Hard Times on the Range

I just finished Kickdown, a new novel by my pal Rebecca Clarren, a former editor at High Country News and a longtime investigative journalist chronicling the rural West.

Set in a fictional Western Colorado ranch town deliciously named Silt, Kickdown features a trio of characters approaching middle-age and falling into midlife problems familiar to 21st-century American contemporaries — professional failure, aging or dead parents, yellowing relationships. But they’re also suffocating quietly under the small town microscope. And Jackie Dunbar, who’s put her big-city medical career on hold; her sister Susan, a flamed out journalist; and their high school buddy Ray, an Iraq vet with PTSD and a drowning marriage, are trying to make the Dunbar’s family ranch go.

The economics are touch and go — aren’t they always in the rural West? But the hardest part is the act of ranching, something Clarren skillfully watches with a meditative eye. Calving, fencing, breeding, haying, watering, herding, branding, inoculating, moving pipe — and tomorrow you do it all over again. This reader’s life of modern conveniences puts ranch life in even deeper dramatic relief. But it’s real. As one rancher told Clarren at a reading this fall in Pendleton, OR: “You nailed it.”

Clarren breathes life into inanimate things all over the range — mud, gravel, clay, amniotic fluid, blood, cowshit, irrigation water, creek flows, wind. Later, as the novel’s plot darkens around new gas development in town, there’s fracking fluid, benzene, fire. Nature and its elements take on a personality of their own, often putting at their mercy the people of Silt. Here, Jackie is charged by a new mother in her herd, Blanca.

Blanca whacks at Jackie’s ribs with the middle of her forehead, bone to bone. The cow snorts and blows her cud back. The sweet smell of clover, the rotten eggs of methane, all the bile of the cow’s gut.
Jackie’s breath is broken glass. Her heartbeat a hammer. This can’t be happening. This isn’t how it goes for her. She moves her tongue behind her front teeth and tastes iron, blood and the grit of dirt. There is the sky. Another cloud of flame. Yellow and black. It rises. Like a rooster tail, she thinks, before pain consumes her thinking.

As Kickdown builds, slowly and painfully, like the emergence of a heifer’s first calf, we want Jackie and Co. to reach a sort of equilibrium with the harsh environment and its elements swirling silently all around them. Clarren gives the trio a boost up the mesa of sanity; readers can decide for themselves where exactly the denouement leaves Su, Ray and Jackie in Silt’s complicated human web.

But one thing Clarren is clear about from start to finish is that they’ll get no free passes from nature. If the old myth of the West is that the land was full of riches and glory for anybody and everybody with the courage to tame it and exploit it, Kickdown adds an honest update: we pay a high cost for the exploitation, by setting into motion forces far stronger than ourselves that we don’t always understand nor have the power to control.

“Nature can be tamed, bent to human will,” muses Susan Dunbar to herself one morning while reading about silt building up behind the Colorado River’s 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam. “But control has its limits. Give it time. In a couple hundred decades, all that silt is going to break down the dam.”

That message, along with Clarren’s close-range portrait of people on the rural margins, makes Kickdown important reading.