Early-Arizona Lives

`CUTTING Stone," Janet Burroway's richly detailed, sprawling new novel, began life as an anecdote told to Burroway by her mother, about meeting and dining with the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Burroway first planned to write a screenplay, but it soon became obvious that only in a novel could she give voice to the inner thoughts of the somewhat inarticulate cast of characters she had devised to portray small-town life in a backwater town in Arizona around the year 1910.

Film's loss is fiction's gain. Burroway has created a startling and deeply moving panorama of life on the Western frontier, that mythical space Wallace Stegner refers to as "the geography of hope." Throughout "Cutting Stone," she skillfully contrasts the stifling confinement of small, drab places and small, bigoted minds and hearts with the freedom and almost reckless abandon of those who have crossed society's lines to live as they choose - free from society's often stifling expectations.

Each of Burroway's adventurers undergoes radical changes, often paying a steep price for his or her reckless daring. A few, however, get a glimpse at deliverance and grace: for all the turmoil Burroway's people endure, there seems to be a strong possibility of redemption lurking for each of them. Sin proves time and again in this novel to be a disappointment, and healing possible only when responsibility for one's actions is finally accepted and acknowledged.

We meet the heroine of "Cutting Stone," the rather unhappily married Eleanore Poindexter, on a train heading West, two days short of Arizona. She has just left Baltimore to follow her husband, Laurel, who seeks the hot, dry air of Arizona to heal his lungs. Uprooted and despairing, Eleanore believes she is losing everything, but hopes her time in Arizona will be merely a hiatus, a "garnered smidgen of experience," before an eventual return to Baltimore. "After all," she thinks, "it is always possible to go back to where one came from, as a way of going forward."

Perhaps, but not if Burroway is narrating your story: What interests her is personal metamorphosis, and each of the people under her scrutiny undergoes rather astonishing transformations. Interwoven with the saga of Eleanore and her husband and her tragically ending love affair with a local rancher are the tales of Maria, Eleanore's ambitious and proud housekeeper who yearns to read, to play the piano, and to move to California to begin life anew; Sam Hun, who after wandering through the desert for what seems like an eternity, realizes "he'd outlived too much to be frightened by anything"; Pancho Villa and his errand runner, the self-exiled Lloyd Wheeler. The backdrop is a tiny, undeveloped town of Bowie (where Burroway's mother actually grew up), invoked flawlessly with a wealth of telling historical, cultural, and geographical detail.

Burroway's genius lies in her uncanny ability to create a whole world - the realm of nature as well as the social realm - by an inspired, and obviously well-researched, choice of the telling detail. Whether she is writing about cooking, clothing, manners, stones, animals, church-going, love affairs, or house building, Burroway masters her material so thoroughly that everything she describes takes on a convincing life of its own. Oddly, Burroway's writing is often so beautiful it threatens to steal the sh ow away from her story.

But she found the perfect voice for her tale in Eleanore Poindexter, who recklessly breaks free of the shackles of her marriage and all society's preconceived notions of who she should be, turning, as her husband notes, from a rose into a zinnia.

Plagued by poverty, infidelity, drinking, and plain bad luck, Burroway's people tenaciously manage to dream, and to follow their dreams, against all odds. No one but Laurel Poindexter goes back to where he came from in the novel's opening; the fates of all the others take strange twists and, more often, wondrous turns.

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