A man becomes sexually attracted to a grizzly bear in the first story of Maxim Loskutoff’s debut fiction collection, Come West and See. It doesn’t end well for man or bear. But it nicely sets the stage for what’s to come: a parade of sad and luckless characters whose failure to bond with their fellow humans drives them to remote quarters, lonely obsessions and violence.
In this collection of surreal and dystopian short stories, released today by W.W. Norton, many have intense relationships with wildlife and nature. In one story, a young woman leaves her boyfriend to save a wounded coyote. In another, a college-age stoner learns from a veterinarian that his Burmese python is preparing to eat him. Then, a woman is driven to kill a massive pine tree in her front yard that she blames for her misery.
The tales are linked by a common backdrop: a reimagined West, where rural, anti-government militias have taken hold and declared a wide swath of autonomous territory — called the Redoubt — through parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana and beyond. A lawless frontier mentality has taken hold there. Golf courses and ski resorts where rich tourists from Los Angeles once partied are deserted and pocked by airstrikes.
Although the characters all seem to know somebody who’s “joined up” with the militias, the civil war stays on the periphery through most of the book. The first exception is a piece called “Daddy Swore an Oath,” in which a woman named Lila anxiously waits for news of the death of her husband, who is leading a standoff against the government at a national wildlife refuge. It sounds like an only slightly fictionalized version of the 2016 occupation at Malheur in Oregon.
Lila isn’t sure what to tell her two sons, other than their father swore to “uphold the Constitution,” whatever that means to him. She is aware that his rage is the product of right-wing hallucinations of “Muslim sleeper cells along the East Coast” and “Sharia law on university campuses.” But as the TV news crews descend on her home, she has to decide how she and her family will be defined.
The uprising gets center stage again in the final three stories. In “Too Much Love,” an unemployed builder takes up arms after his wife leaves him for a pot farmer. In “Harvest,” a surviving militiaman has spent years caring for a fallen friend’s young daughter in a bunker beneath a farmhouse. As she reaches puberty, his alarming fantasies force a test of wills.
In the closing story, “The Redoubt,” a couple stumbles out of the breakaway territory with their bodies pierced by arrows. The militiamen apparently can’t spare real ammunition on deserters. It’s the reader’s deepest insight into the Redoubt. It turns out the young protagonist’s parents are government loyalists, while his girlfriend, Mercy, comes from a family of rabid anti-government fighters, making them a sort of Romeo and Juliet of the militia world. Their escape plan, along with their efforts to outlive their arrow wounds, seems doomed when they are found near the border by a degenerate band of federal soldiers
There’s blood. Sadism. Whiskey. Dobermans. Characters with names like Spud, Cass, True and Briar. Minus any supernatural elements, Loskutoff’s is a gothic West.
The best stories involve more insidious cruelty. In “We’re in This Together You Know, God,” a mother makes a biweekly visit to her institutionalized 12-year-old daughter, Cindy, who was put “away” after years torturing the family’s animals and eventually burning down a stable full of horses. The two play Bananagrams in the silence of a padded visiting chamber, the mother in helpless anguish, afraid she’ll trigger an outburst, “sitting in a rubber chair across from my daughter. … Watching the sparks in her eyes,” when the daughter announces one of her words: "‘Kin!’"
In “Stay Here,” an interracial couple with a baby returns to the town where the woman’s father was the community’s “first Muslim.” Their relationship is vulnerable from within and without. Passersby and cops do double takes at the sight of the pair, who are working through painful episodes of deceit and infidelity. In the second half of the story, with a baby in tow, they hike hours to sunbathe on a deserted lakeside beach only to be menaced by a looming male figure silhouetted on a hill.
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Fans of Cormac McCarthy and Russell Banks will find plenty to like in Loskutoff's fresh voice and keen instincts for drama. There's a dry wit behind the venom, as when a couple of smokejumpers fail to see the irony of lighting M80s in the woods on their days off. Or in the tale about the woman who has it in for the tree, when the narrator gripes, "It was surprisingly impossible to order invasive pine beetles online."
And although the narration occasionally commits minor sins of over-explanation, the language is crisp and often thrilling in its plainspoken eloquence. The writing draws from a deep sense of place and character. When a medic describes a patient who experienced clairvoyance after getting shot through the skull with an arrow, and who for a bottle of whiskey would tell you where you’re going to die, the doctor's gray eyes glaze “like trout left too long in the sun.”
It’s a weirdly appropriate moment for a collection like this, with militia sentiment creeping ever closer to the mainstream and anti-government conspiracists actually in power. It should make for a lively book tour. But Come West and See isn’t trying to explain the angry rural white mindset, and beyond its premise it has much more to offer.
Kurt B. Pitzer is an author and foreign correspondent. He is a recipient of the Lange-Taylor Prize for documentary work in the Balkans and author of the nonfiction books The Bomb in My Garden and Eating With the Enemy.