An Unfinished Life
by Mark Spragg
Published by Knopf
257 pages, 2004
The Marlboro Man Finds His Heart
Reviewed by David Abrams
As a young boy and budding writer, William Faulkner would sit at the knees of his Mississippi relatives, listening with rapt attention to their stories of the War Between the States and Reconstruction. Those tales, with that distinct Southern vernacular, eventually wormed their way into his fiction and established Faulkner as one of the great transcribers of human dialect.
Like the Yoknapatawpha maestro before him, Mark Spragg has spent the first 40-plus years of his life absorbing the speech and mannerisms of cowboys in Wyoming. Spragg's books (the memoir Where Rivers Change Direction and the two novels The Fruit of Stone and An Unfinished Life) resonate with a particular tough-tender masculinity of Marlboro men. Spragg, who grew up on a dude ranch near Sheridan, Wyoming, has cracked the code on the closed circle of often-inscrutable males who make their living taming horses, stringing barbed wire and leading fat, pale city slickers on elk hunts. What Faulkner did for the Mississippi delta, Spragg does for the Rocky Mountain West --accurately transcribing the hard-bit, stoic lives that populate the equally unyielding land.
So, when we come to Spragg's new novel, An Unfinished Life, it's no surprise to find that he has convincingly etched a portrait of a bitter, grief-stricken 70-year-old rancher named Einar Gilkyson who is counting the days until he can join his wife and son in their graves. His only reason for living is to play nursemaid to his Korean War buddy, Mitch, who's been disfigured in a bear attack -- a mauling which happened as Einar stood by helplessly. As penance, he gives Mitch daily shots of morphine, cooks his meals and dresses him each morning.
Like so many other old men of the New West -- the clichéd "dying breed" -- Einar and Mitch are living in a landscape (both moral and physical) that's crumbling away. Einar tries to not be bothered by the influx of young married couples who have moved to Wyoming "for a more natural life" and who drive around their 20-acre ranchettes in brand-new SUVs. Even so, his spread outside the fictional Ishawooa is slowly being subdivided into parcels he leases to his neighbors. Since his only child -- Griffin, the heir apparent -- has died, Einar knows the land will remain undeveloped only as long as he's there to keep the ranch running, which at this point means milking his one remaining cow and selling Mason jars of the milk to the local co-op.
In Spragg's hands, this old cowboy becomes not just words on a page, but a character as real as the icy sting of wind-driven snow on our face. We can hear the carefully held-back speech slip from between his clamped lips; we can feel the shape of his weathered, scarred heart. After just three books, this is the kind of character we've come to expect from Spragg's pen.
What's surprising, therefore, in this new novel is the fact that Spragg extends that same authentic voice to a ten-year-old girl named Griff who eventually becomes the central character in An Unfinished Life. The precocious and endearing Griff is the granddaughter Einar's never met. He still holds his daughter-in-law Jean responsible for his son's death in a car accident a decade ago and has written her out of his life while still carrying around the ghost of his son.
Jean and Griff have drifted through life in the Midwest, attracting no-good deadbeat guys who use Jean as a punching bag. The latest one is a scary individual named Roy who, in the space of a few words, manages to turn an apology into an accusation during a morning-after conversation with Jean ("I hate when you back me into a corner ... I don't know why I come out swinging like I do."). Griff keeps a packed suitcase under her bed, waiting for her mother to wise up and get them the hell out of Roy's trailer. Meanwhile, she fantasizes about a tornado sucking Roy up into the sky, even though she knows it's no use:
Dead or alive, her mother would replace him. Before Roy in this trailer in Iowa there was Hank in the trailer in Florida, and before Hank there was Johnny in the little house that smelled like cat pee, and before Johnny there was Bobby. She can't remember Bobby very well, but there've been four. Everybody's mother is good at something. Her mother's good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives.
Eventually, Roy's fist lands one time too many on Jean's face and the mother and daughter sneak away from the maniacal lover, heading west toward the only place Jean thinks she can hide from Roy's rage: her hometown of Ishawooa. Once Jean and Griff show up on his doorstep, Einar grudgingly allows them to stay at his place, even though the sight of his daughter-in-law continually stabs him with pain over the early death of his son.
That sorrow is salved, however, by the charm of his granddaughter. Griff quickly endears herself to both Einar and Mitch (as well as to the reader) and it's the bond between the two old cowboys and the young girl which becomes the most compelling aspect of An Unfinished Life. Griff longs for a stable family life and she finds it in the gruff-but-sweet Einar and the nurturing compassion of Mitch. Yes, this may sound familiar to fans of Kent Haruf's best-selling novel Plainsong (and, indeed, Spragg gives a nod to Haruf in the book's dedication), but An Unfinished Life is invested with its own unique stamp of what I'm beginning to think is Spragg's trademark: the rough beauty of the authentic West.
The novel takes its title from the epitaph engraved on Griffin's grave, but it's also Einar who has an unfinished life and now, in the December of old age, he must learn how to tie up the loose ends of his life -- let go of his bitterness toward Jean, as well as forgive himself for letting the grizzly maul Mitch, while at the same time opening himself up to the lovable Griff.
An Unfinished Life has its share of predictable moments, especially when the hot-tempered Roy shows up in Ishawooa and the novel turns into something resembling Sleeping With the Enemy and we realize that we've been mentally casting Julia Roberts or Ashley Judd in that woman-in-peril role (instead, the movie version due in December from director Lasse Hallstrom stars Jennifer Lopez and Robert Redford).
Hollywood and hackneyed plot elements aside, there's a lot going for An Unfinished Life. There is the rich beauty of Spragg's honed writing style, there is the engaging relationship between two grizzled cowboys and a young girl who renews their faith in life, but mostly there is the Faulkneresque way in which the author has captured and retained the details of his own years growing up in Wyoming. Just as Einar, who has preserved his dead son's room and wardrobe, says, "I'm careful about what I throw away," so, too, is Spragg meticulous about the words he chooses to leave on the page. | November 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.