Thursday, February 6, 2014
'Calamity Jane' The Great American Desert Novel
[Note: I posted this book review on Amazon this morning, but will also put it here. I'm not an Amazon affiliate, so please go through your favorite blogger's Affiliate link to get there so they will benefit from your purchase! Christopher Taylor or Pat Austin are two that I try to patronize.]
Fans of his Jack Ross Mysteries will be excited to learn that Bernard Schopen has published a new novel: Calamity Jane, Baobab Press (November 12, 2013). "Calamity Jane" sets us up with a tale about a movie: when Hollywood makes a movie in a small town, that is news for the next 50 years. When the subject of that movie is not only a legendary actor, but the town's most famous resident, there's a book in it just waiting to be written. Thus aging writer Winnefred Waner, best known for her textbook story about women driven insane by the desert, sits down to record a story of famous lives and inadvertently reveals her own.
Jane Harmon comes to Blue Lake, Nevada ("Nev'bad'a", not "Nev'odd'a") to make a movie and she hasn't even arrived in town before she is annoying the natives and endangering her surroundings. It is no accident she is dubbed "Calamity Jane" by the plain speaking oldtimers... much like her older and wiser counterpart was nicknamed the genteel "Miz Waner Ma'am" by her students. The narrator tells us the town is small enough that a new young woman's mere presence alters the future for more than just the man who takes her home, and sets events out of balance. Calamity Jane leaves destruction in her wake, but never looking back, she doesn't understand that she herself was the force of nature responsible for the wreckage. Her interactions with women are even more complicated; and her encounters with Ione Hardaway crackle from the beginning, as though the two women were old time gunfighters destined for a showdown at high noon. Something has to break, something harder than a heart.
The book isn't labeled a mystery, but mysteries permeate this novel. Some brush the cheek like an errant breeze and their whisper never materializes. Others inhabit tumbleweeds and scatter across the landscape again and again, showing a new side each time and continuously dropping leaves and seed, until they finally come to their last rest, gaunt and harmless - and resolved.
Schopen was born and raised in Deadwood, South Dakota, and spent his career teaching Literature at the University of Nevada at Reno. His wife is a friend of mine, but because our friendship was born on the internet, I've never met him. The desert landscape sprawls through every page he writes, but Schopen is no naturalist. You won't learn where to find burrowing owls or how to predict the rain here. The phenotypes he studies and knows so intricately are people, and the work of living as human beings in the desert world. He tells us only in passing why people came to string-along towns like Blue Lake, but by the end of his books we know something more important: we understand why some of them did not leave.
I've only flown over Nevada but I lived a long time in the West Texas desert. Schopen's landscape is so familiar I can smell the dust and admire the ageless, rustless, ruination of every abandoned thing along the road decaying in its own long time, without a drop of moisture to help. That is the bit that marks Schopen as Desert Man: he understands the stark junk, the inevitable accumulations of broken abandonment that just stay where they happen to end up, he understands the crazy beauty of obsolete iron and dry rotted shacks and the half-ruined but fiercely strong people that live among it all at their own free choice.
Schopen's books are clean like the desert stays clean despite the snakes and thorns. The desert rarely allows nuance to survive, and his characters are good or evil. His vilains can be vile, sometimes shudderingly so, but Schopen does not exult in their depravity: he describes just enough to engage the imagination without inflicting ugliness on his readers, and quickly offsets this with a turn to primary decency. While the good & the heroic may fall into error, they are true to their desert upbringing, and they never really give up hope. Schopen doesn't erase the past to generate happy endings, but he opens the doors and leaves them ajar, offering shelter for the feathered things.
"Calamity Jane" is billed as a clash between the old and the new. Those who understand the desert know what wins that battle. This is a stolid tale of love lost and won, of tragic youth and triumphal old age, of lives that don't need fame for meaning: a chance to peer behind the cotton curtains and through the rising dust into the real life that still abides in the desert west. It is a book that will outlive its author, and may, someday, when the "post literate" hoopla has inevitably passed and literature matters again, be hailed as Nevada's own Great American Novel.