Archive for the ‘Montana’ Category

As regular readers may have noticed, I’m a big meat-eater. And though I don’t hunt anymore, I hunted as a kid in Texas. So I was interested in Steven Rinella’s new book Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. (And since Rinella went to graduate school in Missoula, where I’m on good relations with the local weekly, I had a venue to review it.) It’s a good read, and an effective corrective to what you probably think of when you think of hunting adventures as told by hunters.

A tangential excerpt:

Too many hunters—Montana reader-hunters excepted, of course—are assholes. I’m thinking of the hunters I grew up with on deer leases in Texas, who use electronically timed corn feeders to train trophy bucks to arrive at their predetermined opening-day doom at 7 a.m. sharp. I’m thinking of the hunters I ran into in the wild and scenic lower canyons of the Rio Grande this spring, zipping up and down the remote river in a jet boat with a sawed-off aoudad sheep’s head strapped to the bow, leaving a glittering string of discarded Coors Light cans in their wake. I’ve never seen Rinella’s shows, but anyone who’s ever flipped through the low-budget hunting programs on a slow TV day will recognize the hyperventilating kill-thrill that characterizes hunting’s lowest common denominator. Giddy bloodlust may not be hunting’s driving evolutionary force, but it’s real, and it isn’t a character trait likely to draw many converts.

To hunting’s credit, and his own, Steven Rinella is not that asshole.

You can read the rest of the review here.

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Five Decades: A Retrospective, by William Allard, foreword by William Kittredge, Focal Point, National Geographic.

So it’s certainly only coincidence that a month or so back, I was in Missoula hanging out with Al and Ginger and watching a fledgling Missoula rollerderby team get trounced by a much more experienced team from Spokane, I think, which reminded me of one of my favorite all-time phrases, which is the Spokanification of Missoula, all of which was lots of fledgling fun, when Al introduced me briefly to a guy named Bill Allard, who quite enjoys the Kettlehouse, and who was hanging around looking like Ernest Hemingway’s idea of a photographer.

And then a week later, my editor at the Missoula Independent asked out of the blue if I’d review a new book I didn’t know Allard, who I didn’t otherwise know, had out. I remembered the name then, but didn’t remember that I already have one of his books, Portraits of America, presently stored away in a box somewhere. I’d found it in an Ann Arbor usedbook store and picked it up out of curiosity and looked at it quite a lot last year without the name quite embedding. The foreword to that book had been written, I’d also forgotten, by Thomas McGuane. Whose name may in fact have generated my original curiosity. About whom I tried hard to be thoughtful in my last review for the Indy. With the result that Tom McGuane took public offense in his online comment on the story, reproduced in its entirety below:

A friend of mine who claims I always get my worst reviews in Missoula which he describes as “a pleasant town fifteen minutes from Montana”, sent me this harsh view of my life and work. It does appear that I am in bad trouble both artistically and personally. For those readers who think the literary world ends with the Missoula Independent, I attach these positive notices in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. -Tom McGuane



And of course I’m all like OMG, Tom McGuane read my review, and then I’m like, well, crap.

I said yes to the Allard, and it came in the mail, and I spent some quality time with it, and I talk on the phone to Allard about it, and you can READ THE ESSAY-TYPE RESULT  HERE.

Allard's "Eduardo Ramos with his dead sheep, Puno, Peru, 1981." Copyright William Allard I assume. Apologies for the craptacular lo-res web file. (His photos look much better in larger format, obviously, but big good-looking images are Allard's bread and butter, and one hesitates to just appropriate that on a blog, electronic displays and photographic authorship being what they are. So: the postage stamp, just to give you the barest idea.

Alternately, you could scan the excerpt below:

Allard refers to himself at various times as a street-shooter (his primary self-identification), a documentarian, and a photojournalist, and maybe as a result of his range, there’s really no instantly identifiable Allard style. An Allard photo is fully about its subject, even if what the subject is may be open to interpretation. For instance, there’s a picture on page 59, “Calving time, Padlock ranch, Montana, 1975,” that any idiot could tell you is a profile portrait of a horse standing in a storm. It looks to me like the most accurate visual representation of the verb “snow” I’ve seen.

He frames portraits and landscapes, almost-abstractions and pure color. His “streets” over the course of a career have included Paris catwalks, Hutterite living rooms, Nevada chuckwagons, Peruvian slaughterhouses, Brazilian brothels and Indian sewers. You can find echoes in Allard’s work of Robert Frank (if he’d shot The Americans in color), and street-shooting pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson (a 1967 tableau of boys playing ball in France). A few of his photos could be passingly confused for the work of contemporaries like Peter Brown (a luminous Winifred, Mont., homestead), or Annie Leibovitz (the uncannily illuminated Wyoming range detective Ed Cantrell). But none of the occasional touchstones is much to the point.

His photos are about what they’re of. The self-portrait they imply shows a photographer with an eye open to any possibility of color, character and composition that might wander through his view. A picture with the cool formal rigor of “Minor league spring training, Phoenix, Arizona, 1990” has little in common with the warm grainy blur of Allard’s prostitute portraits, which have little in common with the grin on bandleader Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s face as he finishes a set in Memphis. What they do have in common is that Allard was there, open and equal to the moment. Sitting in a French cafe watching the girls smoke or tromping through cornstubble with Iowa birdhunters, Allard, more than anything else, is receptive.

