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Book Review

Facing the Past After Living With Secrets

THE WEIGHT OF DREAMS; by Jonis Agee; Viking $23.95, 390 pages

July 13, 1999|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Sand Hills of northwestern Nebraska aren't, in the usual sense, a poetic landscape. The soil is thin, the vegetation sparse, the climate an alternation of extremes: heat, cold, wind. The people in Jonis Agee's fourth novel aren't poetic either: hard-bitten ranch folk and hard-drinking Native Americans from nearby South Dakota reservations. Agee's prose is coarse-grained, often clumsy, like clothes you'd wear to muck out stables, as if anything fancier would be an affectation.

Yet poetry can be found in "The Weight of Dreams," along with the monotonous, slogging work and flashes of violence that make up Agee's vision of life on the plains. It's a poetry of observation, of detail. Mending a fence, treating an injured horse, rescuing cows from a blizzard, watching amateurs ride in a jumping competition, mingling in a ranch kitchen with couples whose unconscious gestures betray problems they'd never speak of--any of these, we think, could be described more economically but not with more knowledge and insight. Gradually the details accumulate; the vision takes hold of us.

*

Agee's hero, Ty Bonte, flees the Sand Hills at 17, both sinned against and sinning. His younger brother, Ronnie, died at 8 in a tractor accident, after which the family was never the same. Ty's rancher father, Ryder, retreated into a bottle, his mother to town. Between Ryder's beatings and his mother's coldness, Ty found solace only in back-breaking, mind-numbing work and in sprees with his friend Harney Rivers, a banker's son. One night, the youths picked up a couple of reservation-bound drunks and nearly killed them. Harney, thanks to family connections, got off, but Ty, facing jail, lit out for Kansas.

Twenty years later, in traditional cowboy style, Ty has concealed his guilt and pain under a weather-roughened hide and a stoical reserve. He has bought a small spread and built up a business as a horse trader and trainer. Except for the caution he must exercise whenever his travels take him through Nebraska, he has put the past behind him, he thinks. But the past is waiting for him. Harney, still a sociopath--"wired wrong," in plains parlance--has inherited his father's bank and holds the mortgage on Ryder's ranch. He has hired a crooked Minnesota trainer named Eddie to kill a failing race horse to collect the $150,000 insurance. And Eddie has dealings with Ty.

*

Dakota Carlisle, a young woman who left middle-class Iowa in hopes that the world of horse shows would be larger and freer, has grown disillusioned with Eddie. She sees Ty's arrival, in Eddie's absence, as a means of escape. She persuades him to take not only the doomed race horse--given a nagging, infected injury to make him seem uncontrollable--but also her own horse and herself. In Kansas, this alliance of convenience turns into romance. But it's weighed down by the secrets both are carrying--and before long, Harney and Eddie show up to exact revenge.

This takes gruesome forms. Ty is stabbed in the chest with a pitchfork. The race horse is electrocuted. Agee describes these things as matter-of-factly as she describes scouring grease off the walls of a ranch house inhabited for 20 years by a bachelor, or tending to an old man dying of emphysema--for Ty, after he recovers, returns to the Sand Hills with Dakota to strike back at Harney, and this forces him, finally, to face the consequences of his youthful crime and to make some kind of peace with Ryder.

The plot of "The Weight of Dreams"--the criminal and legal aspects--is hard to follow at first, then resolves itself too neatly at the end. The underlying story, however--the relations among members of Ty's family, the Bontes and their neighbors, whites and Native Americans--is surefootedly told. Neatness is less a virtue here than fidelity, and we believe in Agee's people, in their mixed motives and unresolved conflicts and uncertain futures, just as we believe in the harsh and beautiful land they live in.

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