Although Roy Parvin does not seem to want to own up to it, there are elements of his writing that seem pretty autobiographical without even getting into knife throwing (he’s an amateur—no wife against the tree) or ice fishing (the knowledge is all theoretical). Take the first of his three novellas, “Betty Hutton” in which an ex-con named Gibbs robs his girlfriend, steals an old Newport and blows out of the New Jersey beach town headed for Montana in October. “He’d heard about Montana, though, a place that sounded like everything hadn’t yet been decided, where there still might be some time left. A cellmate had told him of the chinooks, the southerly winds capable of turning winter into spring in a matter of hours, … it seemed if such a thing as the chinooks was possible, anything was.” The first time Roy Parvin drove across Montana, he wasn’t fresh out of jail and didn’t have a sack of faked antiquities on the seat next to him, as does his protagonist Gibbs. But he did have a pad of paper on his knee and wrote furiously, trying to put into words what he was seeing through the windshield of the car. He did once own a Newport, he is from New Jersey and even uses his character’s dialogue to try to put Montana into words. Parvin told me: “It is only out here that you can see a train with a string of cars long enough almost to be considered geography. I also saw elk for the first time through a snowstorm and thought that they were a herd of wild horses,”—just like Gibbs does at the end of “Betty Hutton.” Upon learning the name of these decidedly Western animals, the author imagines his fictional self undergoing the same education: “Elk, like the first word of a new language he was only now beginning to learn.”
In In the Snow Forest, his second book, Parvin shows that he is learning the language of contemporary Western fiction, the themes of which could very well be reduced to David Allen Coe’s formula for the perfect country and Western song: momma, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk.
Parvin’s education in writing has been mostly self-taught. In college, he says, “they thought so little of my writing ability that they wouldn’t let me major in English. So, I majored in history, which was really good for my development as a fiction writer because in history you study why an event happened. I have never been to writing school; I didn’t even know they existed. We sold our house in San Francisco and moved up to Fortuna, and I decided to take some time off and try to write; so far it has worked out pretty well.”
In the three novellas that comprise In the Snow Forest, Parvin’s characters are like the hard luck cases you might find in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, an ex-con on the run, truckers cranked up on speed, an injured logger in a dying logging town, the logging town’s femme fatale and a woman searching for the town near the Bighorns where her writer-husband ran away with his second wife and then committed suicide. However, instead of the gritty first-person exposition delivered by Ford’s characters, Parvin relies more on keeping his characters’ motivations ambiguous, if not occasionally vague. Having been to film school, Parvin explains his propensity for leaving some things open-ended as “writing in a cinematic way,” a technique that asks the reader to do some work to extrapolate meaning. Parvin has a good sense for where to find drama, and most of his stories focus on someone in crisis.
However, in “Menno’s Granddaughter,” when the first wife of the Hemingway-esque writer asks the second why she stays on in this godforsaken town in Wyoming, which is a question I really wanted to know at this point, she replies a little too laconically: “A person has to live somewhere.” And the denouement of this whole fairly well-staged emotional odyssey occurs when the narrator observes, “In the end, there was only what Lindsay knew and all that she didn’t,” an assessment that seems to be less than the reader deserves.
Since Parvin contributes to Northern Lights and has spent some time in the Yaak Valley with Rick Bass, whom he calls “an absolute hero,” Montana is not new territory. However, since all three stories are set in the West in the fall, and all three involve snowfall in an integral way, Parvin is especially excited to be coming to Montana and Wyoming at this time of year, and is hoping to see some white stuff. Almost like it happens in one of his stories.
Roy Parvin reads from his new book, In the Snow Forest, at Fact and Fiction this Monday, Oct. 23.