The Fruit of Stone
by Mark Spragg
Published by Riverhead Books
287 pages, 2002
Reviewed by David Abrams
The forces of geology were hard at work as Mark Spragg wrote his first novel, The Fruit of Stone. The thrusts and heaves, the compaction and solifluction, the grind and squeeze -- everything reduced each sentence, each word into small, hard gems. There is great beauty pressed between these covers.
I would have expected nothing less from the man who wrote what is surely the finest memoir I've read. Ever. Spragg's 1999 Where Rivers Change Direction -- a tough-tender account of growing up on a ranch in northwestern Wyoming -- showcased the author's lariat-twirling skill with language.
To this day, I carry in my head the image of when the teenage Spragg was walking home through the mountains, came around a bend and...
there stands on the trail a cow elk, only four feet ahead of me, and between us, exactly as we have noticed one another, she commits the birth of her calf. It drops to the trail at my feet. Her eyes come alive in panic at the sight of me. She cocks back on her haunches and bolts for cover, and I am left staring at her calf, at my new boots, now splattered by her blood.
That's the kind of writing, multiplied by about a thousand, which fills Where Rivers Change Direction. It's no surprise, therefore, to find it packs the pages of The Fruit of Stone as well.
There is humor here, as well as undecorated dialogue and, always, the rough beauty of the Wyoming landscape. Though it is fiction, The Fruit of Stone resonates with the authenticity of autobiography. Yes, Spragg has carved these characters and events from his imagination, but it's obvious he's spent a lifetime listening and observing their real-life counterparts. These days, there are plenty of good writers stocking bookstore shelves with literature of the Rocky Mountain West, but few of them can match Spragg in his descriptions of men with rodeo-broken bones and women with bodies like mountain ranges.
That said, the plot of the novel is not remarkable. Two men -- McEban and Bennett, friends since childhood -- fall in love with the same woman, Gretchen. Through a series of misunderstandings between McEban and Gretchen, she ends up marrying Bennett, the weaker of the two men. Years later, after impetuously sleeping with McEban, Gretchen runs away, allegedly on her way to another lover. McEban and Bennett join forces and set off in pursuit. What they're really looking for, however, is resolution for all the male-bonding issues which have dogged them since adolescence.
The story is not remarkable, but the writing is; and in the telling, the characters come alive, as distinct and hard-edged as anything you can chip out of geology. We see the story mostly through the eyes of McEban, a busted-up cowboy who works his father's Wyoming ranch and quietly mopes about the girl who got away. He's an instantly sympathetic character -- lonely, laconic, lust-filled. I mean, who wouldn't like a man who talked to his dog like it was another person? "I ordered you a cheeseburger," he tells Woody as he comes out of a restaurant.
Bennett, on the other hand, is pitiful. Short-tempered, hair-trigger emotions, distrustful of dreams, he never seems to get ahead and always wonders why. McEban observes: "Bennett's trust lies in a world he can kick. A world that kicks back." Gretchen's departure is a blow and he probably would have stayed down if McEban hadn't agreed to go with him on his road odyssey.
The narrative sinuously alternates between the men's present search for the runaway wife and scenes from McEban's youth where we meet his troubled parents and learn some of the reasons behind his stoicism. The dual stories of the quest for understanding and forgiveness gradually converge until, in the closing pages, we -- and the characters -- are struck with the shattering light of epiphany.
Spragg twines the past and present expertly -- as if he were braiding a rope. One scene echoes into the next: for example, violence in the past bleeds into violence in the present. It's a dazzling rope trick, performed so invisibly you don't even notice until you're nearly through with the book.
He also reveals crucial details sparingly and with just the right timing -- as if he were a waiter serving brandy in a clean, well-lighted place. The novel makes you wait for information you didn't know you needed to know until it is right upon you. Mysteries are slowly revealed: how McEban's foot came to be twisted and shattered, what happened to cause his parents such agony, why Gretchen chose Bennett over him. When the scenes finally come -- especially in those last, shattering pages -- it's enough to stop breath and draw tears.
Spragg's style is simple, direct and unforgettable -- as in this passage where McEban reminisces about the Gretchen of his youth:
He remembers her standing in a falling light, spring light, unsteady on her bare feet. He remembers her kneeling on the uneven ground. She knelt on a blanket. He remembers 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 shadows, 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.
In much the same way, The Fruit of Stone is capable of burning the reader's hands. | October 2002
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.