Wyoming writer shines a light onto the darker side of characters' lives

2011-08-07T00:00:00Z Wyoming writer shines a light onto the darker side of characters' livesBy BURT BRADLEY For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
August 07, 2011 12:00 am  • 

ALYSON HAGY

"Ghosts of Wyoming"

Graywolf Press

At first glance at the title of Alyson Hagy's collection of short stories, "Ghosts of Wyoming," a reader might assume that it was another lighthearted book of anecdotal stories about haunted houses, spooky tales of the old west and ghostly hitchhikers. Happily, this reader's assumption was dead wrong. But only about the kind of ghosts with which Hagy peoples her book, a finalist for fiction in the High Plains Book competition. And people is the right word. For the ghosts in Hagy's stories are flesh-and-blood individuals who exist on the peripheral of mainstream modern America — so close to the edge that they have often been overlooked, underestimated and, indeed, rendered by society insubstantial as if they were poltergeists: a runaway kid who steals a puppy, a ragtag group of trainmen laying track in the middle of nowhere, an elderly immigrant, gas and oil field workers, an impulsive 14-year-old ranch girl, among others.

Given such a menagerie of characters, Hagy's strength is her ability to draw so many distinct, individual portraits, each of which has its own unique voice and consequently its own unique narrative. The general setting is Wyoming — mostly present day, though one of the strongest stories takes place in the 19th century. Hagy's narrative style is reminiscent of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy in her penchant for figurative language that borders on the hyperbolic: "Thus he ... and the quiet Mr. Redfern face a culinary future of boiled mush and recalcitrance," or "The eastern sky is bottom-less, unfloored, as dizzying in its scope as a bachelor's lust," or this gem describing a raven's voice: "Rusted iron against wood, that's what the bird sounded like to her. Fence post and hinge."

The stories, however, are not merely collages of such literary gymnastics. Hagy knows how to tell a story, one that engages the reader both by a well-drawn and usually sympathetic characters involved in a small, yet vital drama like "The Little Saint of Hoodoo Mountain." Fourteen-year-old Livia, a ranch girl, discovers a skeleton of an infant buried on an abandoned ranch and hides it in an "Indian" cave in the nearby hills. Its discovery incites crowds of forest service employees, state archeologists, historians, activists from Wilderlands and hordes of John Q. Public who have come to gawk at the "sacred bundle" of the legendary "little people." Not only is Livia burdened by the consequences of her "secret" but also by having to keep watch on a mother who is mentally imbalanced. The resolution of this coming-of-age story reflects a worldview expressed throughout the stories in "Ghosts of Wyoming": There are no lessons to be learned, but knowledge to be gained, though unwanted and at a cost. "Something was finished...she had learned more than the truth that night...The time for their bitter history was now."

Indeed, the titles are the first clue that the eight short stories making up "Ghosts of Wyoming" share a bitter history that is now:"How Bitter the Weather," "Lost Boys," "The Sin Eaters." Yet each encompasses more than the truth about the characters who may well fit Thoreau's definition about living lives of quiet desperation, but do not, with Hagy's help, "go to their graves with their song still in them." In each story, something is finished — an incident, an investigation, a task — but there is no denouement, no resolution, no ending. It's not the light at the end that interests Hagy; it's inside the tunnel with the lives invisible beneath the bright noise of the surface world. True, it's dark. However, Hagy's luminous prose shines enough light for the reader to see not ghosts, but "the sharp ricochet of strangers ... no different than you or me."

Burt Bradley is an associate professor of English at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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