Furrowed Lines Eye-Measured and True
Braden Hepner's "Pale Harvest"
Braden Hepner’s first novel, Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press), is a Sisyphean tale of a young man yearning for more than warm udders, manure, and the patience to make a straight-line furrow with an old tractor held together with bailing wire. The novel is set on a dairy farm in northern Utah, at the foot of high, foreboding mountains to the east and an open, unfertile desert to the west. It’s sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, and where “John Blair Selvedge worked now, twenty years old, without parents, unknowingly come back to the land of his forbears in the sixth generation, a diesel tractor and a shaftdriven implement with which to work, not an owner of the land, but a daily toiler of it.” John, or “Jack,” as he is most often referred to, labors under his grandfather Blair’s control of the land and the promise that an inheritance might make him the owner and free him for some greater purpose.
But the inheritance is held in limbo until Jack’s ailing grandmother passes away and a decision of the beneficiary distribution of the farm between Jack and his Uncle Elmer can be made. Elmer is an infirm man, with a sturdy plain wife and sickly son, who does his best to lord over Jack in order to assert his claim on the farm. Jack’s father, the rightful heir before his and his wife’s death, had turned his back on the farm in favor of a college education, thus muddying the distribution downstream despite Jack’s dedication and labor. Even after his grandmother’s death and funeral there is uncertainty.
Blair stood alone at the coffin, staring into it as he had into the bed a few nights before, studying its contents. He reached his hand inside and rested it on the remains and before Jack could turn his head for what he saw coming he bent and kissed them. When Jack looked back Blair’s shoulders were buckling, a physical change taking place like a mountain shaken by earth tremors and sliding. The wail that came from the old man’s throat made the joints of the wooden pews buzz and the silence that followed as he pulled in wind was stricken and terrible. He sobbed, his body heaving with the force, and then it was over. He stabbed his eyes with a blunt finger and thumb and turned them red-rimmed upon the gathered. Bleary of face and small-eyed like an aggrieved beast, those two points of red misery searching the congregation for what, Jack?
Hepner’s writing is luxurious. Marvelous work that belies the common setting and roughhewn characters of the small dying town where even the graffiti on the abandoned storefronts is faded. Along with Jack and the Selvedges there is a troupe of languishing young men in their twenties: Seth McQuarters, Roydn Woolums, Balls Murphy, Wrink Paulsen. These boys in men’s clothing wallow in self-pity and long for salvation but are paralyzed to act on their own behalf. They are drawn in the evenings to a little older and wiser peer named Heber Rafuse who has gone away for a time and returned with mystic knowledge. Heber holds Rasputinesque discussions with the others as they gather at his trailer or around a pallet fire near the river. They drink, smoke, ogle the odd girl he brings with him under the stars, and listen to his bombastic philosophies.
—The only rules are the ones you impose upon yourself, and in the end you’ll be immobile and defeated, wrapped up in the restraints of your own peculiar gospel and baffled that everyone has moved on without you because they understood something you didn’t.
Jack says this last, and, indeed, there is an uneasy alliance between Heber and Jack when a beautiful young lady from their past reappears in their midst. Rebekah Rainsford, an object of desire, of other. She is dark and new. Familiar yet foreign with maturity and mysterious sexuality. The young men pin their hopes to her. But it is Jack she gives the most reason for hope. Hope, the tattoo she has on her neck, that doesn’t say it but rather “expresses the idea.” She cooks him dinner, and he eats with wild abandon:
—You’re setting yourself up for an asskicking, talking this way.
He chewed rapidly, his clicking jaw the only sound he made, and took great gulps of water and refilled his glass. It surprised him how he ate, how he wanted to consume her also, how that would be the only satisfying ending to the night, the only filling thing and what he needed to be whole. To feast on her thighs, to relish her plump flesh and wipe his chin clean of the juice.
Among many other things Jack is haunted by wolves. Wolves that he doesn’t first recognize. They seem to be pursuing him.
A squabbling barking rose from somewhere in the land below and carried up the hill to him. Yips and broken howls. Coyotes, he thought, and mad. They sounded frantic, bloodthirsty, roaming through the bottoms in search of whatever pandemonium might be found there. He’d never heard coyotes sound like that, so wild and bold, so strong, and he wondered if he was imagining it.
Wolves out on the land. Danger. In this story there is death on every highway. On every field. In the river and in the shored up feed for the cattle, the bulls, and milk cows that are there on the hoof-packed ground every morning and every afternoon with their udders full. They come like the sun and the moon, as does Jack and his grandfather and the hired boys on the farm. And the old men and minimum-wage boys are there at the co-op buying and distributing feed and medicine and talk on the loading dock. Endless. Sun, moon, morning, and night.
So there is Rebekah. For young men like Jack, their future uncertain and their present habitual, of course there is Rebekah. She is a light, a meteor through the lonely night sky tearing through the invented constellations of valley lore and hope, crashing into the earth like a gem from the gods.
They all want to possess her, to pull her and push against the beautiful life that breaks them. That breaks her.
Hepner wakes the reader at dawn with Jack:
He had rarely had occasion to watch the sun rise, though he’d been awake for the better part of them throughout his life, held inside the barn in deferential supplication to the udders as the sun came to do its own daily work.
