How often we forget that displacement is the American story. Everywhere pioneers spread, after all, they encroached onto indigenous land and people. Also, many settlers had not in fact decided to undertake these journeys themselves — slaves, women and children who made up homesteads had no choice in the matter, after all.
No American genre has overlooked such fundamental facts quite so flamboyantly as the Western, the form into which Téa Obreht pours considerable magic and sorrow and humor with “Inland,” her long awaited second novel, and a rewriting of the Western that somehow comes closer to the loneliness, desperation and terror described in early accounts of that time.
Two stories drive the book. On one hand, there’s Lurie, a boy born in Mostar, Herzegovina, some time in the middle of the 19th century, brought to America by his father - whose name is one of many mangled by migration here. Orphaned at a young age, he falls into life of grave-robbing, banditry, and outright thieving.
Called alternatively a Levantine, a Turk, and a madman, Lurie’s outsiderness confines him to a life of constant movement. He also, as it turns out, can see the dead. “It’s not as cold as you would expect,” he tells us, “the touch of the dead. The skin prickles like a dreaming limb. It’s not the strangeness of the feeling that terrifies you — it’s their want. It blows you open.”
Meantime, in Arizona Territory in 1893, a frontierswoman named Nora is beginning to grow crazed with want — for thirst. Her husband Emmett has been gone three days on a trip to fetch water, and her older two sons have disappeared. Whether they’re on an act of vengeance or simply off trying to keep their family newspaper going she does not know.
Each day, though, their stock of liquid dwindles. Meantime, she tries to hold together their failing homestead — built on her husband’s dream to open a small town newspaper. Debts on the press mount, a nearby English cattle rancher eyes their property. With a sick youngest boy and her husband’s infirm mother to take care of, she is at the end of her rope.
It would be easy for a book like this to linger on solemnities of grit, but Obreht is too lively a writer to paint only in shades of grey muslin. This is a vigorous, funny and energetic novel thanks to the fact that each thread of “Inland” is peopled with major and minor characters — prospectors, outlaws, and people improvising their way into new spaces, their complicated pasts falling away as sparks of excessive new persona flourish.
The small-town doctor who treats Nora’s youngest, for instance, a Mexican man with elaborately good manners, “exuded the irrepressible energy of a daddy-longlegs.” In another scene, when Nora’s housekeeper, a seance-giver named Josie, takes ill, one of Nora’s sons “slouched against the counter, worrying his hat like some dime novel bad man.”
About the only person who cannot become anyone else is Nora, on whose back the household depends — and on whose shoulders sits a heart-sickening grief: the death of her first born child, a daughter, Evelyn, who speaks to Nora in quiet moments.
Left behind, Nora suddenly realizes how stuck she is — how hardened she’s had to become by work and sweat. “Comfort?” she thinks, recalling the way one of her sons speaks about having to leave town to secure life with a future wife. “I been living here half my life, and no one’s ever asked after my comfort … Even if she had wanted to remain soft, the work would not allow it.”
Toggling between these two yarns, Obreht weaves a beautiful meditation on the way resilience engenders — requires, sometimes — a crushing sort of invisibility. As he wanders west, Lurie finds he is safest when disappearing into one projection after another — eventually becoming Arab. A matter that is helped once he joins a member of a (true-to-life) camel-brigade of the US Army Corp.
Obreht’s extraordinary debut novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” revolved around an animal out of place in a dangerous time — in that case, a tiger which escapes a zoo during a 1941 German bombardment of an unnamed country like Croatia. She has a gift for using the absurd to see the deformed qualities of reality anew.
Here that same impulse takes flight when Lurie begins narrating his sections to Burke, the faithful, ornery and indestructible camel he rides up and down the West — the two of them always a tree-branch width ahead of a lawman possessed beyond all reason with catching him.
Lurie is greeted most places with amusement and a wry, menacing Western hostility. “Ain’t that big horse of yours about done dying yet?” one man asks him. “What does it taste of?” a homesteader queries, when Lurie turns up on Burke, separated from the pack of camels they traveled with. “Can’t say. I never tried eating him,” is Lurie’s quick reply. “To me,” he later reassures his beloved camel, “you remain the handsomest old man on four legs.”
The harder it jokes, the grimmer “Inland” grows as a novel. Everyone here is a bit lost, even Emmett’s aging mother, confined to a chair by stroke — but forever somehow escaping when no one is looking. “So overcome with who she was before being brainhurt,” Josie explains to everyone one day, “that she gathers up the strength to go looking for herself again.”
There’s considerable poetry here to the powerful loneliness so many characters feel. Frontier ghosts and fantasies are driven by fly-by-night newspapers. Meantime, Nora, Lurie and others feel an ache for connection which the land rejects. Making love with a woman for the first time in long while, Lurie tells Burke how he could only go through with it once “I found the sadness just beneath my want, like frozen soil.”
But the soil isn’t at all frozen here. It’s hard, dusty, thirsty as hell, and in this big story — about a man stranded on the back of a camel, and a woman beached on a dying homestead — Téa Obreht has resurrected some of the hardest truth about America and its Western expansion. (She’s also laid the groundwork for what could someday be a great Coen Bros. film.) That its landscape gouged by movement, deformed by violence, was taken over by people often haunted by ghosts. The greatest danger, in many cases, was not what came over the horizon at them: but each other.
INLAND: A Novel
By Téa Obreht
374 pages, $27
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and author of Maps, and How to Read a Novelist.