Richard Currey, “Lost Highway”

How do you capture that feeling of playing live music on the page?

Like this:

“I closed my eyes, hands sighting their own country on the banjo’s face, a sense of place in the coming knowledge that music has traveled, borders in, rivers out. I played, a measured step on that passage, and the trees blew and whispered, notes walking one behind the other, a halftone drop and suddenly an octave above, and I sat on the bale in the open barn door, lacing the banjos life, chanting with it, a wild rolling tangle. Eyes open again, I looked toward the valley sky beyond the house, and the music billowed under my hand as lightning flickered to the east and the wind died and the first drops of rain rattled in the trees. The hundreds of birds went suddenly silent, and the only sound still in the night was the sound of the banjo and my humming chant and the rain came then, riveting the tin roof of the house’s sagging porch and forcing me from the bale. I stood inside the barn, inside the doorway and just out of the rain, lit by the one oil lamp behind me, the roar of the downpour all around us as I stood and watched the waterfall and played the banjo.”

Chanting. Chant. Still in the night.

In short, the answer is that the words better sing, too. As in that section above. And the story better show what it means for music to be embedded in an artist’s life, what it means at the white-hot core at the center of a character’s soul.

Richard Currey’s Lost Highway is a timeless portrait of a three-piece traveling band. A banjo, a fiddle, a guitar, and a pocketful of tunes. At first, we’re in the late 1940’s and you can almost feel the landscape coming to life after the war. There are scant references. We learn Leonard learned to play guitar on a troop ship. There’s an aging Chrysler station wagon. There is road trip lodging in “dingy third floor rooms in the sagging houses of working men and their sad rail thin wives.” There are clubs that try to stiff the Still Creek Boys. There are good times and hope and maybe a recording contract and there are come-ons. Maybe the Still Creek Boys can help country music shake this “singing cowboy thing.” 

Our narrator is Sapper Reeves, the banjo player. There’s also the tall violin player Estin, whom Sapper met in a Baptist church. And Leonard on guitar. On the road, late at night after his bandmates are asleep, songs come to Sapper in the “corners of wakefulness” and he thinks of his wife, Riva, and baby son, Bobby, at home. 

Currey’s novel shows us the shift from live bands on the road to bands with recordings, contracts and appearances on radio and television, the shift into leaving something permanent on the musical landscape. Are Still Creek Boys in control of their destiny? Should they accept every invitation? Are they seeking fame? Currey’s understated prose shows us Sapper’s thoughtful deliberations—and Sapper’s appreciation for what they get to do.

“We sat facing each other on metal chairs in the studio, an airless warren of half-light and microphones and electrical cordage. We drank coffee spiced with capfuls of Jack Daniels and listened to the taped replays booming into the studio with an immediacy and power that surprised us. We played and reworked and listened until the middle of the fifth night, when the album played through in its completion and I sat back in my chair, relieved and gratified and gently awed at the symmetry and generosity and honest invention, the full heart of the music we made, no longer songs finished in the moment they ended and consigned to whatever memory passed for. Twelve songs recorded across five nights to become an almanac of months and years earning this destination, and for me in the ranges of my secrets and fervent imaginings a reconciliation, a prayerful coming to terms, a midnight revival.”

Prayerful. Revival. Reconciliation.

Ultimately, Lost Highway is a love story. For family. For community. And, of course, for music—even while driving.

“The wipers slapped back and forth, doing a poor job of fanning a hole in the vapor. The wet field smoked, the weather both solace and benediction. On my side of the windshield a dead leaf caught under the blade and slid to the left, then right, left again, smearing rainwater, a veined hand waving. Estin drove on, across Tug Fork and into the state of Kentucky. South and southwest. Rain and muted light.”

Solace. Benediction.

Reverence for music and its magic oozes from the page. We sense a growing tension in Sapper. A snap here. An angry word there. And then Still Creek Boys are suddenly done and it gets worse for Sapper and his life is upside down and the realities of the world come rushing in. Nobody is immune. Sapper keeps his head down, goes to work, does the right thing one day at a time and tries not to think about destiny “or the precise and fully unexpected nature of its calling.” Lost Highway spans nearly twenty years. Events wrap up, for the most part, in the middle of the Vietnam War.

