Lem Purchase is in California when a call comes in the dead of night: his younger, disturbed brother in Nebraska announces his plans to carry out an act of terrorism targeting the state capitol building in Lincoln. This isn’t the first time Lem has had to make a frantic check on Jackson. Nor is it the first time that author Robert Vivian has taken us to the haunted world of the Great Plains. Critics called Vivian’s first two books in the Tall Grass Trilogy “lyrical and harrowing” (Sven Birkerts on The Mover of Bones) and “brilliantly written” (Publishers Weekly on Lamb Bright Saviors). In this third and final volume in the trilogy, Vivian weaves the voices of Lem, Jackson, and Lem’s estranged wife, Lissa, into an American triptych of longing, remembrance, and innocence—of hopes almost fulfilled and inevitably disappointed—as we race to Jackson’s reckoning with history that must have its day.
While Jackson hatches yet another plan that rivals the first in madness and ultimately threatens Lem’s life, Lem’s reflections reveal what, and how much, that life has meant. In Jackson’s determination we encounter another view of what matters, as he clings to his apocalyptic notion of the only way in which the country can be reclaimed from its present madness.
About the Author
Robert Vivian is a professor of English and creative writing at Alma College in Michigan. He is the author of The Mover of Bones and Lamb Bright Saviors in the Tall Grass Trilogy, as well as the award-winning Cold Snap as Yearning, all available from the University of Nebraska Press.
Read an Excerpt
Another Burning Kingdom
By ROBERT VIVIAN
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Regents
All right reserved.
The ghosts of Lem's horses are screaming again. They sound like shrieking women falling from the sky. They circle round the house half a story high with their manes tracing gossamer wings in the moonlight. I've gotten to know them so good they're like someone breathing right down on top of me. But only I have eyes bright enough to see them. Some of them look like bent, moaning trees before they rise up again to take on the stars staring down on all of creation. I never meant to kill Lem's horses. But once you start in on something you have to finish the job, and nobody would say any different if they were up front about it. But hardly anybody the fuck ever is.
Lem knows but he won't say.
He's always not saying the most important things to me. I have a list of the speeches he won't tell me that goes on a mile long in some tunnels in the ground. I'm his alpha and omega, and a few hundred other things besides. That's how it is between us. Lem's horses won't leave me alone, and I accept full responsibility for it: all neighing commences the coming of the kingdom and you better get that straight in your head. One of the stallions has teeth the size of picture windows looking out on eternity. I've never heard of a man-eating horse before but maybe there are some you can corral if you know where to find them.
Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.
And he wasn't bullshitting when he said it.
Lem is the best brother I could ever have but he thinks he's failed me. I feel his sadness like a magnetic force field that doesn't get weaker with the miles. He never liked what I had to say about America, but it pours out of me in panoramic visions that light up the sky in nuclear pastels and radioactive snow that twinkles before it hits the ground. He says I'm crazy, and maybe I am. I know Lissa believes it. But I've seen the tears well up in his eyes when he said it. I love him so much it's like an ache I can't get rid of.
He's my brother and best friend and like a father to me past our real father, who wasn't worth a shit and tried to drown me once. But sometimes that means Lem has to flip sides and be an enemy, too. If it was all just one way we'd be more fucked than we already are. Lem's older than me by a good seven years but it sometimes feels more like centuries. He sees no good use for violence, but I see its untapped potential everywhere around: you could throw a stone far out into the night in any direction and whatever it hit would be fit for a streak of destruction now and then. And that's exactly where this nation is headed and where it needs to go, right into the mouth of the lion with burning flames for a mane.
But me and Lem always were two different halves of the same good book.
That's why I had to kill his horses that time, hard though it was for me, and harder for him. Someone had to do it, but not all of them died right away. Horse blood isn't like other blood, there's more of a shimmer to it, like sheet metal.
I tried to explain it to Lem but I couldn't keep the sobs from choking me up like a net full of butterflies. I have a hard time saying the most essential things unless the spirit's in me, and then there's nothing I can't say. I can reveal the world in a drove of speech. God gives it to me to say in brief bouts of clarity and then I'm shining with judgment in my eyes. I can't help it either way. Lem knows that better than anybody, but he can't bring himself to admit it. Because if he did everything he ever believed in would crumble down around him, which it will anyway. Only he can't see it. There's a plan that set all of this in motion and I'm just a small but necessary part of it. Lem isn't imbued like me; he's as fine and decent a man as there is. He's weak when it comes to drinking and Lissa but I don't hold that against him. God loves him like an acorn in his hand. It's true I'll shoot anyone that comes up to the house now, but not out of spite: I'm just doing what I have to do to make the Lord's plan a go.
Lem's horses don't worry me so much. Without their bodies they can't trample the ground. Their hooves are made of air so they can flock and scream all they want, their thunder has been washed away by a force greater than any stampeding herd.