Hepner has put in the daily work with this fine novel, its keen words and sentences furrowed like lines eye-measured and trued on a far dying tree in the distance across the alkaline fields of northern Utah. He shows us the cows that come to the milking barn. The men, young and old, who miss the rise of the sun in favor of the touch of flesh-bearing life, sustenance from creatures whose constant bare wisdom help fill the tanks day-after-day with the harvest that well substitutes the milk of our own mortal mothers.
And subtly, slowly, like a rider on horseback, Hepner takes us on a journey along with the broken, shit-begrimed souls of this small town. Until finally, just maybe, someone dares to leave and drive a truck into a night full of stars. Someone who looks up to see new light below the southern horizon where, “The earth glowed as though it harbored an inner fire of its own, as though it were about to be reborn.”
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Kimball Art Center UP: Christo & Jeanne Claude: The Tom Golden Collection. Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in Paris in 1958, marking the beginning of the most extraordinary artistic partnership of our time. Today they are most well-known for their monumental public installations in which they wrap buildings, erect curtains, outline islands, and “plant” umbrellas in the developed and undeveloped landscape. These temporary interventions are remembered through extensive original artworks created by the couple for planning and fundraising purposes leading up to the realization of each project. Kimball Art Center is proud to bring the largest U.S. collection of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s original drawings, sculptures, collages, and photographs to Park City.|1|
Julie Nester Gallery UPCOMING: Daniel Ochoa: Stitched Images. Ochoa’s third solo exhibition at the gallery will debut a new body of work encompassing twelve large-scale portraits and ‘street view’ paintings. Ochoa’s work tests the limits of abstraction and representation by layering distorting effects from multiple technologies onto a single image. His ‘street view’ paintings exist in a territory between fidelity and misrepresentation, frequently fluctuating between the two. The series employs blurred, stitched, and disjointed images produced by glitches in Google’s ambitiously extensive street mapping technology as source material. Ochoa then modifies realistic rendering with visceral abstract paint application and masking techniques. Identity, privacy, and authenticity are problematized and boundaries between viewer and producer are dissolved through this complex body of work.|2|
Meyer Gallery UPCOMING: Santiago Michalek solo exhibition.
Trove Gallery UPCOMING: Charley Snow solo exhibition. Opens November 28.
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art UP: New Acquisitions 2013 features nine works of art recently donated to the museum by the late Joe Austin. AND: Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape and the American West explores the role of the American West as a site for rebirth and enchantment, specifically through artists and composers who explored the visionary interpretations of the landscape in visual or musical form inspired by Theosophical ideas. AND: Black Mountain College: Shaping Craft + Design brings together a selection of works by Black Mountain College (BMC) faculty and students to explore the role and influence of the college on the fields of studio craft and design from the middle of the 20th century through today (see our review in the September 2014 edition).|3| AND: Relational Forms: Robert Bliss & Anna Campbell Bliss highlights select furniture pieces designed by Robert Bliss and artwork by Anna Campbell Bliss. This exhibition is on display inside the museum's lobby gallery. The Bliss' moved to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1963 and have been influential in the art and design communities of the United States. Robert's furniture reflects modern designs emphasizing practicality without compromising aesthetics while Anna's prints make connections between mathematics, computer science, and art. This is only the second time the work of this couple has been shown together.|4|
Whitespace Contemporary UP: Driven to Abstraction, an exhibition of painting and sculpture, will feature nationally-exhibited artists. Each of the represented artists addresses a different form of abstraction: geometric, intuitional, minimal, gestural, or some combination. For some, the form is the ultimate concern, for others, color holds sway. In all cases, the artist is interested in provoking feeling more so than understanding (see our review page 8).
Eccles Community Art Center UP: The Main Gallery will feature the paintings of Keith Dagley of Ogden. The Carriage House Gallery will feature copper art and jewelry by Angelika Lakomski of Ogden. Dagley’s early years were spent drawing, raising registered horses, sheep, and cows as well as spending time chasing wild horses in the high Book Cliff area. In college he realized that Range Management was not where he should head, so he transferred to the Art department to pursue a degree in art education. Angelika Lakomski looks to embellishment in the creation of her art. Using pounded and shaped copper she creates wall art embellished with glass, mirrors, wire and occasionally crystal and semi-precious stones.
Shaw Gallery at WSU UP: Department of Visual Art & Design Biennial Faculty Exhibition features work by the award-winning faculty at Weber State University including “An Unbearable Longing,” Liese Zahab'si examination of the construction of time and history, through the use of the open source collection of Lady Bird Johnson’s home videos; “Nest and Pile”, Susan Makov's paintings addressing ecosystem responsibility; and “Drive Thru,” Jason Manley's sculptural thought constellation inspired by the electric commercial signs, billboards, and corporate logos which are part of the western skyline (see our review in the October 2014 edition).
Bountiful/Davis Art Center UPCOMING:
LeConte Stewart Festival has been presented on a somewhat regular basis over the years. This year the festival 'Utah Landscapes' features some of Utah's finest landscape artists and a solo exhibit of Simon Winegar's barn paintings called Bones of America. The exhibit also features select works of LeConte Stewart on loan from various institutions.