There’s a whiff of Kerouac in Currey’s elegant prose, enthusiasm and sharp details and reverence and joy and wonder all marinating together in Sapper’s universe and there is still one last chance to find redemption. Through music.

“While I was driving away from Petrie’s that night, it started to rain. A slick of two-lane blacktop disappeared beneath my truck, and I traveled along a berm of falling water, everything in fragile motion at the heart of the world, the full-throated rake of thunder and tremble of my own lagging mind. I was tired—ten hours at the hardware store and three more on the little stage at Petrie’s—and did not steer so much as sense the natural magnetism of the highway, that born away flank of ragged trust. There were names of towns I recalled from the days on the road with the band, so accurate and dreamlike it seemed they could not exist in a daylight world: Lightburn, Century, Angel, signs flickering past rain smeared windows, lost forever unless you happen to be looking at the moment of passage.”

Thunder. Tremble. Magnetism. Angel.

Lost Highway is a beautiful thing. 

James Sallis, “Sarah Jane”

Start to finish, Sarah Jane is seductive and tantalizing. It’s also (wonderfully) disorienting.

First line: “My name is Pretty, but I’m not.”

Second line: “Haven’t been, won’t be.”

In the second paragraph, the narrator gives us her true given name—Sarah Jane Pullman. “Kids at school call me Squeaky. At church I’m mostly S.J. or (as Daddy’s girl, a real yuck for the old guys in their shiny-butt suits standing by the Sunday School door having a cigarette) I’m junior. Seems like everyone I know calls me something different.”

And in the third paragraph, James Sallis upends us:

“I wrote all of the above in a diary when I was seven.”

We are looking back. Time will shift. Events come and go. Characters, too. We aren’t sure what’s important. At first. Maybe ever.

Sarah is in her own story. She knows it. She sees herself in her own narrative and there’s nothing neat or novel-like about it. She’s got the big-picture view.

In Chapter 5:

“We live in snow globes, don’t we? Pick them up, shake them, years swirl about us and settle.”

Beginning of Chapter 7:

“All stories are ghost stories, about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.”

Also:

“Certain images from our life stay with us, the lopsided crane we built from an erector set when we were ten, the dried husk of a pet chameleon, scenes from Rashomon or Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, and we don’t know why. Do these, like dreams, derive from random firings of synapses? Or is there something about them freighted with meaning—veiled messages from universes within ourselves?”

We know from the get-go that Sarah Jane’s reality has left plenty of images that stay with her. Something. “I didn’t do all those things they say I did. Well, not all of them anyway.” That’s right up front in Chapter 1, paragraph seven.

And, a few beats later, that she’s living with a fragile heart. She had a child who lived for a scant six hours. “They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.”

And Sarah Jane thinks about her inability to describe that moment: “Sentences won’t hang together, they have holes in them. Verbs drop out, answers don’t fit questions. With losses like that, you have to wonder if what we think, what we’re able to think, gets dialed down too.”

Sarah Jane has a “patchwork past.” She was a short-order cook. At least, that’s how she made a living at various stops along the way. At first. She’s from “hillbilly stock.” Her father raised chickens. A stint in the military. College. An affair. A town called Farr.

Suddenly, she is acting sheriff (and she’s the daughter of a father who never called the cops when it was time to take care of business.) When we’re with acting sheriff Sarah Jane, there are moments that feel out of a straight-up crime novel, but those moments merge back into the ordinary bits of daily life. Sallis turns down the tension, turns up the reality. Sarah Jane isn’t slice-of-life, it’s julienne-of-life—a slow-motion kaleidoscope hooked to a way-back machine. Sarah Jane lives simultaneously in now and then.

We know Sarah is perceptive and empathetic. “We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.”

Sarah sees lots. She sees how a cop boyfriend changed when he started wearing a uniform, how others see the worst in people when they take in so much misery day after day. Sarah Jane floats above it—or through it. Is it what happened to her baby? Is it some event that shaped her? Or was she always this way? Sarah Jane comes right out and asks, “Can we choose who we are? Can we choose what we believe?”

