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The power of place

Nocturnal America John Keeble University of Nebraska Press: 268 pp., $26.95

The Road to Cosmos The Faces of an American Town Bill Meissner University of Notre Dame Press: 192 pp., $22 paper

December 17, 2006|Ellen Slezak | Ellen Slezak is the author of a story collection, "Last Year's Jesus," and a novel, "All These Girls."

WRITERS write about the same 10 things over and over. Love, hate, loyalty, betrayal, innocence, guilt, birth, death, hope, despair. In fiction, as in life, men will resent their fathers, women will leave their husbands, children will suffer, factories will close, crops will fail, fires will sweep through canyons and cars will crash on icy roads. There's nothing new to write about. In the wrong hands, stories can be too familiar. In the right hands, stories show us how we live.

John Keeble's hands are the right ones. His "Nocturnal America," a collection of loosely related stories, won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. The work here is planted in the American Northwest, and it uses as its raw material the wind, rain, fire, snow, horses, cattle, mosquitoes, mud, porcupines and chickens that are plentiful in that place. Keeble presents the brutal landscape with ambivalence, so that a reader is sometimes moved to ask: Who could live here? Only to answer a few pages later: Who wouldn't want to try?

These nine short stories are not easy. A character in one may appear again three stories later, with only a subtle reminder of who he or she is. Young children often go unnamed, as if the writer is warning us not to get too close to anybody so vulnerable. This works as part of the overriding metaphor of the collection: The landscape is demanding, so pay attention.

The opening story, "The Chasm," introduces Jim Blood and his wife, Diane. Jim dreams big. He believes in the honor of caring for the land and for his family. The Bloods and their three young sons are starting a ranch, building a home, living through a winter without any source of heat except a potbelly stove. Their neighbors Lem and Judy have a dairy farm, and the two families help each other clear fields of rocks and winch tractors from mudholes. Good intentions are not rewarded here, and things often end badly. As Jim notes, "There was hazard to a good idea and to family."

Jim comes by his wariness naturally. In "Chickens," it's 1949 and he's a 7-year-old drawn to Hugo Goettinger, a newcomer in town who starts a successful business. Hugo becomes the object of a "Crucible"-like judgment by his fellow townsfolk, spurred in part by a rumor about his complicity in war crimes. Is moral judgment that's rooted in fear, envy and prejudice equal to the crime it condemns? When Jim's father, a minister, says the townspeople will "make use of the law," his mother replies: "Then there's no law but what's to be as twisted as he is." Hearing this -- and having seen things his parents don't know about -- Jim begins to understand that there is no direct route to what is just and good. Life is fraught with complications that will pain women and men.

In "Freeing the Apes," such complications run full throttle. Here, Jim and Diane have established their ranch. Their three boys are grown, and one, the college-aged Pascal (he's finally earned a name), is home visiting. Yet even in this apparently settled state, the couple is in a property dispute with a neighbor. A burial ground and bodies have been found on their land. The story is told from the perspective of another neighbor, Pete, who brings along demons of his own. That the potent plot comes together without a showy explosion is proof of Keeble's restraint.

None of this is surprising, because in issues of craft, Keeble is first-rate. Even his tics enhance his storytelling. He often interrupts a line of dialogue with a few paragraphs of tangent so perfectly suited to the way a mind works that the reader has no trouble following the conversation when it picks up again. Another of his idiosyncratic strengths is that he makes machinery -- tractors, winches, backhoes -- personal. You may not think you care about how to remove a 1,000-pound blown transmission from an International Loadstar tractor-trailer, but after reading "The Transmission," in which three men struggle to do it without killing themselves, you will.

A few of the stories in "Nocturnal America" are less equal than others. The title piece tries to be about too much, and "The Fishers" is also lesser for its breadth. Writers move us most when they go deep, not wide. "I Could Love You (If I Wanted)" stumbles in a different direction. In it, a woman named Lola has lost her job, her mother is dying, her children are young, her lover is married. The familiar is just not strange enough. Still, when Lola unloads her U-Haul trailer by herself, jockeying furniture up the walkway, we feel a pang of sadness and admiration. Nobody should have to move furniture alone, and like so much in "Nocturnal America," it's really something to see.

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