Nature writer, poet and northern Colorado native James Galvin, best-known for The Meadow (1992), graces us with a terrific first novel which will entertain literary types and even render tree-huggers happy, despite the rampant use of paper in the book's construction.
Fencing the Sky is written skillfully in an enviable, nonlinear style. Galvin bounces us around in time and place, leaving us breathlessly awaiting the next bit of information, in a way not unlike adding jigsaw-puzzle pieces, one at a time, to allow a picture to emerge. This unusual style, though it peters out somewhat toward the end of the book as it becomes less fresh, is riveting and exciting.
The reader is grabbed in the first scene. Before we know any of these people, Mike murders Merriweather Snipes. The story lies in what leads to this incident and, eventually, its aftermath. (Of course, with a name like Snipes, we know the man deserved to be killed.) As expected, we are dealing with a good vs. evil message, a concept not unheard of in literature. Fencing the Sky is an environmental adventure story -- moving, thrilling and fun. Galvin's characters studied in the school of Edward Abbey, while his work would fit comfortably on a bookshelf nestled between Rick Bass and Jim Harrison.
Mike, an ex-hippie turned cowboy, is immediately likable: "He tipped his hat down over his eyes. Mike always had a weakness for certain cowboy clichs. What he had done that day was not right. It was almost right. It was, in a way, good enough, though it wouldn't change anything or stop things from happening."
We like the other good characters also. Witness, for example, this exchange between Oscar and Dr. Adkisson Trent (Ad, for short):
"Oh, it isn't just my back, Oscar." They sat on top of the huge haystack. Ad touched the shiny points of his hay hooks together like prosthetic hands. He looked sidelong at his friend. "You know, Oscar, I melted my brain with too much education and alcohol. I wrecked my shoulders, elbows and knees with 30 years of rock climbing. I ruined my back working construction to get through school. My stomach is bad. My ears ring. About the only thing that still works on me is my dick."What is there not to like about these guys?
Oscar turned his head and stared a long moment at the snowy peaks in the alpenglow, then turned back to Ad. "It's sure gonna be a sad day when your dick gives out."
To his credit, Galvin rarely resorts to easy sentimentality. Both the good characters and the bad in this book, while clearly on their own sides of the morality line, display shades of realistic human weakness and strength. For example, you get to understand some of what is behind Snipes' actions, and he has a multidimensional wife who loves him.
Galvin is masterful at imagery. When Oscar was 10 years old, playing a childhood game, he "threw his arms up, dropping his reins, sent up a howl and leapt straight up out of his stirrups. His bay mare ran out from under him as he flew, cruciform, into the air and crumpled on the snow-padded sod." In the scene where Ad returns to his remote Colorado cabin after vandals have destroyed everything, the description of the carnage is heartbreaking and will remain a mental picture long after it's read.
The conflict of the book can be summed up as follows: "He was aligned, both in his own mind and in the minds of others, with the ranchers and the old-timers who were here before that Snipes guy bought 20,000 acres of cattle pasture and peddled it in 40-acre lots."
The ranchers and the environmentalists are fighting the same enemy -- the developers. "Stockmen and environmentalists have long been at odds. They demonize each other out of fear. Both groups are afraid of losing what they value most. They burn up bushels of rhetoric over issues like grazing fees and wolves, but really, both embattled camps have more in common than they have to disagree about."
In the hands of Galvin, this conflict is by no means as dry as that passage might indicate. Unlike other message books -- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver comes to mind -- the story is the driving force, never eclipsed in its strength by the author's political agenda. Instead, Galvin gives us a great read and is a welcome newcomer to the world of fiction writing. Fencing the Sky is superb.