Reading Nocturnal America

There are places in this country that go unnoticed. I grew up in one of them—eastern Washington. John Keeble has lived in eastern Washington for thirty years and has written movingly about the people there and the unremitting landscape, most recently in Nocturnal America, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and just released from University of Nebraska Press. Even when the stories (whichNocturnal_america_3
are loosely linked across time and place) venture into Saskatchewan or onto a giant oil freighter headed north toward Valdez, the settings whistle the same tune. What is it about these places that won’t let us forget even for a minute how ephemeral we are? The landscape goes on, with or without us, mostly without us.

Keeble is a beautiful writer and pulls me entirely into his stories. In "The Chasm," Jim and Diane Blood struggle to fulfill their dream of a hand-built house and farm, but the bitter elements, family obligation and guilt make everything so hard.

"What are you trying to overcome?" she asked him one day. They were working their way through the last group of logs on the ground, peeling them with bark spuds.

Jim couldn’t answer. He thought that Diane knew about the touch of the hand to things—nail, spike, bar, and wedge, the yellow pine—and about the spirits that had their roots in the material world. She was a musician, a cellist. She understood that the bow drawn across the strings activated the atoms in the air. But in another way he realized that Diane’s question went deeper, that the images of impeccability he pursued were striking a crazy, precarious balance with a chaotic thing he couldn’t name. He stuck the blade of his bark spud into a log and looked at Diane. She was staring deeply into him with her bright green eyes. The true answer to her questions seemed just out of his reach. The answer was like a word remembered for its feel on the tongue, but which he couldn’t raise to his mind.

We meet Jim Blood as a child in the cold world of "Chickens," and then in the novella "Freeing the Apes" that concludes the collection, we meet Jim and Diane again, 20 years after they’ve established their farm, through the voice of Pete. We’ve met Pete already in "Zeta’s House" and in "The Transmission," a story by turns nervous, blackly funny, and tragic, as Pete gets pulled into the vortex of the self-destructing couple next door. That dangerous husband appears in a likewise compelling role in "I Could Love You (If I Wanted)," playing spoiler/savior to single mother Lola, who must decide how to live her own unpromising life while her flawed mother withers away in the hospital. The interconnections are surprising, and strangely affirming, as though any link, good or bad, helps secure all of us a little more firmly to our ground.

Nothing is easy here—not the lives, not the story telling. And though the characters fight for their place in the landscape, they are firmly entrenched in my imagination. They have stayed with me for weeks, working away at me. What more can you ask of a book?

I’m so pleased to be reading with John at University Book Store in Seattle on Tuesday, November 28, 7:00 pm.

Kathleen Flenniken