In the country of Charlie Quimby’s imagination, property isn’t selling and water is scarce. Where an orchard once produced apples for the cannery, the land stands barren of trees. Near Fruita, Glade Park and Grand Junction in western Colorado and into Utah, mesas rise over the moody country with “its silent and ancient spirit.” In such places, “[e]ven the best defense, ongoing love and attention,” provides little comfort against loneliness.
Despite the difficulties of boarding horses in a desert landscape, Leonard Self and Inetta Ferrin, husband and wife, persevere. Leonard stoically meets life’s challenges. Inetta finds strength in her religious faith and her determination to help others, including Leonard, who struggles with depression. “Between her dramatic vistas and his foreground of small particulars, the desert’s middle expanse dissolved into a blur of browns and greens. Such a divided landscape almost demanded an extreme perspective — God’s or the sparrow’s.”
“Monument Road” mainly concerns Leonard’s transformation from a man of “small particulars” bent on self-destruction to one tolerant of others’ views and accepting of their love. He is perhaps his prayerful wife’s most important reclamation project.
Just as he came to his uncle Abner’s ranch to live during a tragic childhood, so too do strays and misfits gravitate to Leonard and Inetta’s. Late in the book, Inetta’s gay brother recalls how “you both let me see what love was really like.” The shiftless, drunken Vaughn Hobart, another misfit, begins straightening out his life because of them. Others aren’t as fortunate. Through no fault of Leonard and Inetta’s, Junior Crimmins, whom they take in and who like Leonard is the victim of an abusive father, dies tragically.
Sometimes the secondary characters create problems in this fine, affecting book when Quimby telegraphs his intentions or his plotting grows strained. Early on, for instance, the reader suspects Elliott is gay when he’s coyly described as “the one person on earth sure to appreciate” Inetta’s artwork. Fifty pages later, he escapes to San Francisco. After Inetta’s death, a “secret client” from that city offers to buy the ranch to help Leonard pay bills.
One gets beyond the novel’s shortcomings. Quimby’s storytelling, his humane impulses and his lyrical passages on the meaning of love and time, and on the history, geology and botany of the region, will surely impress readers. In this spirit-haunted place, Inetta’s life, even in death, circles outward to redeem Leonard. For Leonard Self, now “seventy-some years” old, much remains to live for in a land where the ground is “so parched and bare, men can’t help but look skyward. It’s no wonder, Inetta used to say, God chose the desert to reveal Himself.”
The American Booksellers Association is promoting Quimby’s lovely novel as a “Debut Dozen” selection.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.