WINTER RANGE By Claire Davis Picador USA 262 pp., $23
My copy of "Paradise Lost" is lost, but through the Internet, it's been regained. A Web site managed by Dartmouth College presents most of Milton's poetry, neatly annotated: www.dartmouth.edu/~milton.
Claire Davis's wonderful debut novel, "Winter Range," describes the Montana plains in all their stunning, edenic beauty, but my thoughts kept drifting back to that earlier paradise.
Through the Dartmouth site, I found what I was looking for. There's a particularly creepy moment in which Satan, recently evicted from heaven, spots Adam and Eve for the first time: "O Hell!" he groans, "what do mine eyes with grief behold." Spying from atop the Tree of Life, he's filled with awe and knows he could have loved this beautiful pair under different circumstances. But, as he bitterly notes, having lost everything, what's he got left to do but raise a little hell.
The villain in Davis's novel isn't so wicked, of course, but in the simple setting of a Montana range, the author raises the same disturbing questions about the nature of hatred and the way it's fueled by an incendiary mixture of pride, jealousy, and boredom.
Chas Stubblefield is in over his head. His brutish father always said he couldn't manage the ranch, but when the old man died before he could sell it, Chas grabbed the chance to prove himself. Now that dream is freezing to death in the fields. The feed store won't extend him any more credit. The bankers who encouraged him to borrow too much money want their payment.
When the new sheriff, Ike Parsons, gets wind of this trouble, he drives out to see for himself. After seven years of drought, debt has caught other farmers by the neck, but he has never seen anything this bad. Hundreds of Chas's cattle have already fallen dead in the snow. The rest are frozen monuments of starvation.
Chas would be hungry himself, if he weren't eating the beef as it dies. "Out of money. Out of credit. Out of luck. All I got left is patience," he says bitterly. Ike gives him the obvious advice: Sell what's left to the rendering company and get out.
"No," Chas answers stubbornly. "These animals are going to die."
Ike feels wedged between Chas's pride and the town's unshakable respect for a man's private property. But the law is the law, and starving one's own herd is a crime. Ike reluctantly enlists the testimony of the local vet, secures a court order, and plans to take the remaining herd out.
"What it came down to for Ike was respect," the narrator notes. "We were human, with the ability to construct order, to make choices, and a conscience that demanded we bear the consequences of our actions. It raised us above the animals."
Or is he motivated by something lower - like resentment over the relationship Chas had with his wife when they were wild teenagers? Their marriage is drawn perfectly, so true to the currents of affection and the eddies of resentment Ike and his wife must ferry to get over that uncomfortable past. He's determined to make the application of law impersonal, but in a small town where those subject to the law are friends and lovers - and voters - that's not easy.
Davis captures the complexity of this tragedy in all its personal and social dimensions. "This was a community that knew each other's families and histories and shared the same jokes, and one person's grief became another's," the narrator writes. "All of them were stung by Chas's shameful act, the cruelty of it, because that worked at the fabric of their lives ... all of it dependent on a basic respect for what was given in your hands."
Abandoning his self-respect and stripped of his property, Chas has nothing left to do but starve his horse and fantasize about revenge.
Yet even in the scariest moments as he creeps into neighbors' homes and eyes their bounty with envy, there's something heartwrenching about the conspiracy of circumstance and vanity that blinds him. What, after all, is more dangerous than a hopeless man? Raised by a fundamentalist mother who eventually hanged herself, Chas has a strong sense of the cruel God he's defying. He even quotes "Paradise Lost" in one rueful moment. The sympathy Ike feels only complicates his task.
A heartening new addition to the field of Western fiction, Davis brands these characters with rich psychological clarity. Ominous throughout, her story finally races toward a gripping, ice-bound tragedy that tests the limits of Ike's faith in himself and the law. "Winter Range" looks like a simple story, but it's deceptively large - like this land and the challenges it poses.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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