The Barnes & Noble Review
The diverse western landscapes described in Mark Spragg's first novel are harsh, primeval, and stirring -- a fitting backdrop for parable and modern myth. Weaving lighthearted, tender, poignant moments within an occasionally dark tale of passion and loss, Spragg invests his work with a humanity reminiscent of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy and offers a reaffirming message as true and powerful as the characters that populate this heartwarming book.
In Valentine, Wyoming, McEban and Bennett are best friends in love with the same woman, Gretchen. When Bennett marries Gretchen, the sturdy and rugged McEban swallows his heartache and survives as best he can. For more than two decades, McEban hides his pain -- until Gretchen finally leaves Bennett for another man. McEban, forever bound by his loyalty to his best friend, eventually persuades Bennett to fight for his wife and win her back. A road trip to Denver, Colorado, ensues, during which both men rediscover the potent and conflicted nature of their brotherhood. A journey of spiritual reevaluation takes shape as they venture to regain what's meaningful in their lives.
Spragg has a fine ear for the dialect of the earthy denizens of the Rocky Mountains. And, as he showed in his critically acclaimed memoir Where Rivers Change Direction, he knows how to draw up the smallest details to describe some of the world's most resplendent natural majesties. The Fruit of Stone delves deeply into the fertile textures of an American West that remains a place of tradition, legend, and virtue. Tom Piccirilli
Rocky Mountain News
Both the emotional depth and the linguistic play of Spragg's novel are surprisingly fresh and satisfying.
Spragg's debut novel (after the well-received memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction) is a stylish western, set in present-day Wyoming and revolving around a longstanding romantic triangle. Barnum McEban, usually just known as McEban, is a 41-year-old bachelor living on his father's ranch with Ansel, the family ranch hand. His best friend, rancher-turned-developer Bennett Reilly, is married to McEban's old girlfriend, Gretchen. When Gretchen leaves Bennett, she also leaves behind a note recommending that he track her to Bozeman and bring McEban with him. Bennett follows this advice, making the second half of the book a road trip through Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The two men are a fine pair: Bennett half-manic and defeated, and McEban sunk in guilt and memories. In Yellowstone Park, Bennett beats up a mute ranger and picks up two drifting Indians, 29-year-old Rita and her nine-year-old brother, Paul. Their company and the company of Rita's dead sister, Alma, with whom Rita is in constant communication distracts Bennett and McEban, but cannot keep Bennett from following the self-destructive course he is embarked on to a tragic end. Spragg has a nice ear for dialogue and can invest a character (notably Bennett) with comic energy. Unfortunately, all too often he obscures the solid virtues of his storytelling beneath the overfamiliar stoic lyricism that has become almost de rigueur in westerns in the wake of Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. Author tour; foreign rights sold in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K. (Aug.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
McEban and his neighbor Bennett, two middle-aged Wyoming ranchers, have been friends since they were children. Both men are in love with the same woman, Gretchen Simpson, who is currently Bennett's wife. As the book opens, Gretchen has just spent the night with McEban. But as she explains the next morning, this is not the beginning of an illicit affair but instead her way of saying goodbye before she leaves town for good. The two friends follow the runaway Gretchen across the high plains in a pickup truck, meeting an assortment of colorful rural characters along the way. Spragg is best known for Where Rivers Change Direction, a collection of autobiographical essays about growing up on a Wyoming ranch. Like that memoir, the best part of this first novel is his reverent depiction of ranch life, told in lean, workmanlike prose. Unfortunately, Spragg is much less adept at character development. Gretchen never comes alive on the page, which makes it difficult to take seriously the men's burning desire to bring her back home. Nevertheless, Spragg's celebration of old-time values will appeal to fans of Donald McCaig and Kent Haruf. Recommended mainly for larger regional collections. Edward St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Spragg evokes these doomed characters and the land they inhabit in an achingly beautiful lyricism. Like Annie Proulx and Gretel Erhlich, he's a writer who makes Wyoming's high country so familiar it feels like the reader's own native ground.