It’s hard not to over-quote from the book because Sarah Jane is so blunt when it comes to storytelling. Story shape and structure are very much on her mind (in a novel that defies any easy categorization):

Sarah Jane:

“A lot is made in novels, American novels in particular, it seems, of the notion of redemption. Something someone done lurches up out of the past, or that someone does it as we watch, and the next 160 or 800 pages show the scrambling back to balance. That’s what my college teachers kept pointing out, anyhow. Maybe it was a sign of the times, the nation’s common soul flashing guilts it needed to pick up and put down elsewhere, teachers finding redemption in books because that’s what they were looking for. Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.”

Nope, not at all overthinking. No easy redemption here. No easy arc. Just life. All in a brisk 200 pages. Call Sarah Jane amazing.   

Erika Krouse, “Tell Me Everything”

It’s a challenge to wrap your head around this spellbinding memoir that digs as deep on the personal side as it also lays waste to a university jock culture and hyper bureaucratic ivory tower administration that tolerated sexual assault. It’s impossible to read Tell Me Everything and not wonder if you would be able to do what Erika Krouse managed to do—even if you hadn’t endured what Erika Krouse experienced as a young girl.

The subtitle carries a lot of weight—The Story of a Private Investigation. Yes, private alright. Krouse rips out her soul, spills it all over the stage. But the account is cool to the touch. It’s reflective. You might expect white-hot rage. Krouse gives us brainpower. And humor.

Tell Me Everything in a nutshell: the key investigator (that’s Krouse) on a protracted case that ultimately exposes a repulsive college culture of sexual assault and exploitation was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a very young girl. The New York Times review headline was perfect: “She Became a Private Eye. And Investigated Her Past.”

Krouse is unlikely P.I. material. She was writer. She was, in fact, a “destitute” writer. She’d been well-published and won major awards, but “already forgotten and even more broke than before. I felt cheated by my own fantasies.” 

But Krouse also recognizes she has a special talent—an ordinary-looking face that prompts strangers to start talking. Even as a kid, Krouse was a “storage locker” for others’ secrets. The gig as an investigator begins with a chance encounter in a bookstore (a nearly “meet cute” moment, a reach for a Paul Auster novel—good choice!). The lawyer she meets in the bookstore recognizes Krouse’s special skill and asks her to work with him. Immediately. On the spot. Krouse would talk to witnesses. “Get them to open up.” Krouse is encouraged. “The idea was amazing, getting paid money for what usually ended up happening anyway.”

The idea suits her.

“I loved secrets, even terrible ones. Especially terrible ones. When people told me things, I felt happy. The more they didn’t want to tell me that secret, the happier I felt when they did. Secret information was something I earned at a cost—someone else’s cost. I could hoard that intelligence and never lose it. It was one of the few things in the world that was entirely mine.”

Krouse is worried about her lack of experience, but the lawyer (identified only as “Grayson”) starts her out with personal injury cases but then soon shifts focus to a lawsuit that might go after the local university (also not specifically identified, but clearly the University of Colorado in Boulder) on a Title IX violation for failing to protect students from discrimination. The case involves a woman named Simone who was hosting a girls-only party at her apartment when twenty college football players and recruits unexpectedly showed up. Simone was drunk and went to lie down. At least five of the players followed her into her bedroom and several raped her while others watched “as spectators.” Krouse is to start “discreetly gathering evidence” and she immediately realizes she will need to turn down the job.

“My own sexual assault had been different from Simone’s. I had been a small child, not a college student. I was abused not by multiple peers, but by one adult I now call X. The attacks continued from when I was four until I was about seven, not just one brutal time.

“But all differences felt academic now with this dizzying, whirling feeling in my chest. I knew I should leave. Instead, I pressed my back against the mesh ergonomic chair. I was too light-headed to think of a lie that would transport me out of there. And I wasn’t about to tell Grayson one bit of my history, then or ever.”

But Krouse steels herself and dives in. That “dizzying, whirling feeling” permeates the book. Krouse soon realizes the magnitude of the case she’s involved with and recognizes her own deep distaste for the culture that would tolerate this kind of behavior. Her first interview turns out to be a with a woman who had been raped by several of the jocks who had turned up at Simone’s party. Krouse might have started out feeling like an impostor P.I., but quickly finds the fuel she needs to dive in—hard.

