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Which new west?

Jeff Hull takes Missoula’s fictional torch


There is plenty to attract Missoula readers to Jeff Hull’s debut novel, Pale Morning Done. For one thing, Missoula and its surroundings serve as the novel’s setting. In their youth, characters get arrested for peeing off the Higgins bridge; as adults they meet at the Rhino for a few pitchers and stop at the Bridge for a slice. They even make playful digs at the Missoulian: “Molly rarely read the syndicated opinion columns because she felt they were largely tripe. Her attention focused, a little indecently, on the Missoulian’s own uneducated guesses and, even more pruriently, the Letters to the Editor…The big kick was knowing that someone who probably held a degree in journalism read all these letters and still thought it would be a good idea to print them in a newspaper.” That Jeff Hull teaches magazine writing at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism makes the poke even funnier.

Good thing Hull doesn’t mention us.

For main character Marshall Tate, the town’s environmental issues are his own issues. Missoula is no mere backdrop to events, but an almost constant participant in them, another kind of character. Marshall, “one of the most respected and requested [fly-fishing] guides in western Montana,” has quit guiding and spent the last year restoring his father’s ranch, with one major addition: prime spring creek fishing. Standing in the way of these ambitious plans are the Klingmans, who own the adjoining ranch and attempt to block Marshall from gaining water rights to the spring, throwing a kink into Marshall’s plans to market the area to guiding outfits as a kind of last best fishing hole.

The transformation of his father’s land echoes the emotional conflicts with which Marshall himself struggles. There is Daisy Klingman, not only the sole daughter of the very clan out to get Marshall, but also his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend. Then, a delicate balance between Marshall and his two best friends, Molly and Alton, falters when those two, also fishing guides, begin an affair. Though Molly has been in love with Marshall for years, she has the affair with Alton when her frustration with Marshall’s seeming indifference peaks.

On one level, this is a novel any Missoulian could enjoy simply for the sheer fun of following the lives of such recognizable characters. On another, perhaps more troublesome level, Pale Morning Done provokes questions for anyone interested in the state of Western literature. William Kittredge, in a prominent promotional blurb, writes: “A ‘new’ west is flourishing amid the beauties of nature in the northern Rockies, and Jeff Hull does a brilliant job of sizing up its dimensions in Pale Morning Done. Strong characters, vividly conflicted lives, heartbreak and passion—he’s got my home territory dead on. And, in addition, this is one fine fly-fishing novel. Bravo.”

I quote the blurb in full because it serves as a kind of truncated diagram of what the novel, from its first pages, purports to deliver. It is most certainly a fly-fishing novel extraordinaire, one that would presumably like to serve as a present-day echo of A River Runs Through It. A young man with a passion for fishing, the river, and all its uses hopes that the water’s fluidity will eventually find its way into his personal relationships.

My question is: what’s so new about this “new” west?

For at least the first two-thirds of the novel, Marshall, Molly and Alton are supremely self-righteous and a tad predictable. They tend to divide people unlike themselves into categories ranging from avaricious to mean to stupid, with any combination possible: Young fishermen are boys from rich families with no respect for the art of fishing; clients who flock to the guiding outfits are rich buffoons with expensive gear. At their worst, Hull’s protagonists seem a little hollow, as though to exist only for fishing is everything, and enough.

Pale Morning Done hardly seems to represent a new west, nor should it be forced to labor under the weight of the old one’s legacy. While many Montanans will enjoy this book, it remains unclear what home it might find in literature’s broader spectrum, a playing field that defies regionalism instead of relying on it.

Jeff Hull appears at Fact & Fiction for a reading and signing of Pale Morning Done Tuesday, June 28, at 7 PM.

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