When it comes to literature, stories based on the truth are becoming nearly as common as Hollywood bio-pics. Only the books being written, especially those set in the Northwest, are generally less scary than artfully revealing.
In some cases, they actually overshadow the attempts of writers to write actual fiction. Example: No matter how many novels Ivan Doig writes, there are those readers who will refer to his memoir “This House of Sky” as his masterpiece.
Mary Clearman Blew, Jennifer Lauck, Jonathan Raban are among other Northwest writers whose fame is based mostly on their confessional nonfiction.
The best of the bunch, though, just might be Kim Barnes. Which is why we’ve chosen one of Barnes’ books as the August selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Here’s the thing: Instead of opting for one of Barnes’ two critically acclaimed memoirs, our choice is “Finding Caruso,” her first venture into long-form fiction.
Because of “In the Wilderness” (a 1997 Pulitzer Prize finalist) and “Hungry For the World,” Barnes – a part-time associate professor of English at the University of Idaho – has built a reputation for poetic renderings of a life that most of us would describe as . . . well, difficult hardly says enough.
Both books explore Barnes’ struggle to grow up in a remote North Idaho logging community, burdened by the restrictions of religious fundamentalism imposed on her by her family.
As critic Tim Appelo wrote in the Seattle Weekly, “Finding Caruso” finds Barnes, “As in her memoirs … paint(ing) a place of booze-fueled anarchy, violence, and romantic rebellion.”
The novel is told through the eyes of a man looking back to 1958. We see 17-year-old Buddy Hope and his brother Lee, older by seven years, leave Oklahoma – although, it may be more correct to say that they brothers are fleeing.
Yet, it doesn’t really matter. No matter where you go, there you are. And the brothers still carry the baggage given them by a drunk of a father prone to outbursts of violence.
They drive into Idaho (into what is meant to be near Lewiston), and pretty soon Lee gets hired as a saloon singer. Rootless Buddy, meanwhile, is stuck doing odd jobs.
And then arrives the complication: a vision in “high heels, tight green skirt, coppery red hair rolled and tucked in against itself” and a scent of “overturned rocks and cottonwood blossoms, spring's last snow.”
Her name is Irene, and she attracts the attention of both brothers. But her eyes are drawn solely toward Buddy, who just happens to be half her age.
Buddy’s reaction is predictable: “When I saw Irene,'' he says, “I found myself gone still.”
The novel actually has several plots going on at once. An abused woman ends up dead. An Indian man is accused of murdering her. The chance finally arrives for Buddy to redeem himself for something he failed to do in a scene played out in the first chapter.
It’s a rich rendering of a place and time that has drawn mostly kind, if sometimes mixed, reviews.
The trade journal Kirkus Reviews called the novel “a Bronte-esque debut novel about wretched families, childhood grief, love and betrayal … told in a polished if somewhat precious voice (‘I abide in the whisper of wind through an old mare's bones’) that sounds more evocative of Greenwich Village than Idaho.”
Library Journal said that Barnes “skillfully uses language to paint an affecting picture of the rural West and its lonely inhabitants,” while Booklist’s reviewer wrote that “Barnes is as fluent in provocative metaphors as in she in scenes of profound conflict and revelation.”
As for Seattle Weekly’s Appelo, he wrote, “Some of the writing is annoyingly arch and arty (when Irene skinny-dips, Barnes describes ‘the white moment of her bra’), but when Barnes puts words in service of the world she's describing – the way macadam gets oily after days of 100-plus heat – she shows her gift.”
Barnes’ true gift, of course, is for telling the truth. And whether in the service of fiction or nonfiction, that gift should refresh us – the way ice melts on skin exposed to the summer sun – refresh us as we progress through August.