Collected Stories Of Wallace Stegner
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/06
Wallace Stegner is primarily known for his novel Angle Of Repose, and as a ‘Western writer’, but this is a misnomer, for that implies that the setting for his stories is also the subject of his stories. It is not, and he does not have much truck with the Larry McMurtrys nor Zane Greys of literature.
Throughout this massive tome of thirty-one of his best tales, Collected Stories Of Wallace Stegner, he acquits himself as a very solid writer, at his worst, and a near-great at his best. His tales tell believable stories, and his characterization never falls below solid. At his best he is capable of excellent short stories that almost reach into greatness. A good example of one of his best stories is the first one in the collection, The Traveler, in which a man traveling out west, in the winter, finds that he is stranded when his auto breaks down. The nearest house he can get to finds a young boy with his ill grandfather, and he is needed to take the sleigh into town to fetch a doctor for the old man. A moment is reached when the narrator realizes that his own dilemma does not take precedence, and when the boy reaches out to a stranger without fear or suspicion. It is the type of tale that Stegner excels at- one that deals with human beings and their primal emotions. He is not as good when he deals with more cerebral themes, or is averse to character driven tales. Plot machinations and lengthier pieces do not serve him as well, such as the two longest stories in the book, de facto novellas Genesis and A Field Guide To The Western Birds, where a curmudgeon wryly comments on the antics of a would-be virtuoso. The tale The Berry Patch is another good example of Stegner at his character study best. As is the story Buglesong, which follows a sadistic boy on his trapping rounds. Read the attempted detachment with which both writer and subject deal with what confronts them:
Picking up trap and stake, the boy kicked the dead animal down its burrow and scraped dirt over it with his foot. They stunk up the pasture if they weren’t buried, and the bugs got into them. Frequently he had stood windward of a dead and swollen gopher, watching the body shift and move with the movement of the beetles and crawling things working through it. If such an infested corpse were turned over, the beetles would roar out of it, great orange-colored, hard-shelled, scavenging things that made his blood curdle at the thought of their touching him, and after they were gone and he looked again he would see the little black ones, undisturbed, seething through the rotten flesh. So he always buried his dead, now.
In this one tale a reader gets a far better portrait of budding sadism and psychopathy than you will get in a book full of Bret Easton Ellis. Other tales like Beyond The Glass Mountain and Balance His. Swing Yours do the same for regret and upper class snobbery. Saw Gang portrays a slice of life on a band of loggers. Yet, while slice of life tales exist to acknowledge a particular lifestyle, Stegner’s rise a bit beyond that, and there is a sense that you are truly eavesdropping on real conversations, be they whether you are reading of a bunch of loggers or a bunch of tennis playing snobs at a country club or college kids in The View From The Balcony. Goin’ To Town is one of Stegner’s most famous tales, about a car that won’t start and the familial tensions that are underneath. There is a moment of violence that does spring from the real moment described, and the characters involved. Too often the familial violence depicted in fiction is heavyhanded, moralizing and just plain gauche. In this story one is left to ponder which is worse, violence, or boredom. Volcano is an interesting story about a vulcanologist, although it ends weakly.
Perhaps the best story in the whole collection is another of Stegner’s most well-known stories, The Sweetness Of The Twisted Apples. The story very simply and delicately limns the life and existence of one of the loneliest characters in American fiction, a young woman who lives at the end of a deserted country road, near an apple tree, whose only neighbor is a former lover who jilted her, after they were ‘goin’ out.’ The character is so beautifully realized that it almost seems that she’s not human- but a ghost or angel. The tale ends with one of the most poignant scenes ever penned, as the girl looks off wistfully into the future:
Wiping a brush, Ross turned his easy, warm smile on her. ‘How is it in the spring? Pretty?’
It was surprising how responsive her wry little face was, ‘Oh, land just like a posy bed! It don’t have very big apples any more, but it’s a sight in the spring.’
She stood with folded arms, as her mother has stood by the side of the car in the farmyard. Margaret, for all her watching, could find no trace of bitterness or frustration or anger in the girl. Starved as it was, the gnomish face was serene.
‘Springtime, we used to come up here most every night, when I was goin’ out,’ she said.
It is with emotion that Stegner is at his best, which puts him at odds with the other great American writer whose name was Wallace Ste-, the poet Wallace Stevens, who was the epitome of mindly verse. When Stegner goes a bit too cerebral, or relies on plot machinations even his skills with description are not enough to stop the veer of the tale from heading downward. Yet, in character studies, like The Chink or The Volunteer, or some of the aforementioned stories, Stegner has few published peers. And, the tales range across the continent, from Canada (his homeland) to Utah, California to Vermont.
Stegner loses his way in longer pieces, like the book’s longest tale, Genesis, which follows the tough lives of Canadian cowboys at the turn of the Twentieth Century, through the eyes of a teenager named Rusty. The ranch they work on is owned by an absentee landlord who leaves the care of things all to hired hands. They herd on a ranch the size of a small nation. The story is about the risks they take to do their jobs in bringing the cattle in off the range for the winter. While this is a good set up, this is really a ten or fifteen page story, at most, not a novella, as the actions and characters’ conversations get stale.
At his best, when he is concise, and focuses on characters and emotions, Stegner is one of the best depicters of the human condition you can read. When he’s not he’s still passable, and it’s often when a writer is at his worst that the best assessments can be made of his overall oeuvre. That being the case, Wallace Stegner rides high in the saddle.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared in the Midwest Book Review.]
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