Krouse’s P.I. work alone would make for a worthy book, especially given Krouse’s own interesting eye for details (she’s capable of some going down some beautiful, brief rabbit holes such as a quick lesson on the devastating pine beetle) and her way with words. But she’s also unflinching in exposing her own trauma. And her attempts to seek help from her own mother are either unheeded or repulsed. Krouse is equally blunt about her own failed relationships, even as she details the odd and unusual start to a relationship (and marriage) to “J.D.”

As one might expect for someone who was assaulted from such a young age, Krouse struggles with romance.

“I did not understand love, although I had often felt it. I just didn’t know how it was supposed to work once you separated the feeling from itself and turned it into action, doing things together. I hardly ever dated anyone after I graduated from college. Before that, when I truly liked someone, I wouldn’t pursue a relationship even if he thought he liked me. I was doing him a favor by saying no. Who would want to get involved with the mess that was me? Even now, I mostly dated people who seemed already broken in some way. We’d spend some time together, he would barely notice me, and we would both emerge intact.”

Krouse moves back and forth between her personal story and work on the lawsuit, which waffles between bleak moments and bright spots as Krouse gathers evidence and talks to potential witnesses. And, as she dredges through her memories, one blistering moment from her terrifying youth comes roaring back and she realizes why she’s always felt trapped, caged, and cornered. Writhing. But don’t think there is some too-perfect parallel track between Krouse’s increased self-awareness and work on the case as it progresses toward bringing accountability to the university and justice to the victims. Not hardly. Krouse doesn’t play cute. Or cliché. Instead, Tell Me Everything makes keen observations right up through its moving epilogue.

One of a kind. A must-read.

Craig Childs, “Tracing Time”

(The following was first published in the Four Corners Free Press, July 2022).

History, skeletons, and time.

Layers, civilizations, and stories.

Signals. Messages.

Expressions.

It’s all here in the Four Corners region. It’s literally right here. Under our feet. Around that corner. Down that canyon. Or in your backyard. Or mine.

We can go for a hike thinking today’s thoughts and hoping to shake off today’s woes, and we might glance up at the wall of a canyon and take in markings and messages that might be a thousand years old. Or ten. Or fifteen.

Tracing Time: Seasons of Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau is Craig Childs’ heartfelt guide to finding that headspace of deep contemplation for all that’s come before us.

Childs has been prowling canyons on the Colorado Plateau for thirty years. He’s written a dozen books from Stone Desert (an exploration of Canyonlands National Park, first published in 1995 and now out of print) to Virga & Bone, a 2019 collection of essays about human and animal desert icons. Perhaps Childs’ most notable book is House of Rain, on the fate of the once-thriving Ancestral Puebloan hub at Chaco Canyon. Childs has been watching rock art for decades in his nearly non-stop wanderings.

Childs’ book tour for Tracing Time started at Fenceline Cider in Mancos and it was SRO. His presentation mixes joyful wonder and awe with keen academic observations. So does the book.

Tracing Time is one part field guide (though he never mentions the specific locations of any of the panels he describes), one part memoir, one part inspirational talk encouraging us to get out there and see the pictographs and petroglyphs on our own, personal terms. Childs draws in a host of academic and cultural experts to gather their comments and perspectives. He tests theories, weighs evidence, and gives a voice to those who contemplate these works for a living.

The book, beautifully produced by Torrey House Press with art by Gary Gackstatter (who replicated the rock art with a vintage crow quill nib dipped into ink) is divided into 18 chapters. Handprints. Floating People. Spirals & Concentric Circles, Conflict. Horses. Adornment. Birth. And so on.

Childs cares about the images themselves, of course, but he cares just as much about their location in the canyons. He wants us to see the bigger picture and he wants us to learn how to move through these spaces, too.  He wants you to realize you didn’t choose a trail. Because of geology and the way a canyon flows, it may have chosen you. He wants us to watch the dawn light hit these etchings and paintings. He wants us to watch them fade into darkness, too.

Childs’ way with words is some kind of magic trick, animating the inert and enlivening stillness.