A debut novel by Wyoming denizen Spragg (the memoir Where Rivers Change Directions, 1999, not reviewed) describes two men who love the same woman. The scenario behind Truffaut's Jules and Jim travels better than you might think: there are women all across the world capable of breaking hearts by the pair. In Valentine, Wyoming, Barnum McEban grew up as much in love with his childhood pal Bennett as he was with his childhood sweetheart Gretchen. McEban is a tough character, as tough as his Scots forebears who crossed the Atlantic and didn't stop until they found themselves on the prairies of the American West in 1917, and he isn't one to fall to pieces when fate deals him a bad hand. So he takes it on the chin when Gretchen marries Bennett and stays in touch with him over the next 20 years-only to find the wound still fresh and raw when Gretchen tells him she is leaving Bennett for a physicist in Denver. As distraught for Bennett's sake as for his own, McEban convinces the jilted husband to follow after Gretchen-and hits the road beside him. There is a symbiotic side to McEban's personality that may be the result of having been born a twin (and having lost his baby brother while still in the crib). At any rate, he's definitely one for joint action. While on their quest to win back Gretchen, McEban learns that Gretchen had been pregnant with his child (lost in a miscarriage) before she married Bennett, and he begins to wonder whether he or Bennett is the more aggrieved party. By the time they find Gretchen, the alliances are more confusing than ever. Quite powerful in a restrained kind of way. A fine beginning for a talented new hand.
From the Publisher
“Spragg evokes these doomed characters and the land they inhabit with an achingly beautiful lyricism. Like Annie Proulx and Gretl Erhlich, he’s a writer who makes Wyoming’s high country so familiar it feels like the reader’s own native ground.” —Chicago Tribune
“Unforgettable. . . . A long love song to Wyoming and the tough, do-it-right-or-don't-do-it-at-all people who live there.” —Denver Post
“A unique, movingly detailed road map of the human soul.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Full of smart troubled people, natural speech, wonderful, lyrical prose, and the great wide varied landscape of Wyoming, where good men and deep women play out their love-burdened lives. . . . Mark Spragg owns one of the truest and most natural voices in American letters.” —Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong
“[A] pickup truck odyssey . . . lyrical one moment, gritty the next.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“What at first seems to be a standard love story is soon revealed to be something much more epic—two hardened men, battling each other and their own demons in the bleak, unforgiving landscape of the West. [A] tale of obsession, desire and rage.” —The Washington Post
“A refreshing stew of grit and intelligence, longing and loyalty. . . . Places Spragg firmly in the company of such Western writers as Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner.” —Rocky Mountain News
Read an Excerpt
Birdsong strikes up and musters in the first soft press of dawn. Starling, sparrows, magpies, meadowlarks, blackbirds. There is the flush and shuffle of feathers. Throat tunings. The hollowing chitter of beaks. Bursts of flight. Wrens, flycatchers, cowbirds, crows. Complaint. Exultation. They work the meadow grass, the cottonwoods along the creek, the open barnloft, alive in tilting sweeps of hand-size shadows. The raptors float silently a thousand feet above, turning, spiraling atop the early-morning thermals, hunting the edge of the ebbing night.
A downdraft masses cool and heavy against the escarpment of the Front Range and totters and slides from the warming sky. It thrums against the sides of the stocktank, the outbuildings, the house; ripples the surface of the pond below the barn. It swings the pasture grasses east, lifts the boughs of a Douglas fir beside the house, scatters in bursts of cottonwood and aspen leaf. It smells of dew, juniper, sage, pine, horseshit, and stone. It chills McEban's exposed shoulders, his arms; pricks him away from sleep. He turns in his bed. He drifts. He is, for this brief moment, without memory, without longing. Simply one of God's naked creatures, accepting of the seasons.
