A humble man seeks personal and spiritual clarity in this historical novel.
Ostby’s follow-up to his World War I novel Men With Broken Faces (2010) turns its focus to the story of Jake Miller, “a feckless, undistinguished, mostly-reformed sponge” who struggles with binge drinking and the personal legacy of a miserable childhood and an abusive father. He also strives to understand his own version of the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of life, the bhavacakra, whose ups and downs seem to rule his life. The novel that chronicles his life opens in 1913 on a down point, with Jake drunk, facedown in a slough near his Montana wheat farm. He’s counseled by his stolid neighbor Lars Nordraak to clean himself up for the prospect of the arrival of his contracted wife, Mable, a clean-faced and unflappably upbeat woman who throws herself into their homesteading life. She’s a cheerful presence, though she understands Jake very little; his favorite book, for instance, is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which is lost on her. She forgives him his shortcomings—shortcomings he’s acutely aware of: “He possessed self-awareness,” he realizes, “but only in retrospect, and that was the conundrum.” As a young man in Iowa, he was kicked in the head by a mule and lay comatose for a week before he recovered, and the clear implication is that his inner world was never again the same. Ostby begins his tale in the first decade of the 20th century, when water dousing and patent medicines were still taken seriously in small-town America, even as rudimentary technology and the brand-new automobile were making their first appearances. Although the narrative can at times have a maddeningly wandering shapelessness, Ostby effectively brings to life small-town America of a century ago. And an uplifting thread runs through it all—“Forgive yourself,” Jake is advised, “Don’t bother with going to some priest for forgiveness; you have to forgive yourself”—which ultimately helps make Jake a winning Everyman.
A quaint, evocative tale of a philosophical striver in early 20th-century America.