Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5
Works Progress Administration (WPA) painter, Val Welch, heads West for an enviable New Deal commission in small town Dawes, Wyoming. His remit: to paint a mural in the town Post Office that represents the region. His chosen topic: “The Energy of America or the natural and human history of this place.” He is offered free lodgings at the ranch of the wealthy John Long and his wife, Eve, a former honky tonk singer with her own troubled past. Faro, a rather iconic tough cowboy (and complete horse whisperer) is one of those mysterious characters who draws you in against your conscious inclination.
When Eve runs off, Val takes a break from painting to moonlight as a tracker, criss-crossing the Depression riddled country in search of her. It’s a rich narrative, teeming with individual stories and told from a young (and somewhat embittered) painter’s eye. His search takes him from Wyoming to Seattle to San Francisco to Florida — each location suffering from the Depression in its own Hellish way. Each character — from the four leads to the many supporting — is both an individual and an obvious product of his or her history in these troubled times. We are treated to Val’s narrative commentary on the way, ranging from his own hopes and desires to his surprises to his inner rantings on subjects of government, greed, and some (previously unknown to me) dispiriting Supreme Court Decisions.
The deep dives (scattered throughout the story) on how the mural was conceived and executed were engrossing. It was to be done in “roughly the ancient way” and I enjoyed learning about how to make, tint, and use tempera paint, build scaffolding, and simply look at the world in a different (artistic) way.
The story is bold, expansive, and yet also intricately detailed. Excellent writing — see some of my favorite quotes below. I liked the balance between action and introspection, and I loved the description of the physical surroundings integrated with internal landscape of Val’s thoughts.
Some great quotes:
“Looking now, the missing element — and it was down in a deep crater — was the violence of the West. Not so much the physical geography, but the violence inherent in the concept of the West, the politically and culturally and religiously ordained rapacity smearing blood all over the fresh beauty.”
“Traveling the country, town by town, I felt a heady drift of grief and sometimes a breakthrough of optimism from the long Depression.”
“So the mural’s main argument, however it was shaped, was that this particular place held importance and was not forgotten after all.”
“The look seemed inhuman until I realized that just because I might never have felt or thought whatever passed through Faro’s mind and body in that flicker of time did not mean it wasn’t human.”
“Which struck me, a childless man with the first number in his age still two, as a better position on childrearing if you meant it metaphorically and if the floor wasn’t rock-hard hexagonal tile laid over a slab of concrete.”
“The higher the elevation, the more I felt like I was being rendered transparent by X-rays or gamma rays or whatever.”
“After all, the ultimate expression of Capitalism is not democracy. It’s a dictatorship not of individual men but of corporations with interchangeable leaders. I wasn’t sure if the Depression was straining the structural limits of our Constitution or simply revealing that its fundamental idea were faulty.”
“After Florida — a state equivalent to a hotel towel from somebody else’s bath flung sopping across your face — Wyoming felt clean and brittle, the light fragile as a flake of mica, the high air rare enough to be measured in the lungs and appreciated in its thinness, it’s lack of substance.”
Thank you to Ecco and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 11th, 2023