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Correspondent’s Course: The Fiction of Idaho
You like lists. We like lists. They are the bacon of Internet digestion (?). So consider this the first slab from our new recurring feature, Correspondent’s Course, a survey of sorts, taught by some of our favorite writers. Today in the classroom, Alan Heathcock, whose debut collection Volt deserves to be on any syllabus concerned with captivating modern fiction. Professor Heathcock brings us his essential titles from his home state of Idaho. And while the 43rd state to enter the Union might not get much love from the BCS, there is no denying the impact it has had on the current literary landscape.
Idaho is a wonderland. From its lush pine mountains to its high desert, its raging rivers and glacial lakes, its volcanic landscapes to towering sand dunes, Idaho is endlessly unique, diverse, stunning. Like its landscape, the literature of Idaho draws from many styles and sensibilities, and defines itself not by one voice spoken by many, but by many who write from the wild heart of one of the west’s most mysterious states, the state where Erza Pound lived and wrote, where Hemingway wrote and died, the state that caught the imagination of Wallace Stegner, Vardis Fisher, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and countless others. Today, Idaho has a vibrant writing scene, the proof of the pudding here in this list of notable titles written by gem state authors.
God’s Dogs: A Novel in Stories–Mitch Wieland
Wieland’s collection of linked stories sets us down in the lonesome high desert of southwest Idaho, in the life of Ferrell Swan, a man trying to escape his past and retreat into the contemplative peace few places outside of Idaho can offer. Though solace is hard won, there’s always beauty. In the story “Swan’s Song”, we’re allowed a true Idaho experience, one of a multitude of transcendent experiences in this lovely book: “Ferrell stands beneath the wild enthusiasm of the sky, as if the heavens have gone too vibrant for his eyes… He reaches far into the heavenly zeal, takes handfuls of planets and stars into the sanctuary of his fists.”
Memory Wall–Anthony Doerr
Winner of the 2011 Story Prize, this collection displays a kind of power rarely seen in short fiction. Though these are short stories, there’s nothing small about them. As an investigation of memory, of human longing and the tenuous nature of our perceptive abilities as they relate to our families, our homes, our histories both personal and collective, these thoughtful and beautiful tales are imbued with the nearly miraculous quality of being both cut-to-marrow honest while also truly inspiring, qualities I find in ample quantities in both the landscapes and people of Idaho.
Housekeeping– Marilynne Robinson
One of the most brilliant voices in contemporary letters and raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, Robinson is a study in excellence. Her first novel, Housekeeping, which follows the trials and triumphs of Ruth and Lucille, who, after the death of their mother, are sent to live with their eccentric aunt Sylvie in the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho (which most in these parts acknowledge is based off of Sandpoint—see Keith Lee Morris), was an instant classic. At length, Robinson describes the glacial lakes and the woods as both a place to find one’s self, as well as a place of banishment, vividly capturing the bitter-sweet truth of the Idaho wilderness in a novel of astounding empathy and compassion.
The Dart League King– Keith Lee Morris
Morris was raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, arguably the per capita champion of literary greatness in Idaho (see Marilynne Robinson). His novel The Dart League King, set in small town Idaho, revolves around a dart league championship, but is really a portrait of humanity wrapped in a mystery of sorts and penned with great compassion and relevance. I’ve heard it said that you’ll find America in a small town, and Morris’s America is full and rich, funny, tragic, angry, tender, and utterly compelling.
Train Dreams: A Novella– Denis Johnson
Johnson’s stories and novels vibrate with a strange and undeniable intensity, with his collection Jesus’ Son, and his novel Tree of Smoke, hailed by many as masterpieces. My favorite of all of his books is the novella length epic, Train Dreams, which follows Robert Grainer from working on building great railroad bridges in northern Idaho, and into a weird and arresting epic of loss that spans decades and reads like the story of America in miniature.
A Country Called Home– Kim Barnes
Barnes was raised in cedar logging camps in northern Idaho, and has written extensively about her upbringing. She won great acclaim for her memoir, In the Wilderness, including being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her novel, A Country Called Home, picks up in this same northern territory, and illuminates a truth many an easterner, dizzy with dreams of western adventure, confronts once they arrive in our fair but rugged state: the land in Idaho is as brutal as it is beautiful, demands a toughness of spirit that’s beyond the norm, and to live and flourish in Idaho one must be made of metal that will not break when bent.
The Lonely Polygamist– Brady Udall
Brady Udall has the rare and important gift of writing stories that are absolutely tragic, yet ring with a warmth and humor that allows one to see the absurdity in our pain. In this case, we get the tragic-comedy of Golden Richards and his four wives and twenty-eight children, in a novel that Publisher’s Weekly called, “A serious contender for Great American Novel status.” Udall is a child of the west, and a resident of Idaho, and it’s clear he’s an insider to generous spirit that defies the stoic cowboy stereotype and offers up, to our benefit, mighty hearts beating on the well-worn sleeves of his characters.
The tragedy of this post is that for every author mentioned there are dozens of others who greatly contribute to our thriving literary scene. I’ve lived in many places, big cities and small towns, and no place I’ve lived has crackled with the energy and enthusiasm, the ambition and camaraderie, as created by gem-state authors. This is a unique place, in a unique time, and I’m very proud to be one voice in the chorus of excellence that represents literature in and from the state of Idaho.
Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, and The Harvard Review. VOLT, a collection of stories published by Graywolf Press, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.