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state ['stat] noun 1: mode or condition of being; 2: condition of mind; 3: social position, esp high rank; 4: a body of people occupying a definite territory and politically organized under one government, also the government of such a body of
people; 5: one of the constituent units of a nation having a federal government; verb: to express in words.

Montana 1948
by Larry Watson
Simon & Schuster, 1995
ISBN: 0-671-50703-6
$12.95, 175 pp

Larry Watson received The Milkweed National Fiction Prize and The Mountains and Plains Bookseller Association Regional Book Award for Montana 1948. It's also earned him comparisons to Harper Lee. The novel recounts a series of horrendous crimes against Native American girls that ultimately result in murder. It's a dark tale played out against the backdrop of Bentrock, an idyllic small town tucked away in the northeast corner of Montana. The narration is presented through the memory of David Hayden - the son of the sheriff - a boy of only twelve when the crimes of this story come to light. The perpetrator, his uncle.

Watson has a knack for writing engaging characters. Each, whether minor or pivotal, are developed with laser precision. David's father is a sheriff who doesn't carry a gun, because in Mercer County (of which Bentrock is the county seat) crime plays second chair to Montana's harsh environment:

    The ability to drive the county's rural roads, often drifted over in the winter or washed out in the summer, was a much more necessary skill than being good with your fists or a gun.
While Montana is a crime novel, at its heart are the people affected by it. In Hayden Senior (David's grandfather) we're delivered a character straight out of the Old West. A successful rancher, his home is larger than life, something comparable to the Ponderosa of Bonanza fame. He's a throwback to the days of land barons; a time when legal issues were adjudicated by a man's status. Real estate is power, and the Hayden's own a lot of it. His wife, a salt-of-the-earth - although not beneath cultural appreciation - type, would be just as believable as a nineteenth century pioneer trekking across the plains by covered wagon as she is a twentieth century Montanan. The Haydens are a proud, successful and privileged lot. There are no bounds they wouldn't go to protect that.

As Frank Hayden's crimes come to light, David becomes a fly-on-the-wall, eavesdropping on adult conversations for clues of what his uncle's been accused of. Inevitably, a chasm develops, and the family is split on how to proceed. Grandma and Grandpa see Frank's indiscretions as unimportant, boys-being-boys common hi-jinx. That his crimes are at least in part racially motivated is of no concern to them. Why would they make an issue of race when their own attitudes toward the region's indigenous population are no better? David's father, without the support of his parents, presses for accountability, regardless of his own prejudice. Not that he dislikes Indians; he just believes them to be "ignorant, lazy, superstitious, and irresponsible." Prejudice.

      The Haydens are a proud, successful and privileged lot. There are no bounds they wouldn't go to protect that.

In Montana, Watson's created a world at odds. The region in which Mercer County is located looks nothing like the rest of the state. The prosaic town of Bentrock, "a world meant for storekeepers, teachers, ministers, for the rule-makers, the order-givers, the law-enforcers;" a town where nothing out of the ordinary occurs, stands at odds with Uncle Frank's crimes, and the family at odds with one another.

Ultimately, the chasm becomes too wide to bear. But it's not Frank's crimes that tear the Haydens apart. It's the silence around his crimes that divide them; the lies they're forced to abet by self-muting, that eventually make life in Bentrock untenable.

The subject matter of Montana, and its narration, begs comparison to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (HarperCollins, $16.99). Like Mockingbird, it exposes unsavory racial attitudes lying just beneath the surface of otherwise upstanding members of society. Also, like Lee's masterpiece, it relies on the narration of a child - or more precisely, childhood memories - to expose these attitudes. While reminiscent of Mockingbird, Watson's writing is more akin to that of Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote. In both style and tempo, I'm reminded of his short story collection, A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor (Random House, $13.95). One more comparison: Also like Mockingbird, Montana 1948 has a long shelf-life ahead of it.

by Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, 1987
ISBN: 0-671-62533-0
542 pp

Texasville is the follow-up to Larry McMurtry's highly acclaimed novel The Last Picture Show (Dell, .75). Set in Thalia, Texas, he's brought the gang back in a sequel full of tilts and surprises. The Last Picture Show was generally depressing in its portrayal of a 1950's west Texas community that felt closer to a ghost town, youthful expectation its most redeeming quality. Texasville has none of that. Whereas Picture Show was a story written in sepia, Texasville is written in Technicolor.

The story swirls around the life of Duane Moore, who played Homecoming King to Jacy Farrow's Queen (portrayed by Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, respectively, in 1971's film version of Picture Show). Thalia has seen enormous prosperity, followed by an even bigger bust, which everybody has their fingers in one way or another. Duane is holding on by a thread, but that doesn't seem to affect his wife's spending habits. Virtually everyone in town is in the same boat, but save for a few dour faces, they're nonplussed by it. Theirs is a uniquely Texan approach to adversity.

Thalia is the county seat of Hardtop County. McMurtry's telling coincides with the county's centennial - a mad celebration that dovetails well with the craven lives of Thalia's inhabitants. The oil glut - and the economic recession unleashed by it - causes McMurtry's characters to behave irrationally, a trait brought to the forefront by the centennial celebration. Yet, as a whole, they're mostly upbeat. Despite rampant extra-marital affairs, divorce threats, unplanned pregnancies and predatory bankers circling like vultures, the characters of Texasville remain non-circumspect. Sure, Duane gets down in the dumps, but it's handled with the adroit fashion of a master that makes us sympathetic, while holding our interest.

McMurtry walks a fine line. Already loved for his portrayals of the American west, Texasville only adds to that acclaim. He inserts so much humor into the story though, it verges on lampoon. Not that his characters shouldn't be laughed at; but they shouldn't be mocked. No fool, he stops just shy of that, delivering a heartfelt sequel that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its predecessor.

And yes, Jacy's back.

posted 11/21/22