Come West and See
by Maxim Loskutoff
WW Norton, 2018
Maxim Loskutoff's oddly riveting fiction-writing debut Come West and See takes its biggest artistic risk – and makes its only artistic stumble – right out of the starting gate. The book contains twelve short stories, eleven of which are interconnected, revolving at closer or more distant orbits around one location, “The Redoubt” badlands somewhere between Idaho, Montana, and Oregon, and one event, the takeover of the Little Charbonneau Wildlife Refuge by a group of armed and angry protesters. Only the book's first story, “The Dancing Bear,” disrupts this webwork, being set in 1893 Montana Territory and being about a dimwitted brute of a man who falls in love with a grizzly bear he spots one day. “The Dancing Bear” is fairly convincingly executed – but it's not only bizarre and repulsive, it's also in no way indicative of the complex, steadily-deepening experience readers have in store in the rest of the book.
Its inclusion at all, much less its position as door warden to the rest of the book, strikes me as a simple unforced error, a young author liking a story so much he wants to keep it in the book even though his own instincts are surely telling him it doesn't belong. But readers shouldn't be discouraged – they should either read it, say “huh,” and move right on, or they should skip it and dive right into the rest of the book.
To put it mildly, the novel-in-stories gimmick has been overused in contemporary fiction in the last few years. Far too often, the stories themselves don't even remotely justify it; the take-away impression of simple authorial laziness (can't actually be bothered to develop your characters? Fine – make Netflix episodes instead) is usually impossible to resist. But Come West and See is an exception: its prismatic approach to the central events at Little Charbonneau works steadily and remarkably effectively – sometimes the standoff is just a story barely heard on the car radio, other times the narrative closes right in on the people directly involved, like Lila in “Daddy Swore an Oath,” whose husband Briar has left her and their sons Otis and True in order to become the unlikely leader of the protesters, forcing Lila into an agonizing confrontation with her own priorities. “Even if the feds kicked down the door, took every gun from the house, and fitted her with a tracking collar, she wouldn't leave True and Otis,” she reflects. “That was the difference between fathers and mothers: Fathers could leave.”
Perhaps predictably, the interlocked-stories device is at its most effective when its working the middle distance, neither the indifferent bystanders nor the principal actors. The collection's best story, “Umpqua,” is a fine example of this: Russ and his girlfriend Bun go to the eponymous hot springs one night while Russ is roiling with the tension of having lost a friend in a gunfire exchange at Little Charbonneau. The couple encounter many people at the hot springs, and when the subject inevitably comes up, a cocky young baseball player has no patience for the grievances that are tearing Russ apart:
“It's crazy.” The boy looked at me. “What do they even want?”
“Their land,” I said. “Our land. For the government to start minding the Constitution, instead of murdering patriots.”
“Russ, please,” Bun said quietly.
“People are fed up. We're losing our rights. We've already lost them.”
“So then what?” the baseball player said. “They go out to the middle of nowhere and take over a bird refuge and shoot some cops?”
“They shot first.”
They were all staring at me.
“Then the rest of the country. Get it back from the criminals who've run it into the ground.”
Later in the story, the baseball boy hisses, “The only thing wrong with this country is you.” And the most amazing thing about Come West and See is that it engages the reader's sympathies but doesn't ever try to coerce them: you're as likely to agree with the baseball player as you are to agree with Russ (or any of the other “patriots” in these stories), and Loskutoff's understated skill at giving all his characters complexity and texture makes it refreshingly unrewarding to reduce any of the issues around Little Charbonneau to right- or left-skewed cable news banners. It's probably unavoidable that the acid-fractured social and political American moment will produce powerful, forensic, slightly baffled tribal fiction of this kind. If it's all as good as Come West and See, at least some good will have come of it all.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.