How did I go about mowing them down? How did I shoot them one by one fourteen strong so they laid there like dark bleeding hills bringing swarms of flies from miles away? I'll get to that before it's over. I promise. I'll explain it when the spirit comes upon me — when I can say it in words with a branding iron for my tongue. Until then I have to wait, locked and loaded. I've been up two nights straight and am working on a third. Adrenalin has been replaced by the flow of glory in my veins. My final vigil has commenced. I don't expect to live twenty-four hours beyond it. God bless my last cigarette: its glow is sacred in His eyes. I'm waiting for Lem. I got ahold of him and he said he's coming home to try talk to me one more time. It's not like the other times and I told him that. I've always known it would end like this. The other burning kingdom's almost here.
Who dreamed me into existence?
Who dreamed you?
Jackson, I say, God made you this way for a reason — and with this reason comes a thousand sons and daughters, not through the propagation of your seed but the transmission of your deeds that must be carried out. That's all it is, all it ever could be. All I have to do is wait a little longer, but it's a waiting charged with holiness. It doesn't hardly matter how long you live, only that you're going to get reborn.
Rebirth has come. Everything's been leading up to it. Lem's horses have become whirlwinds, but they'll settle down to dust eventually and go on back to being anthills. They'll go back to where they came from, hauling their screams. I almost like them for company, even though they're outside and I'm in here, smoking my last pack of Pall Malls like a burning heap of rubble, panning the dark lip of the horizon that's about to say something. If only I had ears enough to hear it.
I'm driving out in the middle of the night to come see you, leaving everything behind, including Lissa and the kids who don't see me much anymore — not since I moved out awhile ago. I'm a better brother than I ever was a father, and that ain't sayin' much. Lissa and me have been trying to make it work, but I've been away so long it's like we're always starting over from square one and getting off on the wrong foot somehow. Now I'm coming out to see you, driving twenty hours straight with just three stops for gas, staring at bathroom walls of scraped Fuck Yous.
She didn't like it when I left , but she didn't like it when I stayed.
That's how things are.
I started smoking again — but I always do when I know I'm gonna see you, and when we're together I couldn't quit if I tried. Some things just fall together in crowds. Sometimes it seems the only thing that makes any sense is when I haul my ass out to Western Nebraska to make sure you haven't gone and blown yourself all to hell, taking some poor innocent sucker along with you. So at least I gotta give you credit for that, for giving me a clear sense of purpose once in a while. If you weren't my brother none of this would be an issue: I'd let them lock you up and throw away the key, let you blow yourself up into a thousand pieces. Wouldn't make a shit of difference to me. But I know I'm fooling myself, which is a double disgrace. It's not hardly half true and we both know it, know it so well that you never needed to play that card.
Neither did I.
Neither did anyone, not even God.
Because it always just was, always just is.
But Jackson, I can't keep coming out there every time you get into trouble or start talking your blue streak of mayhem. Sooner or later someone's gonna catch a whiff of your so-called visions for a brand new America rising out of the ashes and then they're going to take you away for sure, with no tick-tock left for comeuppance. Blowing up barns and getting thrown in jail for being drunk is one thing, but what you're talking about now is so off the charts I don't even know what to say. We gotta set down and hash this thing out once and for all. I can't do this anymore. You need help. Time is running out for both of us. I'm almost fifty-two and you're forty-five. What do we have to show for it? An alienated wife and two kids I hardly know for me, traveling around the country doing part-time scouting work for the Angels, and you living out in that sorry shack by yourself, getting more and more isolated and paranoid, passing the days dreaming up God knows what. I can't even bear to think about it. But if I fail with Lissa, I don't want it to have anything to do with you. It's got to be on my own shoulders. I can't let her blame you, and that goes for me, too. That way if it ends it'll be sad but honest and clean, which is the most I can hope for now.
I can't even fucking say for sure anymore.
I'm grasping at straws, Jackson, I got nothing left in the tank. I'm coming up empty. You don't even have to be a brother or an uncle any longer — not that you ever could be the latter, what with Lissa afraid of what you might pull if you were around the kids long enough. I can't say I blame her. But if you could somehow figure out a way to live a quiet, normal life out there in Arrowhead, that would be a good and positive thing, the most hopeful thing I can think of, almost a slice of heaven for the relief it would give to everyone who knows you. Because it's important to have your head on straight, Jackson. And it's even more important not to hurt anyone, starting with yourself. That's all I want for you — and yes, for me, too, goddammit. I admit it's selfish, but not all of it is. Some of it's concern for you — beyond that it's just plain concern of the most basic humanity variety, nothing more complicated than that. So don't go and start dreaming up hidden motives or telling me I don't know anything about it. America has nothing to do with it. Neither does God or Mama or how he left us, or what he did right before he took off for good.
Because you're getting worse, Jackson.
You're saying shit I never even heard you so much as hint at before. I didn't tell Lissa half of it, didn't want to make things worse than they already are. And I don't want to go into it, what you did to those horses two years ago. That's over and done with. I must be as crazy as you for not making you face the music for what you did, which almost anyone else would have done in that situation, brother or not. But what you're talking about now, putting innocent people at risk has got nothin' to do with your radical ideas — it's beyond troubling, it's an altogether different magnitude of fucked-up.
