: Black Lawrence Press, 2015
$8.95 paperback; ISBN: 9781625579928