By Ron Charles
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 6:15 PM
When people talk about genre fiction, their list peters out somewhere after romance and sci-fi - long before they get down to westerns, those once-mighty bestsellers that now seem as quaint as leather fringe. (Quick: Who won this year's Spur Award?) You don't have to be all that old to remember an era when the sun rose every day on novels about cowboys and horses, but two decades after Louis L'Amour took his boots off, Bantam is publishing his books in "Legacy Editions," a sclerotic label if there ever was one. Cormac McCarthy has left horses for the apocalypse. And reviewing a Larry McMurtry novel last year, our reviewer said, "The prose seems summary in nature, imparting a 'let's get this over with' quality."
Them would be fightin' words if anybody still cared.
So I'm doubly curious to see a talented new writer publish her first novel about the tribulations of a ranch family in southern Arizona. Admittedly, "Old Border Road" isn't a western by any formal definition of the term, but Susan Froderberg builds on those old tropes to tell a mournful story of men and women scraping by on America's arid frontier. These people use trucks and electricity and telephones, but they still depend on the land and their horses and especially the weather, and the big event in their future is the regional rodeo. In many ways, it's a world that seems closer to the 19th century than the 21st, and like Karen Fisher's "A Sudden Country" and Molly Gloss's "The Hearts of Horses," this is a Western transformed by its focus on a young woman.
The story itself is fairly thin, but Froderberg's narrator, 17-year-old Katherine, has a raw poetic voice that makes the tale an arresting incantation of longing and regret. Katherine's plans of one day becoming a scientist are brushed aside when she drops out of high school to marry a cocky young cowboy named Son. (He introduces himself by unclasping her halter top; he's classy like that.) After a wedding marked by enough omens to give Oedipus second thoughts, she says, "I am so much in love these days, I take pity on anyone who isn't us. . . . Yes, we are yet the happy pair, we are, with not a thing to mar any day of all the days on the road for us." That rueful allusion to "Paradise Lost" - "Live while ye may, yet happy pair" - recurs throughout the novel, gathering beneath it Katherine's disappointed hopes.
Amply alerted by these foreboding lines, no one should be surprised that Son makes a pretty wretched spouse, but Froderberg, who has a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University, has written a story thick with atmosphere, not suspense. When Katherine moves in with Son's parents, she falls under the care of two rather odd people. Her mother-in-law, Rose, teaches her how to be a good farm wife, which mostly involves ignoring a husband's philandering. And her father-in-law, creepily nicknamed Rose's Daddy, sits around delivering blessings and jeremiads in King James Version English: "Henceforth, the world entered upon modern times and man came to believe in the power of himself, rather than believing in that of which he was made and of what made him," he proclaims in a typically grandiose riff. "They groped in the noonday as in the nighttime. And within the blackness of the days, humankind was terrified."
Katherine takes in a lot of Rose's Daddy's mythology - it is, to be honest, weirdly enthralling - but she retains a kernel of her natural teenage skepticism, too, and what we see during the months that follow is a series of emotionally intense, impressionistic scenes that seem fraught with doom. Froderberg gives over a lot of control to her young, unschooled narrator, allowing the story to follow Katherine's interests without much concern for context or elaboration or, sometimes, chronology. Water rights, local and international politics and ancestral real estate claims hover on the edges of Katherine's consciousness and around the margins of these pages. Alluring characters fade in and out of the foreground, and we learn about them only erratically, always aware that we don't really know much about them at all. A seductive minister dressed in white preaches a flatulent New Age doctrine of self-actualization that seems comically irrelevant to these parched ranchers. A wealthy beauty named Pearl Hart seems as ready to crush Katherine as help her.
Almost the entire story takes place during a drought that slowly bakes everything for hundreds of square miles around. It's a conflagration in slow motion - a "calamity of the heat and the dust" - and Froderberg displays a limitless capacity for describing its effects: "The sere drives desert rodents and millipedes to hole in the earth, it singes wings of monarchs, silences chickadees, sends cacti into dormancy, has every animal panting." The drought also drives human beings to extremes, even while it destroys the local economy, plays havoc with water rights and inspires Rose's Daddy to make even more dire proclamations about the folly of man.
This is a novel that teaches you how to read it, and you either join in or get outta town. The effect is often moving and evocative, if at times irritatingly vague - an Old West version of Toni Morrison. It's good to be reminded again that this classic American form is no one-trick pony; it's still evolving, still turning those sepia myths into challenging new fiction.
Charles is the Post's fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
OLD BORDER ROAD
By Susan Froderberg
292 pp. $23.99