Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge

A year or two ago while working on a survey of Western and Southwestern writers I came across William Kittredge, who has written a novel, a memoir, short stories and essays.  His graceful, flowing prose moved me and I read a large portion of his published works.

After some recent troubles in my life I felt a need to return to his world and ordered a copy of The Best Short Stories of William Kittredge, hoping it would help anchor me.  I’m not going to lie; he paints a picture of a dark world.  He writes of men and women living in the American outback, from farms in Idaho, to far-flung ranches in the deserts of Nevada and Oregon and the plains of Montana to timberlands in Alaska.

He presents stories of men trying to resolve their existential crises in spite of having no idea what an existential crisis is, of rich ex-rednecks who are too smart for their own good barreling drunkenly down the back roads of Montana with Mozart and Bach blasting out of the speakers, searching desperately for something they know they will never find.  Of rotgut whiskey, desert heat, dying love, endless hours on farm equipment, and men and women who have grown old before their time.

Interspersed within most of the stories are bits and pieces of rough-hewn philosophy that add depth to stories that would otherwise seem simplistic in spite of the high-grade prose.  On that note, while beautiful, the prose tends to be minimalistic, which fits quite well with the setting of the stories.  Raymond Carver, another Western writer of note who also happened to be a friend of his, is a strong influence although Carver tended to write within a more urban setting.

The bedrock of these stories, is itself, the challenges presented by the land (whether through extreme heat or extreme cold) underlie every action the characters take.  Kittredge clearly loves this land, and the people that inhabit it, flaws and all.

These stories, a cross-section of material previously published in past volumes of short stories, are all very-well polished and represent a mature writer.  They are among the best of his short stories.

I highly recommend it, in particular to devotees of the West and Western writers and to those interested in the art of the short story.

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