Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy

Friday, March 12, 2010

In the opening story “Border,” one of eight tales about the seemingly impenetrable world of Wyoming that comprise Alyson Hagy’s latest collection of short fiction, Ghosts of Wyoming, a teenage boy gets away with theft. He steals a seven-week-old border collie, bred specifically for sheepherding, from the local fairgrounds. In the first few lines, Hagy, with her simple diction, using words like “scatter” as a noun, articulates not only the intention of the anonymous runaway, but also the culture of down-and-out folks who exist in the modern western frontier.

Ghosts of Wyoming

By Alyson Hagy
170 pages
Graywolf Press, 2010

Hagy possesses a genuine adeptness at creating distinct and varied narrative voices. They range from the dead (soldiers and a teacher) and a band of post–Civil War Union Pacific rail laborers to the gun-slinging adolescent, Livia, and Melanie, a thirty-something reporter hooked on diet pills and having an affair with a married Episcopal priest.

Most of Hagy’s characters, whether they exist in modern times or in the nineteenth century, live on the social and economic outskirts of society. With Wyoming towns like “Laramie: a city awry, shredded like a prayer flag by the constant gusting wind” either referenced or used as the story’s backdrop, the tendency to compare Hagy with fellow Wyoming author Annie Proulx appears inevitable. Both Proulx and Hagy seem equally bonded to the expansive and haunting landscape of the West and those who scantly populate it. And just like Proulx, Hagy, through her evocative yet understated prose, constructs a region that inhabits a physical lyricism all its own, where people walk “into an afternoon braceleted by high, white clouds [ . . . ] spaced like beads on an invisible string,” or rise “before daylight greases the black pan of the sky.”

The historically specific narrative “Brief Lives of the Trainmen,” which details the brutal realities of those men who laid down the railroad, and the present-day tale “Oil & Gas,” set against Wyoming’s oil rigs and gas lines, share a similar structure, with shifts in point of view, narration, location, and time. The shifts happen seamlessly, since they’re delineated by subheadings and operate as flash shorts within the overall chapter. While the former chapter mostly unfolds through interior thoughts, and the latter happens mainly through dialogue, both contain a mood reminiscent of one found in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Blood Meridian comes to mind. This minor comparison originates explicitly in the judgments of Hagy’s characters, who, just like McCarthy’s, seem to demystify the simplistic and sentimental images of settlement life on the western frontier that perpetuate those lasting mythical tales of Cowboys and Indians. Both McCarthy and Hagy appear to understand the West as a locale that has driven humans to engage in unutterable brutality against each other in the name of uncontrollable greed. Both authors show an interest in the extreme tendencies of human nature in the context of an immoral milieu.

Hagy’s stories all share in a paradox: this history has occurred on such splendid terrain. Even outsiders—the Christian missionary out to convert Indians at Fort Washakie or a couple of campers disgusted with the shooting of wolves—visit the region initially unaware and ultimately uneasy with the contradiction. It is, after all, “Wild, Wonderful Wyoming—the last place in America to get ahead, except the getting don’t last.”

As for ghosts, no story is without a haunting. Ghosts emerge in literal and metaphorical forms, usually revealed in memories people wish to escape. Ghosts of Wyoming isn’t without its humorous moments either. The relationship between an unnamed, lackadaisical PhD candidate who’s an avid Frisbee golfer, and a former university professor, Grace Frances Bedard, who has been dead seventy years, is one case in point. Bedard, known as Fanny, hovers around a section of the university’s library archives—named in her honor—that comprises a collection of books chronicling the forgotten culture of local Native American tribes. Fanny seems to take form whenever and wherever she likes. She asks the male student to steal her “silver comb and brush” from an obsessive librarian who bought them at auction. This same librarian has been, for years now, on the hunt to uncover Fanny’s lost journals in the hopes of making history at the university. The young man agrees to the crime in exchange for an ancient aphrodisiacal keepsake he can use on his girlfriend, who has recently become abstinent at the suggestion of an elderly woman bearing an eerie resemblance to Fanny.

Among the assorted characters featured in Ghosts of Wyoming, there’s but one steadfast cast member depicted with a richness and intricacy all its own: Wyoming, where the stars “sink like bright pebbles beneath the surface of the warming sky” or where “[t]he predawn sky is as still and unreachable as a distant alpine lake.”