An impressionistic portrait of hardscrabble life on a Wyoming ranch.
Henry’s debut is a linked story collection centered on the Davis clan, a family of ranchers led by Spencer, a hard-driving patriarch who hasn’t shaken off the psychological wounds of World War II. As the book opens, he’s a young college student who’s just decided to marry his girlfriend, Elizabeth, on the East Coast, but he quickly abandons his Cambridge “book learning” to head back west to handle horses and raise two sons, Luke and Whitney. One of the better pieces, “Tomatoes,” describes the two boys as precocious pre-teens, stealing pies and ruining sheets hung out to dry by using them as strike zones for pitched tomatoes. Their inevitable punishment reveals the intense labor the land requires, paralleled by the intensity of Spencer’s war memories. As the boys mature, the theme of the danger inherent in daily living intensifies: In “Hands,” the men move horses in a painfully bitter winter storm, while the closing “Yet Still of the Heart” adds a tragic note, suggesting just how hard nature pushes back against efforts to control it. Henry is working the same territory as Thomas McGuane, Annie Proulx and Kent Haruf, though his ambitions aren’t nearly as broad—the bulk of the eight pieces in this slim book are more like sketches than full-blooded stories, rendering a particular moment instead of cultivating nuanced connections among the family members. (Elizabeth in particular gets short shrift—the implication is that this is stubbornly manly territory.) More frustrating than the slight plots, though, is the derivative, weak prose. Henry works in a deliberately Faulknerian mode, stretching out sentences that routinely reference the inexorability and indomitability of the people, land and animals. But the high-flown language and run-on sentences mostly just swallow up the thin plots Henry has devised, leaving the impression of an author working too hard to give these stories gravitas.
Occasionally affecting moments too often succumb to airy, meandering writing.