The wasp-yellow curtains quake at the window, reflect as light beige. The bedroom furniture stands in subdues angles of gray and darker grays. Gretchen's dress, cornflower blue, draped over the ladder-back of an oak chair, catches in a predawn shade of snow-shadow. Her plain cotton bra and panties lie wadded on the seat of the chair dull as weathered vertebra.
McEban doubles a pillow under the side of his head and relaxes into it, and hooks the hem of the sheet with a forefinger, and draws it gently back from her. He feels the flash of her body's heat against his own and lie blinking in the half-light, remembering that he has known this woman all of her life. Forty years and change, he thinks. He remembers they were children together, and that he loved her when she was a girl, and later, and that he loves her now.
He looks into a corner of the room, at their reflections caught in the freestanding mirror. There is the curve of her spine, lambent; flawless as a small burl of cumulus. She flexes and turns, and her reflection turns onto its back, its legs and arms splayed, settling. McEban looks away from the mirror. He looks again at the woman beside him.
Her arms are sun-stained to her shoulders, and her legs to her knees and her face flecked with freckles. The rest of her runs milky, gone translucent in places, and at those places puzzled faintly with bluish veins—at her throat the sides of her breasts, the smooth slope of fles that draws low across her hips into the nappy wedge of auburn hair.
She moans lowly and moves her head from side to side and her long hair pools to the sides of her neck, spills across her shoulders, across the pillow, across the sheet, appears artesian. He cups a palmful of the hair to his nose and inhales. He has prayed to have this woman in his arms, and feels full of the power of his prayers. Her hair smells sweet as blood.
He is afraid to look again into the mirror. He is afraid of what he might see. It is his belief that his family's ghosts watch and record his transgressions. He imagines them as judgmental, with notebooks—as scouts for a prudish God. And then he thinks of Bennett. He thinks of the three of them—Gretchen and Bennett, and himself.
He thinks that Bennett does not believe in an afterlife, in witnesses, doesn't give a shit for the quick or the dead. He thinks he has never heard Bennett speak of his dreams. He has, in fact, heard the man state aloud that dreams are for the unfocused. He knows Bennett's trust lies in a world he can kick. A world that kicks back. And Bennett is his best friend, and Gretchen is Bennett's wife. He thinks there is no way for that not to be a blow. In the real world, for a focused man.
He looks again at Gretchen, to the woman who is his best friend's wife, lying here, beside him, in this house where he was a boy.
He'd heard her park in the drive and recognized the sound of the truck and did not believe it. He'd wondered if he was dreaming. It was after midnight, and there was just a pairing of moon, Venus unclouded and lamping, fallen to the west of the moon, fallen down the vault of blue-black sky.
He heard her in the hallway, recognized her steps, heard her undressing at the foot of his bed, the sound of her breath, and still did not believe it. Even when she was beside him in his bed he did not trust the scent of her, the feel of her skin against his own.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"I don't believe you," he said. "This is just a dream."
She pressed herself harder against the length of him. She kissed him. She cupped his hand over her breast. "Does this feel like a dream?"
"Yes," he said. "It feels like my dream."
He reaches out in the soft morning light and rests his hand gently on her abdomen. Just his hand. The hand rises and falls. She fidgets slightly against its weight. Her eyes flick under their lids. Her lips part as if to speak.
He remembers her younger. Before the gray got a start in her hair. Before gravity pulled half a lifetime of living through her flesh. He can't help himself. She bends her left leg at its knee and settles the foot against the inside of her right calf, her thighs opening, and he remembers her at seventeen, in his arms. He feels the weight of wanting her all the time between. Twenty-three years, he thinks. The bulk of his life.
He remembers her standing in a falling light, spring light, unsteady on her bare feet. He remember her kneeling on the uneven ground. She knelt on a blanket. He remember her raking her hands back through her thick hair, drawing it into a ponytail. There was the sound of the creek. There was a hatch of mayflies. The air was gauzy with pollen and insect wings, the sun halved by the horizon, nearly set. Her breasts rose with her arms, cast cups of shadow, and her red hair ignited. That is what the slant of sunlight did in her red hair. He wondered that her hands did not burn.
