Maximilian Werner – “Crooked Creek”

“Crooked Creek” inspires a bit of word association so here goes:

Rugged. Raw. Tough. Hard. Chiseled. Unsettling. Brutal. Serene. Chilling. Beautiful.

“Crooked Creek” is rich with language and imagery. It’s a quick read but it forces you to slow down. It’s episodic and carries a strong through-line. It arcs over generations. It’s arty (and by that I mean, written with care) and yet unpretentious. The Ron Carlson quote on the back nailed it: “measured prose.”

The opening paragraph gives a clue about the nature-laden story ahead. In four sentences, we get rain, aspens, a rabbit, alfalfa, barn swallows, bats, grass, a coyote, weeds and wood. And a boy. That pace never lets up—and neither does the ongoing study of men and women finding their way in nature, up against the brutal elements of Utah in the late 19th century. The story plays with time. Violence erupts when you don’t really expect it, followed by moments of tranquility and beauty.

Werner sees everything—but it’s really his characters are doing the seeing, or at least noticing.  The writing carries you along. “Crows cawed in the trees like macabre fruit.”  “The coat’s pewter buttons had sunk into the soft bone of the child’s sternum and its hands lay at its sides like strange fossils of crabs.” “All the while the far off clanking of a blacksmith’s hammer divvied the silence and made audible the pulsing of the rubbish fires that burned high or low against the backdrop of the already dark eastern mountains.”

The story follows a family on the run and trying to re-connect and re-establish their lives in a new land. We know it won’t be easy. Nothing is. The family is disjoined, neighbors are suspicious and wary. Everything feels transient except the rocks and mountains. “The two men had had their share of hard words over the years, and even now their disagreements over the land and how to live on it hung between them like smoke in the air and these troubles would outlive them both.”

There are guns and rifles and the weapons are an extension of all the human traits—including carelessness, hate and distrust. As Werner tells us so simply, to confront a strange land is also to confront the strangeness of the self.

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