'Bone Fire': Frontier reliance and human connection
Wyoming writer Mark Spragg's new novel "Bone Fire" is a group portrait of stoic, self-reliant Westerners, held together by the twin bonds of longing and anguish. Spragg appears with Wyoming memoirist Laura Bell ("Claiming Ground") Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Mark Spragg and Laura BellThe author of "Bone Fire" will read from his book in a joint appearance with fellow Wyoming writer Laura Bell, author of the memoir "Claiming Ground." At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com). The authors will also appear at 7 p.m. Friday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
by Mark Spragg
Knopf, 244 pp., $25.95
Fire plays a supporting role in Mark Spragg's quiet, haunting new novel about the contemporary West, and not just because it features prominently in the book's title, "Bone Fire."
Reuniting readers with some characters from two previous novels, "The Fruit of Stone" and "Unfinished Life," Wyoming-based author Spragg again lands us on the prairie-grass-covered ranchlands of Ishawooa, Wyo., where locals know the roaming livestock, winding creeks and meandering constellations better than they know each other, in some cases.
Here, a frontier ethic of self-reliance butts heads with a deep need for human connection, igniting tensions among a cast of characters who are as stoic as they come.
Among them is the local sheriff, Crane, who's struggling with his manhood and a potential health crisis. There's his wife Jean, who drinks away her frustrations about their marriage. Jean's college-age-daughter Griff is torn between her aspirations to study and do sculpture and an urge to stay home to help care for her ailing grandfather, Einar.
People are tugged to and fro in "Bone Fire" by impulses they scarcely understand. Spragg uses a precision-writing skill that borders on poetry to dissect these interior worlds, and it's a wonder to experience.
His treatment of Jean's alcoholism is especially lyrical, like the storyline in the saddest country-western song you've ever heard. He avoids making her pitiful, though. She possesses a feisty dignity, like some faded screen vixen hungry for another stint in the limelight but fearful that that day will never come — certainly not if it's up to her husband, Crane, who just can't quit his ex-wife, Helen.
There's a moving scene in "Bone Fire" that follows Jean as she readies herself for what promises to be a confrontation with Helen at a tavern. She puts on some pale lipstick, slips on a pair of Victoria's Secret panties and tight jeans and heads down to a bar full of "bikers and cowboys and businessmen" for the encounter.
She spots Helen: "She walked across the room with her shoulders squared and her chin up," Spragg writes.
In this one line, Spragg tries to rescue Jean from her self-destructiveness, but as she gives in to booze once more, it's clear she won't be so easily divorced from her demons. Letting go doesn't come easily for anyone in "Bone Fire." If only you could pile up all your memories, burn them over a pyre and simply move on.
Despite a number of subplots, including a mysterious death in a meth lab, what we have here is more like a set of interwoven character portraits held together by never-ending longing and deeply suppressed anguish.
The bone fire in question can be seen as a metaphor for the grief that burns in one's soul. That fire has the power to cause great pain but also, one is led to hope here, to heal.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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