The discounted sociologist Jared Schmitz ... stated that in a culture in the seventh stage of rabid consumerism the peripheral always subsumes the core, and the core disappears to the point that very few of the citizenry can recall its precise nature. ... the poignant message of a culture spending its time as it spends its money; springing well beyond the elements of food, clothes and shelter into the suffocating welter of the unnecessary that has become necessary.
-- Jim Harrison, The Beast That God Forgot to Invent
Thrown by her horse into the metal teeth of a creep feeder, bleeding from mouth and body, alone in the falling snow, Carolyn, the protagonist of Laura Pritchett's stunning first novel, remains quite attuned to the core:
She can breathe, her heart is beating. She thinks of the basic human needs. Air. Water. Food. Shelter. In that order.
Carolyn is one of two middle daughters in the three-generation family of Colorado ranchers who inhabit Hell's Bottom, Colorado, winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize.
Insofar as the novel has a central character, Carolyn is it. But Hell's Bottom has more in mind than to create characters -- though it does so memorably. This book has in mind to re-create the lives of people who live at the core. Still. Today. Right here in the midst of The Magic Kingdom. It has in mind to recall us to the nature of that core.
Hell's Bottom is a novel in stories, a category generally applied by publishers to collections of short stories in hopes of overcoming sales resistance to collections of short stories. But in this case, it's the only accurate description to be made. This is a book whose chapters are as self-contained and multi-faceted as quartz crystals (some citrine, some rutilated, some smoky) that yet speak to each other in the kind of conversation that goes on in a family over generations.
Pritchett frames her book with stories that involve the saving of newborn calves by wrapping them in the quickly flayed hides of still-born or aborted calves, thus encouraging their foster mothers to give them suck. Human intelligence and technique and knowledge are used to preserve life and, if not to defeat, at least to fight another day's draw with death. One calf at a time. The core.
The family's paterfamilias, Ben, has "learned this much, how so much of life is the precarious moment, the sudden event, the surprise that spikes out of an ordinary day. How the rest -- the bulk of life -- is necessary to absorb these little bits. Absorb them and heal and wonder at." If you wanted to describe the stories in this book, and what they add up to, you couldn't do better than that.
As a short-story writer, Pritchett exemplifies Hemingway's principle that what's left out is more powerful than what's put in; that silence is what makes music possible; that the iceberg's power derives from its unseen weight beneath the surface.
Here's Carolyn's son, Jack, as seen by his girlfriend Winnie; they're sitting on a park bench in the middle of Denver:
Jack runs his palms over his black Wranglers, and I look at my soft sweatpants and blue flannel shirt. I was going to dress up, it somehow seemed that I should. But at the last minute my hand just reached out for these. They're comfortable and soft and familiar.
I pick a thread off the shirt and scratch my knees. Jack spits again and rubs his chin. We wait, staring out into this big city with light glinting off walls of glass and smooth granite.
What they aren't discussing any more is that they've come to Denver for Winnie to have an abortion. That they're not discussing it is not discussed here. What's discussed is the way people try to keep in touch with their physical bodies when reality and their minds have forced them to make a difficult choice, and they've made it, and they aren't happy with it.
To Hemingway, by way of comparison, I add Steinbeck, who wrote so well about the joy of being alive in the natural world. Pritchett writes as well:
The sun's setting over the Rocky Mountains, and there's a meadowlark singing, and it's getting cool and quiet. Slade starts whistling softly, some tune that's soft and low, something I've never heard before.
We stay like that for a long time until Slade laughs. He nods at the horses, who are trotting through an open gate into the lawn, heading right for the garden and apple tree. This is no surprise, since it happens every day. Stoney has learned to open the latch with his nose, and no one has gotten around to putting a better latch on the gate yet. I don't think anyone will, either, since it seems to be some kind of ritual, this letting the horses get out and then chasing them back in.
This book is some kind of ritual. It's a ritual celebrating the basic human needs, lucidly examining the choices we can make about how to meet those needs, and making a big poem about the tragic comedy we make with our choices. There is more life in this book than you will find anywhere else in a long time looking. Give it to yourself for Christmas.