A first novel from poet/nonfiction writer Galvin (The Meadow, 1992, etc.) about the ongoing destruction of western rangelands and the decline of the old, land-centered way of life. Mike Arans, a self-reliant cattleman, finds Meriweather Snipes, a canny, repellent land speculator and developer, stampeding cattle that have strayed onto the developer's land and, in a fit of anger, chases him. It's hard to say if what happens next is murder or an accident, but Mike, fearing the worst, takes his favorite horse and rides off into the remaining wilderness areas of Wyoming. His good friend Oscar, a bright, stubborn, struggling cattleman like Mike, does what he can to help Mike in his attempts to elude the law, and Galvin shuttles back and forth between Mike's cross-country flight and the history of the high plains over the past several decades as seen through Mike and Oscar's subsequent—and wrenching—attempts to make a go of cattle-raising. The economy has worked both to bankrupt small cattlemen and inspire a new and devastating land rush. The "land pimps" (Galvin's phrase for developers) buy up large swaths of land from exhausted ranchers and turn it into small parcels to be peddled to ignorant romantics looking for a chance to live out their glossy vision of the West. But without the ranchers to maintain drainage, the little water available evaporates, trees die, and soil blows away. The new settlers resent the old ones, with their cattle and the fences vital to managing the range, and violence follows. Galvin works in this sorry history of the modern West skillfully, without slowing or diluting the drama of his story. His evocation of the hard specifics of ranching life and the satisfactions of physical labor, and the lyrical precision of his portrait of the western plains, are distinctive and deeply moving. Part celebration and part angry lament, Fencing the Sky is a memorable debut, the most ambitious and original novel about the modern West to have appeared in some time.
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