He concentrates on her breathing, and the effort allows him a sense of fragile union. He concentrates on his breath, and hers, and doesn't wonder if he is wrong in the world. He doesnt worry that the walls are shelved with the eyes of the curious and judgmental dead. He feels boyish, sweet-natured, innocent, even lucky. That is the way he's feeling when she comes awake.
She smiles and looks at his hand, where it rests on her belly. She lifts his hand and turns it and kisses its palm. She swings her legs over the side of the bed and sits. She shakes her head, and her hair lifts and falls at her shoulders. She still holds his hand.
"Did you sleep?" she asks.
She turns to see him nodding and smiles again. "I didn't plan this."
He stares at her.
"Honestly," she says.
"I wish you had."
"But I didn't. It just happened."
The sun breaks the horizon and slaps the room alive and stark. The reds, greens, blues, yellows throb. She stands in the glaring light, and he reaches out to her. He looks up the length of his mottled arm, to the soiled fingers, the broken nails, the stubble of worn hairs spiking the lengths of the fingers. He means to ask some question, something hopeful, but his mind is struck by a plain and primitive gratitude.
He pulls his arm and bends his knees. He rolls against his hip and sits on the opposite side of the bed.
Insect chorus spikes through the morning birdsong, and he knows the nightchill has settled in the trees along the creek, in the ditches, and, thinly, where the grounds fall low.
He watches her stand from the bed and step her long legs into her underpants, hook her bra at her waist, turn it, shrug into its cool lace, run her thumbs under its straps. She drops her dress over her head and pulls it away from her belly and hips, and it settles and hangs in the morning light. She takes up her canvas bookbag from the back of the chair and ducks through its single strap and adjusts the strap between her breasts.
He knows the bookbag holds field guides for flowers, birds, trees. At least one novel. No doubt two, perhaps three, books of poetry. And Milton. She doesn't go out of the house without Milton.
Woody yips and bounces on his front legs, and they look at him. He blocks the bedroom doorway and is anxious for his day's labor. His tongue lolls from his muzzle, his brindled body bleeding out of definition in the still-dark hallway.
Gretchen squats at the dog's head and rubs his shoulders, works the length of his ribs. His eyes go soft with pleasure. He forgets he is ugly and common and owned to work cows.
"I love you," she says. Her hands are deep in the dog's ruff, and she muscles him back and forth over his shoulder, and he mouths at her wrists.
"I love you more," McEban says. He has not stood from the edge of the bed.
She looks over her shoulder. "It's not a contest," she says.
"It feels like it is."
She stands away from the dog. She leans into the doorjamb. "You love me more than I love you, or more than Bennett loves me?"
"Both," he syas. He knows he is capable of saying anything. He knows a prayer has been answered and a vacancy made in his desires. He has no control over what may be sucked into the void.
"You remember what it was like before?" he asks.
"The time before last night. When we were kids."
"That was a lifetime ago," she says.
"It doesn't seem that way to me."
She adjusts the bookbag against her hip.
"I remember the light," he says. He looks up at her.
She squares herself in the doorway. She doesn't look away. "I can't remember whether it was day or night. Not even the time of year." She still doesn't look away. She means to hold him there, in front of her, without the escape of memory.
He nods and looks down to where his hands cap his knees. "You want me to pick you up for the auction?" he asks.
"Yes, I do."
"I thought you might've changed your mind."
"How would Bennett get home?" she asks. "If I changed my mind?"
She turns away and he hears her in the shaded hallway and the dog's toenails on the floorboards at her heels. He hears the screendoor slam, and the dog barking once from the kitchen, and then again.
He walks to the window and squints into the glare. He watches her drive across the plank bridge, the boards thumping against their loose spikes. He watches her on the dirt section road, the rise of the red talc behind her. The wind has hushed, and the dust swells to the roadside and powders the borrow ditches rusty.
"It was the first of June," he says. "It was the very last part of the day."
From the Trade Paperback edition.