Eight stories and one novella, linked more by place than theme.
The place is farming country outside Spokane, Wash., profiled in “The Fishers.” These small farmers are good neighbors, averse to gossip, resistant to change. Ed Erickson was typical, living through his kids, pained they wouldn’t want to succeed him. All this his widow Louise sees clearly. It’s an elegiac piece, not bad, but it lacks focus, like most of Keeble’s work, rambling off into a meditation on the struggle between fishers and porcupines. In “The Transmission,” Pete helps his Indian neighbor Louis, a trucker, with a balky thousand-pound transmission. The maneuvering distracts attention from the main event, the decision by Louis’s wife Bird to leave him and the wedge this drives between Louis and Pete. Louis pops up again in the best story, “I Could Love You (If I Wanted).” Here, Lola, a single parent, is caring for her dying mother while reluctantly fending off Louis, the consummate ladies’ man. Keeble keeps the focus on Lola’s ambivalence, and it pays off. Another recurring character is Jim Blood. We see him as a child in Saskatchewan in “Chickens,” then as a novice farmer in Washington in “The Chasm,” finally as an established landowner in the novella “Freeing the Apes,” which promises to be meaty; Jim’s neighbor, a female air force colonel, has been found dead. Foul play is suspected. But once again, we are distracted, this time by narrator Peter’s marital and other problems. It is also problematic that the violent climax, long building, occurs just offstage. In the title story, Fay Harper, a middle-aged widow with grown children, is heading to Alaska to scatter her husband’s ashes. She’s quit her job as a hospital nutritionist to work as a cook on an oil tanker—a decision Keeble describes merely as “driven by powerful obscurities.”
Keeble does well with the land, less well with people.