‘Falling from Horses’: bringing the Western myth down to Earth
Molly Gloss’ “Falling from Horses” follows two young dreamers fresh off the ranch, as they try making it in a Hollywood of Westerns and horse operas. Gloss appears Nov. 3 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Nov. 5 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Falling from Horses” will read at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 3, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com). She will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Though most of “Falling from Horses” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $25) stays within the accepted boundaries of the Western genre, Portland author Molly Gloss’ sharp and original new novel takes her readers about as far as possible from the barren terrain of familiar clichés.
Like her 2007 best-seller “The Hearts of Horses,” parts of this book are set in the American West, early in the 20th century: a world of ranches, rodeos and hard riding. These sections recap narrator Bud Frazer’s rough-hewed yet largely happy childhood and, later, the tragic death of his sister.
But much of the novel’s action takes place in 1930s Hollywood, during the film industry’s gawky adolescence. Following two young dreamers trying their hands at cranking the mythmaking machine, Gloss chronicles the birth of a lifelong friendship between Bud, a beginning stunt rider, and fledgling screenwriter Lily Shaw. Soon they discover the mundane, sometimes sordid reality behind cowboy movies’ runaway stagecoaches, fast-galloping posses and fistfights on horseback.
Related in Bud’s deceptively laconic voice, the fright of tripped and wounded horses, the agony of “wrecked” riders suffering fractured pelvises and severed spinal cords, become haunting prose poems: “I could feel the horse’s screams, like violin strings pulled too tight in my chest and the bow scraping harshly across them. Steve was half pinned under the horse. He was pale and keeping very still out of worry the horse might get a hind leg high enough to kill him.”
This is Gloss’ sixth novel, and arguably her fourth Western. “The Jump-Off Creek,” the story of Oregon homesteader Lydia Sanderson published in 1989, was the first; 2000’s “Wild Life” was the second, though it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, usually given to works of speculative fiction. “The Hearts of Horses,” her most recent novel, is the third.
Like all three, “Falling from Horses” reads like an anti-Western. Lily’s last movie before landing on McCarthy’s blacklist of supposed Communist infiltrators skewers what she’s come to see as “our great American lie,” depicting the bigotry and violent tendencies of the genre’s heroes. Reflecting ruefully on his youthful enchantment with the films scornfully called “hayburners” and “horse operas,” Bud notes that “You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building a fence,” or doing any of the work he and his family did every day.
In place of artificially enhanced exceptionalism, Gloss treats us to beautiful descriptions of lost ordinariness. There are pre-dawn chores performed under a pearl gray sky; handmade hats; and the first sight of the Frazers’ home: “through willow groves thick with birds ... an old-fashioned log barn, three or four outbuildings, and a small one-story board-and-batten house, its porch rails made of deer and elk antlers.”
These glimpses of unrecognized, once-abundant treasures set up sympathetic vibrations in us with the pangs of grief the Frazers feel on the disappearance of 10-year-old Mary Claudine.
Gloss alternates between exposing Hollywood’s seamy underside, celebrating several of the real-life American West’s long-gone pleasures and gradually unfolding the mystery of Mary Claudine’s death, while she also shows how Bud and Lily help one another grow into their best selves.
Moving with seeming effortlessness from one story focus to the next, she draws us along with her by virtue of her elegant, understated language, language as simple yet striking as the plain truth.