“The creek below mumbled under ice. Cottonwood trees stood bare. Frigid air roamed downhill, a stillness the canyon seems to be drifting into like a ship through fog. My perch was slickrock, my gloved hands wrapped around binoculars waiting to be used, for the day to come. I was here for dawn and sunrise, watching the last stars drift out and an inkling of light seep into cottonwoods below. I prefer this time of day, or at least this pace of waiting. The rest of the time is so much grind and go, a civilization screaming at you to stay on the ball, while here the light comes as slowly as cold molasses. A crescent moon sliced the glowing sky. Petroglyphs above me, around me, stood out through a thin broth of light and I didn’t want to lift my binoculars to focus on them. I watched the canyon instead, eyes drawn into a gray frosting of snow and trees. Nothing moved along the snowbound Creek, not an owl or fox, no breeze to stir the unfallen leaves.”

Written with all that engaging prose and a keen and inquisitive eye, Tracing Time is a remarkable contemplation on how to wonder about all that’s come before and admire the messages those peoples left behind.

Matt Goldman, “Gone to Dust”

It’s winter in Minnesota. Private eye Nils Shapiro drives an aged Volvo, gets up at the “crack” of 8:55, eats peanut butter sandwiches, and lives in a crappy house that builders want to buy so they can level it and start over. He’s certainly not ready to blend in.

In Edina, the “regal suburb” of Minneapolis, police call in Shapiro on a murder case that is diabolical, at the very least, in its cover-up.  An entire house is covered in a layer of vacuum cleaner dust. The foyer. The stairs. The hall. The master suite. And the murder victim. All covered in dust. 

The victim is Maggie Somerville, age 41. Divorced, two kids. The maid discovered the body. Nothing was stolen and she had not been sexually assaulted. When told of his ex-wife’s demise, the ex-husband is surprised. Her boyfriend, however, is not. And Shapiro happens to know the ex-husband’s brother. The obvious question is how do you accumulate that much vacuum cleaner dust? Dozens of bags, maybe hundreds?  The dump of dust is the perfect DNA-destroying technique. You could test the accumulated DNA inside the house for decades and never isolate the killer’s specific trace.

Shapiro is 38. He is having a very hard time getting over Micaela, “who became my wife and then my ex-wife and then lingered like a chronic sinus infection.” Shapiro is jaded, stubborn, cynical, snarky, and romantic. He’s also dogged. Shapiro is given the job of cozying up to the ex-husband and the boyfriend.

Shapiro’s PI work gives him something to care about. And distracts him from thinking about Micaela. “I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and ate in front of the Bengals/Colts play-off game. I wanted to care about the game but didn’t. I’d lost interest in sports, which I chalked up to the general anesthesia I’d mainlined to survive Micaela. Couldn’t stick with a game, couldn’t stick with a book, couldn’t give a damn about beautiful women. I’d pissed off more than a few, which was preferable to the others who I had straight out hurt. At thirty-eight, and for the first time in my life, I’d turned into one of those guys.”

Shapiro is hired by and working with the Edina police, but told to keep that fact to himself. He knows to keep his jaded self under wraps at work. “We Minnesotans are not tough-talking people. It doesn’t work here. We sand off our rough edges to play nice and keep our hardness buried deep.”

And that’s the cool thing about Gone to Dust. That Minnesota Nice and Minnesota Clean contrasting with the darkness behind the murder. Edina is not known for its dark alleys. It’s as if Nils Shapiro manifests the dichotomy (signaled by the odd mashup of his Swedish given name and Jewish surname). But us readers get access to his snarky, biting thoughts.

The plot twists nicely. There’s a fine crew of suspects. The Nils-Michaela thing isn’t your run-of-the-mill frustrated relationship. The resolution involves all that Minnesota bland sameness that Shapiro frequently notices. Somewhere in all the homogeneity, something is bound to jump out. Or maybe it’s finding the links in everything that’s common. A smart, snappy voice coupled with a fiendish plot makes Gone to Dust a first-rate read.

Chris Holm, “Child Zero”

We got problems. The “new normal” ain’t pretty. There’s a tiny Third World nation in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. The iconic Tavern on the Green restaurant has been subsumed by the encampment. Inside the camp, everything from shigellosis to typhoid fever run rampant. Below the streets, there are countless infected rats that have created a “simmering reservoir of plague.”