This is still a beautiful country, Jackson, the shining hope of the entire free world. Why can't you see that? Nothing's gonna change that hopeful fact, certainly not a homegrown terrorist from Arrowhead, Nebraska. I can't fucking believe it's come to this. People are flocking from all over the world just to live here, thousands of Mexicans pouring in over the border each day. I see it everyday in my own backyard. Why are they coming here? Why? Because it's better than where they come from, pure and simple. America's not as lost as you think it is, or as dead to its ideals. It's just the same huge, sprawling place it always was, where anything can still happen, including somebody plotting and scheming like you. You don't need to save America from itself — because it doesn't need saving.
It never did and it never will.
But it's not too late even now, and we both gotta believe that. We can turn this thing around and get you the help you need. No more bullshit from either one of us. Enough is enough. You need to hear this straight up from me, and I'm gonna tell it to you this way when I get there. I'm the last link you have to reality in this world. That's how out of touch you've become. I can't keep bailing you out every time you get into trouble or threaten to do something. My influence is wearing thin, if I ever had any. It's practically as see-through as one of Mama's old tablecloths by now. Jesus, I thought you were collecting those guns because you admired them, like some kind of hobby or sport. I didn't know you were stockpiling the sons-of-bitches for the end of the world. You're starting to scare people, Jackson, including me.
So here I go, four hours out of Glendale at four a.m., pushing eighty-five and trying to get some kind of head start, listening to all-night talk shows and police scanners, hoping not to hear any breaking news about you. I figure I have a day and a half, tops. That's how things stand. Trooper pulls me over, wants to know where I'm going in such a hurry, there's no way I could even begin to explain it to him or anyone else. Well, sir, it's like this: I've got this brother in western Nebraska who's threatening to blow up the state capitol building in Lincoln — you know, the one with the nineteen-foot Sower on top. I'm the only one who can get through to him. That's why I'm speeding. Because if I don't get there soon he might just follow through with it. If you just had some kind of regular human contact things might be different. You might have a reason to be more engaged and less full of whatever it is that you've been pumping into your veins. I'm always dreaming up scenarios for you, thinking of how things could be this way or that way, which is definitely a waste of my time. I can't help it. It's the worst habit I ever acquired, dreaming up how things could have been different for you.
Now it's come down to this.
I'm the only one who can put a framework around what happened to you, Jackson, and try to make sense of it. I know that now. I guess I always have. You've never been a burden to me, no matter what anyone says. You're my brother. Fuck, what else is there to say? Lissa always said you were the most important relationship in my life, and it used to piss me offwhen she said it. I fought her tooth and nail on it, never wanted to hear it. She didn't even say it to be spiteful, she just said it because it was true. She was right, and I realize that now.
But my priorities have changed. They had to change. Now so do yours. I got my own last chance with her and the kids to salvage what I can, and it's looking pretty grim already. It's probably too late for me and Lissa, but I can at least be there for Sam and Scottie. At least I can try. So it's the last chance for all of us all the way around. That's what I'm gonna ask of you, to just try. Because something's different this time. I can feel it in the air between us, like some kind of static electricity. It's not just one way anymore. I've got questions for you, Jackson, I've got things I wanna ask you about. And for once I expect some straight goddamn answers.
Why did you think those horses were mine, Jackson?
What put that idea into your head?
They just wandered in from somewhere in eastern Colorado, a freakish equine event. They didn't belong to anyone, only to the land they wandered in on. You lured them in and then you slaughtered them one by one. I don't even know how you did it. When I found you and started cleaning up the mess, you just kept jabbering on and on that they belonged to me.
I keep trying to pinpoint the exact moment that leads up to a man finding himself speeding through the middle of the night across half the western U.S. in order to try to stop his brother from carrying out a terrorist threat, something he can't tell anyone about because if he even breathed so much as a word about it, it would be all over, done, finished: you'd never be a free man again, sick or well. But if I have to turn you in myself I will. I think you know that, Jackson. Maybe that's why you called me like you did, to help you find a way from not following through with it. So I'm laying it all on the line, and maybe even right now risking people's lives, people who go off to work each morning, drop their kids off at school, pay their bills, watch football on Saturdays, dream their own dreams. But I just can't believe you're serious about what you're saying. I don't want to believe it.
So we'll sit down and have a long talk about it, light up like a couple of old-time smoke hounds, which is exactly what we've become. Stay up all night and the next if we need to, however long it takes to get some things out in the open and clear between us. We don't have to rush a thing. I need to look you in the eye, to see your overall condition. Because the last time I saw you, brother, wasn't exactly inspiring. You looked like you had dwindled down to the size of a scarecrow. I still don't know where the hell you got all those burns around your neck, but it looked like someone had been dotting you with lit cigarettes or some other damn thing. And that was a year and a half ago, the last time I laid eyes on you.
Excerpted from Another Burning Kingdom by ROBERT VIVIAN Copyright © 2011 by Board of Regents. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Redux and Recoil