Good and evil, minus all the complexity

August 22, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,Sun Staff

An Unfinished Life, by Mark Spragg. Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages. $23.

There must be something about the dry air of the mountain states that, in addition to producing sparkling days, drains away ambiguity, that necessary haze of fiction. It seems every few years bring another novel from the West about the tribulations of good, humble folk who work hard, endure life's arrows, and battle malignant foes as recognizable as bandits in black hats.

In Mark Spragg's lyrical but ultimately incomplete second novel, each major character is more sympathetic than the next, all have suffered at the hands of fate, and two even have wounds to prove it. Jean Gilkyson is an attractive young widow who, after one too many black eyes from an abusive boyfriend in an Iowa trailer home, hits the road with her preternaturally wise pre-teen daughter, Griff.

Named after her father -- a car crash with a pregnant Jean at the wheel claimed him at age 21 -- Griff is adorable to the point of stretching credulity. Despite her rocky upbringing, she is the picture of equanimity, limiting outbursts to her diary. When the Chevy Impala she and Jean are fleeing in breaks down, Griff looks on the bright side: "At least we weren't in an airplane." When Jean reminds Griff she's never been on a plane, Griff is undeterred: "I know I haven't. But if we were on one, this would've been really bad."

The two make their way to Ishawooa, the Wyoming outpost where Jean grew up and where her aging father-in-law lives on a decrepit ranch. Einar Gilkyson is unwelcoming to Jean, whom he still blames for his son's death, an event that has blotted his later years in grief. He perseveres only to care for his Korean War buddy Mitch, a wry black cowboy who requires daily morphine to quell his own, more literal pain: the aftereffects of a bear mauling.

If it all sounds like a movie, well, it is one: A Miramax film is due this December, with -- who else? -- Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. As a novel, though, An Unfinished Life comes up short. Spragg aspires to capture the difficulty of forgiveness, but it's hard to grasp the depth of Einar's anger toward Jean when we learn so little about his dead son, or about anything, really, that precedes the pass where we find the characters.

Equally problematic is Spragg's simplistic portrayal of the sinister forces threatening the ranch's quartet. Jean's ex-boyfriend, who comes in pursuit, is cast as such a cartoonish evildoer -- having beer with his Frosted Flakes and thinking racist and misogynistic thoughts at every turn -- that one half expects the page to darken when he appears.

These flaws shortchange Spragg's economical prose, which evokes Wyoming's rough beauty and describes, in some affecting scenes, how Griff charms her grandfather into softening up. ("You guys are gay, right?" she asks Einar and Mitch. "It's okay. I had a teacher who was a lesbian.")

But Griff's victory over Einar's gruffness is hard to celebrate in a world so short of complexity. Given that they're all such good-hearted folk, it's hard to see why there was any problem between them in the first place.

Alec MacGillis is a member of The Sun's investigative reporting team. Previously, he covered higher education for the paper and has written on, among other subjects, the water wars in the American West.

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