There’s a new federal Department of Biological Security that has the authority to assume control of any investigation that may involve public health risk. The DBS is no joke. Its budget is larger than the Department of Defense. It’s leader reports only to the president.

Thanks to the health crisis in general and one biological terrorist in particular, wealthy New Yorkers have turned their buildings into “hermetically sealed citadels and hired private armies to protect them.” One condo tower brags that buying a unit comes with one month’s emergency food and oxygen and one year “complimentary” subscription to XODUS@ Aerial Evacuation Services.

Details like that XODUS@ touch give Chris Holm’s Child Zero a worrisome plausibility. Of course, coming off the past 25 months of weirdness—and the accompanying 1 million COVID deaths—will mean you’ll read these pages with even more of a parched throat. And as you devour the pages, you might think that the writer really seems to have grounded the story in science. I’m just going to come out and tell you to go ahead and take a pause from the action and read Holm’s thoughtful Author’s Note (at the end) and while you’re back there, check out the bibliography. Bibliography? A thriller citing scholarly references? A-yup. This bleep is possible.

But Holm has his own background in molecular biology so it’s not like he just crawled up from a simmering reservoir of wannabe thriller writers to try and scare the pants of us innocent, trying-to-get-back-to-normal readers.

The plot is built for action. No thumb-sucking allowed. It’s set a touch in the future, but you’d hardly know. (There’s even a repurposed Riker’s Island, used to heart-pounding effect. Spoiler alert: things have only gotten worse at Riker’s.) Child Zero is a detective story wrapped in a semi-dystopian hellscape. “Semi” because, well, it’s mostly poor folk who take it on the chin. The rich have options.

The bigger backdrop is that bacterial infections around the world aren’t responding to treatment. Global warming has released ancient microbes due to the thawing of earth’s surface. (This is straight out of headlines in late May, 2022 a few weeks after Child Zero was published.) There was a meningitis outbreak in Frankfurt, a wave of tuberculosis infections in New Delhi. And so on. 

Child Zero centers primarily around the work of NYPD Detective Jacob Gibson. Gibson lost his wife in the bioterrorism attack. When Jake gets dispatched, he must find a way to keep secret the fact that his daughter is ill. If the DBS discover she is hot to the touch, she could be rushed off to a state-funded sanitarium where they “tuck the dying out of sight.” Gibson’s keeps her daughter’s health status a secret. 

Gibson is called to the scene of a massacre with his partner, Amira (Amy) Hassan. The slaughter is inside the aforementioned encampment in Sheep Meadow. The victims weren’t ill, however. They were all disturbingly healthy, which makes no sense given their surroundings. Given the infested conditions in their camp, might the victims have been sitting on some kind of miracle cure?

We follow 12-year-old Mateo Rivas, a former Park City resident who was rousted from sleep one night and escaped down into those rat-infested sewers. We occasionally check in on President Marshall Whitmore and the self-centered head of DBS, Lionel Mercer. And, among others, we meet Peter Levy, an employee with the private security firm contracted to manage the Park City encampment. There’s a “cryptoanarchist collective.” There are “Soldiers of Gaia” too, who have pledged their lives to curing the planet of the “plague of humankind.” Yes, as in what happened after March of 2020, chaos begets chaos. The title of Child Zero might suggest it’s about the journey of one kid, but the novel is well populated and the mayhem is observed from a variety of points of view. The story touches on racism, classism, fascism, authoritarianism, and more. If you think COVID mask mandates were top-down, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. (Holm started work on this long before COVID-19.)

Imagine doomsday preppers on steroids, a band of fierce Mad Max survivalists, and government agencies who treat Orwell’s 1984 as a roadmap for success—and you’ve just started to grasp the extent of the many clashing aspirations in Child Zero.

Holm takes full advantage of the Big Apple setting—from wildly converted subway stops to the grim scenes at Rikers and all that water in the East River. The government and personal agendas are manifold. The action sequences are cinematic while the prose is unflashy, workmanlike, and easy to gobble up.

You could call Child Zero a cautionary tale, but that sounds much too meek. Based on all that he understands about science and bugs and mutations and medicine, Child Zero is Chris Holm screaming in our ears: wake up!