Pam Houston's meteoric rise as one of Colorado's most celebrated authors continues with her first novel, Sight Hound. Colorado readers will recognize many of the settings and events in the book, including the wildfires of a few summers back that licked the perimeter of Houston's Creede ranch and left much of the rest of the state crisp and hazy with smoke.
Houston is best known as a short-story writer. Her two linked-story collections, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat garnered numerous awards, and individual stories were heralded with the O. Henry Award, the Pushcart Prize and inclusion in the anthology Best American Short Stories of the Twentieth Century. In 2001, Houston turned her talents to playwriting, and in Sight Hound, her clearly autobiographical main character, Rae, is a playwright.
Only peripherally about writing or the ranch in Creede or the literary life, the heart of Sight Hound first appeared in Houston's essay, "Ten Things My Dog Taught Me That Made It Possible For Me To Get Married," collected in Dog is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World's Oldest Friendship, from the editors of The Bark magazine. Indeed, the central and most heart-grabbing character in the book is Dante, an Irish wolfhound who has lost a leg to cancer and who must teach his human, Rae, how to love fully and fearlessly before he moves on.
"This was a time in my life when the big questions collided with the little ones, when the smell of sage coming up through the snowmelt could seem like a bona fide promise, when what is big was all around me, demanding patience and courage in alternating doses, singing this is the beginning of beginning to understand," says Rae in the book's opening section. When she meets Howard, a neurotic but charming Denver actor with whom she falls immediately and completely in love, all the lessons that Dante has taught her, the lessons of her past loves, and the lessons she has learned in therapy begin to converge.
The story is told from multiple points of view, in chapters that alternate voices among Rae, Dante, Jonathan and many others. There's Dr. Evans, the dedicated veterinarian who treats Dante's cancer; his kind and mature young assistant, Brooklyn Underhill; Rae's friend and caretaker of the ranch, cranky Darlene; Theo, Rae's unconventional therapist; Jonathan, her depressed former writing partner; and others, including Rose the second dog and Stanley the cat.
In lesser hands, this construction could have become confusing. But Houston is nothing if not a masterful storyteller, knowing when retrospective and back story work and when the action needs to move forward. Regardless of who is speaking in any section, the tragicomedy doesn't lose its dramatic trajectory, and the reader is constantly entertained and rewarded by the eclectic mix of voices.
While so much of the book's content is autobiographical -- Houston married for the first time in the past few years, she lost a dog, she wrote a play, she processed her childhood with a therapist, etc. -- it successfully remains a gripping fictional treatment because of Houston's careful control of the work. And Dante, the Irish wolfhound, is one of the most compelling characters in fiction I've had the luck to fall in love with in a long while.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Pam Houston will sign and read from Sight Hound
Thursday, Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m.
Tattered Cover, Cherry Creek store, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver
Friday, Jan. 28, 7:30 p.m.
Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder