Culture Conversation: Literature
Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms
A review of Maximilian Werner's Crooked Creek
by Geoff Wichert | photo by Zoe Rodriguez
In his first novel, University of Utah writing professor and essayist Maximilian Werner ambitiously reconfigures several popular genres, transfusing them with blood drawn from recent literary fiction. Thus what may be unwelcome because unfamiliar is made accessible, a process that works in both directions. In historical order—and increasing intimacy—his models include the Western, historical fiction set in Utah in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the memoir of self-discovery through a close encounter with nature. Crooked Creek contains epic elements, including gunfights, burials, grave robbing, struggles between competing visions of a wide open future, religious ideology, and encounters with ghosts and guilt. Yet it never ascends to the airy realm of myth. Rather, it roots itself in specific sensual experiences and almost entirely resists exposition: things aren’t explained to us, they’re just shown. Its events, while imagined anew, are based in true accounts the author researched personally. In this way, and by combining the evocative power of often archaic speech with the specificity of scientific prose, Maximilian Werner makes this brief account of three generations of Utah immigrants compelling for those of us who still dwell, inescapably, in the world they set in motion. To borrow a poetic and evocative meteorological phrase from one of his characters, Werner gives us the old moon in the new moon’s arms.
As they must, the characteristics that make Crooked Creek a compelling read appear as it opens:
After the rain had quit, the boy left the aspens, under which he sat with a shotgun and a nearly headless rabbit, and he strode through a field of alfalfa that wet him to his belt. Slung with a length of twine, the rabbit swung side to side over his shoulder. In the cool air, barn swallows gave way to bats as the dark bloomed. All about him the grass was pocked with horse droppings, and a coyote’s howls drifted across the weeds and through the air to where the boy laid out the rabbit, and with his eyes and feet he hunted for wood in the outlying darkness.There are no mere birds here; instead, there are Red-wing Blackbirds and Western Tanagers, which appear in season along with pomace flies and hound’s tongue. ‘Rabbit‘ is an adequate description of dinner, but hundreds of living things are observed with the precision necessary for survival and a genuine sense of the sacred. Only the mutts that dwell on the fringes of human space are not precisely delineated, no doubt because they, like their necessarily freewheeling masters, can’t be. Meanwhile, unlike romances—Hollywood or Harlequin—where one emerges from shelter to find a cozy lawn, here horse droppings and a wild cry lend visual and auditory forms that becomes tactile as well when a reader recalls searching with feet for what lies out of sight. Descriptions range from the functional to the poetic, and even well-informed readers will enjoy having a dictionary and guidebook to local flora and fauna at hand.
The boy on whom Crooked Creek opens is the grandson of characters only met later. Some readers may be frustrated by the almost profligate way the novel picks up and abandons characters and story lines, while others will feel that we see just enough of the inevitable low-lifes and bullies who are irresistibly drawn to the fringes of civilization. The tapestry Werner weaves of them is a relatively small textile that leaves room for elaboration, one hopes on a larger scale. Werner’s interests arguably lie elsewhere, with a larger realignment of how we remember and retell specific stories of our origins. He suggests that the story of Zion’s founding, full of invisible beings and larger, pre-ordained purposes, has obscured a more compelling and meaningful tale. Those who come across his book after finding nothing new on the Religious Fiction shelf at the bookstore will either be disappointed or forced to expand their horizons.
We can readily imagine how the religious revival that ‘burned over’ the northeastern states at the beginning of the 19th century was motivated in part by the propinquity of death in times and circumstances where most people lived at a distance from what was, in any event, primitive health care. Then as now, each person died only once, but unlike now, when the first death witnessed up close may well be ones own, those who survived infancy then saw a great deal of death. Intervening decades have pushed mortality back, technically by changes in medicine and lifestyle, but also philosophically away from consciousness by the collision of materialistic and spiritual modes of thought. In Crooked Creek Werner clearly wants to recover for contemplation some of the most basic facts about how we live and die. There’s death here, some talking and a lot of thinking about it. Religion isn’t the answer to the awareness of death: it’s a product of immoveable fact.
Near the middle of Crooked Creek, Neff Saunders, a Heber Valley settler concerned with the impact of cattle on fragile desert land, calls his rancher neighbor’s attention to the destruction his livestock have wreaked to their common stream:
Allred’s face looked stern then and the veins on either side of his neck rose and fell with each heart beat. Up to that time, he had practiced a detached civility toward Neff, as though he were being tolerated and nothing more, which is how it was with the Gentiles that could not be reached by the missionaries and the townspeople with their promises of heaven, eternal life and, in the meanwhile, fertile women, blessed bread and honey.This moment of inevitable, historically pervasive agrarian conflict is as close as Werner comes to taking up any specific doctrine. Instead, he retells the settlement saga without the subtext of otherworldly actors, purposes, and meanings that muddies recent accounts as much as, say, Manifest Destiny did earlier ones. Allred the neighbor is a recurring presence, of course, and the only specifically Mormon character in Crooked Creek, but he is impeccably observed and there is nothing necessarily Mormon in his abrupt manner or lack of foresight. Risking a different controversy, Crooked Creek portrays Native Americans—in particular the Ute Indians—as vanished exemplars of a more harmonious, not to anachronistically call it a more ‘ecological,’ relationship with nature. This may upset readers who fall to one side or the other of current historical or scientific understanding, especially if they forget that ultimately they are confronting not those facts, but popular (and unpopular) opinions current more than a century ago. In an afterword, the publishers point out that not only do we have more information today, but evidence from a century of management policy that Neff and Allred did not share.
But now Neff knew he was seeing Allred for what he was, a man who had been dwelling on eternity for so long, he could not feel his feet on the ground.
The story of Crooked Creek is told in one long flashback. Starting at a point where the plot is well developed—usually as close as practical to its end—is a staple of genre entertainments that rely on focused curiosity to keep the pages turning. But here the familiar structure serves an aesthetic purpose as well. The cyclical rhythm it gives the plot emphasizes the storyteller’s point that each generation lives, as it must, as if it were doing so for the first time. By opening when and where it does, it does something that only art can do: brings the latest generation, the adolescents Gil and Cider, into close proximity with their parents, Preston and Sara, when they were about the same age and still under the sway of her parents, Ben and Mary. Without resorting to a diagram, this is the way to establish common points and departures between the three generations. It’s not giving away too much to say that after a period of wandering, a need arises to settle down—but putting down roots involves sacrifices and compromises similar to those that formerly drove two families to pull up stakes, and no degree of attachment ever quite cancels out the urge to move on. Also, real life isn’t a staged drama with beginning and concluding acts. Birth and death just turn the lights on and off, while the story goes on . . . if necessary, in the dark.
Living as they did on the trail, or in structures they built themselves, the Wood, Allred, and Fisher families lived much closer to nature than we can grasp. Living without plumbing or electricity or any form of communication not requiring someone to travel to the other’s location made them more dependent on personal encounters. This makes intimacy, in the broadest sense, a compelling component and theme of Crooked Creek. Early on, readers watch as one of her sons gives an ailing woman a bath. Later we will see how she had always put practicality before false modesty, but during this first encounter we know only what we bring to the novel and how that contrasts with the one witness in the book, in whose hands it becomes the novel’s first major turning point. It would be a pleasure to describe the tenderness felt in the moment, but the truth is that’s not how it happens. It’s a powerful scene, but its magic comes from the brusque efficiency with which he does what’s needed. In a story where it often feels the characters live close to their land but as far from each other as possible, it’s stunning to realize that it’s in moments like the changing of a diaper that our first and strongest bonds are formed. How we behave then reveals who we are, and stamps it as an existential fact on those we touch.
In Crooked Creek Maximilian Werner has encoded the sources of beauty and terror, which is what art is supposed to do. But more than that, he has restored an arguably proper balance between competing desires, like the desire to be given the answers and the desire to see for ourselves. We want to know what it was like for those for whom it was different than it is for us, and he makes as much of the answer as can be known come vividly to life. Yet we also want to know that for everyone, even those far away in time and space, enough is the same as it is for us that we can presume to stand with them. Crooked Creek has its cinematic moments, and a few minor anachronisms, but it also captures the poetry of life emerging out from death, taking its meaning therefrom, and returning to go around again.
Crooked Creek is published by Torrey House Press, (178 pp., $15.95). On July 13, in an event hosted by The King's English Bookstore, Maximilian Werner will be at 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City, to read and sign copies of his novel Crooked Creek (7pm). On July 29 he will do the same at Dolly's Bookstore in Park City (7pm). You can catch his KCPW radio interview on July 28 at 6:15 pm.
On the Cover
Tied to the Land
Guy Tal and Torrey House Press
It is always a delight to watch two beloved art forms mingle, so it was with pleasure that we noted that for their cover of the upcoming release of Maximilan Werner's Crooked Creek, Torrey House Press has chosen a photograph by Utah artist Guy Tal.
Tal lives and works in the Colorado Plateau. His photographs concentrate equally on the radiant colors and unique lines of the West. He writes on the technical and inspirational aspects of landscape photography in books and articles.
Tal is also a committed activist for the preservation of wild spaces, a concern he shares with the founders of Torrey House Press. The press, established by a group of wilderness ethusiasts who split their time between Salt Lake and Torrey, publishes "literary fiction and creative nonfiction about the environment, people, cultures, and resource management issues of the Colorado Plateau and the American West."
Learn more about Guy Tal at www.guytal.com and about Torrey House Press at torreyhouse.com.