A boy becomes a man these days by turning 18. Seventy years ago, a boy crossed that barrier by going to work. Before the federal government got into the business of regulating child labor, kids well under the age of 17 toiled in mines and factories. They also saddled up as buckaroos, like the hero of William Kittredge’s first novel, The Willow Field. Fifteen-year-old Rossie Benasco signs up to help drive 200 head of horses through the Rockies into Calgary. At the end of the trip, coworkers with names like Bill Sweet and Jap Hardy slap him on the back and think of him as a man.
Where to go after that? Here is the sticky dilemma of this novel, which is beautifully written and as attentive to landscape as anything published this year, yet oddly static. It’s like a picaresque odyssey that makes the mistake of delivering its Odysseus to Penelope a third of the way into the book. After that, Kittredge struggles to find some drama and activities for his hero, but his hero won’t have it. Rossie continuously does the right thing, even when it means forsaking personal glory.
This is a shame, because the book opens strongly, suggesting that Rossie will remain in the metaphorical willow field of the book’s title, where circumstances might bend his nature this way or that. In his teenage years Rossie skips out from home, landing on a ranch in Reno, where he falls into a fast affair with a sun-blasted, wind-chapped woman who is softer on the inside than she might look.
Mattie is the first of several women Rossie beds in this book, simply, it seems, because Kittredge wants him to. There is little courtship save for a few sly bits of smart-ass dialogue and before long they’re wrestling in the hay. As his first lover, Mattie means something special to Rossie, makes him darn near sentimental. (He makes gloves for her.) But when her father decides it’s time for Rossie to commit or move on, he opts for a job driving horses, stumbling to his first day of work hungover.
This is the last time Rossie does something stupid; out on the range he learns something about responsibility and honor. Kittredge handles this section beautifully. He understands he needn’t explain how a journey like this could transform a person: he just needs to describe the journey itself. This is quintessential Kittredge territory: the topography of the Pacific Northwest and the Upper Plains, horses, the company of men and the almost transcendental beauty of the West before it was ruined by development and climate change and incessant tourism.
These are the elements that made his Hole in the Sky such a jaw-dropping work of prose, and one sees flashes where Kittredge takes the rhythms of the natural world and lays his prose right on top of it, as if it were a secondary melody: “Over the next week they swung a long arc along the unfenced edges of the Idaho plains where the irrigated farmlands dried into pasturelands. To the north lay an impassible eighty-mile moonscape of lava flats and volcanic craters, beyond which they could see faint snowy mountains in long north-south reefs. After they crossed a low grassland pass, Jap Hardy told them they were in Montana. ‘Pretty country from here on,’ he said. ‘She’s grass all the way to Calgary.’”
It’s great fun to follow these guys as they rescue a rich man’s horses from barbed wire, drink themselves sideways and wake up each morning to the clarifying agent of black coffee and eggs and yet more work. Kittredge has the mind of a philosopher but the prose style of a sensualist, and stripped of the need to make any point here, he unfurls one sense-arousing scene after the next. There is the bite of the clean morning air and the crackle of low burning campfires. When Rossie meets a game woman named Eliza with a pregnant belly, it’s not a surprise when 20 pages later they wind up sharing a sleeping bag.
Eliza could be this book’s savior, but instead she sounds far too much like every other woman in The Willow Field: tolerant but firm, independent but loyal, sensual but by no means a slattern, and with a mouth on her to boot. Her attraction to Rossie is never explained, so she feels not unlike some sort of bounty Rossie lucks into, especially since her father deeds his ranch over to Rossie as a way to convince the itchy-footed young man to marry his daughter. Rossie agrees and his ceremony is improbably attended by the father of his former girlfriend, who wishes him the best.
As in all of Kittredge’s work, landscape is the best developed character in the book—through Rossie we watch it change, get chewed up, bought up and expanded. Echoing some of the themes of Kittredge’s The Nature of Generosity, Rossie decides to give back to the land rather than take from it. By the end of the book, he has gone from a know-nothing wannabe cowboy to a “first rate county commissioner” and preservationist who stands up against the Vietnam War and lauds the Preservation Act of 1964.
Rossie has traveled a long way, and between the twists and turns of his journey one can peer at the timeline of the American West. It’s all here, from the dispersal of the Indians to the late-life discovery of conservationism in Montana. This book has an epic architecture and a knowing engineer. Indeed, there are few writers who know so much about these topics as Kittredge. But as The Willow Field reveals, grand plans alone cannot make a grand novel.
William Kittredge reads from and signs copies of The Willow Field twice this week: Friday, Oct. 13, at 7 PM at Fact & Fiction and Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7 PM at Shakespeare & Co.