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Man, it is snowing like a mofo here, a perfectly horizontal march of particulate white blowing past outside the window on gusts that sound like they’re taking the roof off. A fine day to blog. And since my review of Thomas McGuane’s new novel Driving on the Rim just came out in the Missoula Independent (bless them for keeping me in occasional bylines during this terminal book-writing endeavor), figured I’d plaster that up here.

Here’s a sample:

It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose “pyrotechnics” (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.

Since those early salad days, it’s become reviewer’s sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on “quirky” scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane’s acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.

Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He’s a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It’s not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.

You can read the whole thing here.

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reading and/or writing

One of the (incredibly many) challenges I’m finding in trying to write a partially research-based book is trying to decide where the reading ends and the writing begins. It’s a false delineation for sure, because I can’t see how the reading is ever going to end, but a reasonably important question anyway, since the writing has to progress, simultaneously or otherwise. And the fact of the matter is that reading is easier than writing, and it’s awfully tempting to respond to writing difficulty with a fuck-it shrug, pad upstairs, and curl up on the couch with a highlighter and a book.

But then there’s always the hopeful chance that someone will pay me to write (I tend to subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”), and there ain’t nobody gonna pay me, alas, for sitting around and reading. (Though my friend Lorie may beg to differ: Hi Lorie!)

I’ve compiled a bibliography for my Opportunity, Montana book that’s now topped 60 titles and counting, of which I’ve so far read about two-thirds. The most recently read of this bunch is The Story of Copper, a 1924 title by one Watson Davis. There are contemporary trade titles on coal and uranium, among other elemental ingredients of human history and progress, and you might think there’d be one dealing with copper as well, but you’d be wrong. I’ve had a hell of time finding lay treatises on copper (shy of something like the not-exactly-page-turning Copper: A Materials Survey, by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines), so I was — I admit it — excited when I found this battered $5 copy of The Story of Copper in Butte’s Second Edition used-book store (a fine place to while away an afternoon, by the way, with a reasonably extensive and locally topical geology section).

This thing is swollen and moldy with water damage (otherwise I’m sure I would have been charged closer to $40 for the privilege), and it’s actually been a pretty damn good read, full of useful tidbits (who knew (and, arguably, who cares?) that New York City’s Grand Central Station, from tap screws to desk fans, contains 2,718,000 pounds of copper?).

The Story of Copper also contains perhaps my favorite sentence so far unearthed in all this digging. Davis opens a chapter titled “The Brass and Bronze of War” with this juicy bombshell:

A man can not be killed in an up-to-date manner without copper.

Umm: Go copper!

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Today the Missoula Independent published my review of Ivan Doig’s new Butte-based novel Work Song. You can READ THAT HERE, or not, but the most interesting things about Work Song was that it took me back to that other novel based in Butte: Dashiell Hammett’s first book, 1929’s Red Harvest. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Butte’s literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O’Malley’s memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock’s The War of the Copper Kings, Butte’s singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.

Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.

Red Harvest is set in “Personville” (nicknamed “Poisonville,” and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.

That’s where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett’s story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig’s poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest’s red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.

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This book took me longer to read than most. I set it aside for long stretches, but those stretches rarely felt as long as the stretches I spent reading it.

File this one under corporate history; fawning. It’s by some once-well-regarded hack of a newspaperman (below; author crosses self) who apparently found himself consumed by copper. The first that I found was this, at left, a hagiographic history of the Anaconda Copper Company, the mining behemoth based in Butte, Montana that dominated that state’s economy, politics, and media for the first half of the 20th century and beyond. It was sold off in 1977. BP owns its trail of destruction.

I can’t resist: Anaconda (1957) is the literary equivalent of hard-rock mining. It’s dark, dusty work and you come up with what feels like about $2 a day. I’m only reading it on the off-chance that I might remember something about it that might inform a book I might be trying to write about the Clark Fork River, which as a result of Anaconda’s operations became the most geographically extensive EPA Superfund cleanup site in the U.S., slushed full of toxic mine tailings and bleeding arsenic, a status from which it’s undergoing dramatic remediation.

Not once is an environmental concern or consequence mentioned in Isaac Marcosson’s Anaconda, which is probably the most lasting bit of learning I’ll glean from it. In official circles, nobody knew, and/or nobody cared, and/or it just didn’t matter, because there was so damn much money to be made.

Marcosson came to the subject matter organically, having already written a history of the colonial roots of the American copper refining industry: Copper Heritage (1955). It pretty much started with Paul Revere. And here I’d always thought of Revere as a silver man.

I can’t say when or if I’ll get around to reading Copper Heritage. I know Marcosson’s style now. The Anaconda Company didn’t get rich mining low-grade ore.

Much more fun and at least as informative in this endeavor is The Copper Kings of Montana, a Landmark Book about the epic territorial, litigious and legislative shit-storms between Marcus Daly and William Clark and Frederick Augustus Heinze that preceded Anaconda’s emergence as king of the Butte hill (a hill, in the middle of an American city, that the company later stripped into a pit).

The Copper Kings is peppered with two-color illustrations, prose a sixth-grader could understand (author crosses self), and a childlike appreciation for a little good conflict to move the story along. Anaconda didn’t get to be the largest and most powerful mining conglomerate in the world without stepping on a few toes (or destroying a few rivers), Marcosson unconvincingly to the contrary.

The Copper Kings is simplified truth for sure, a child’s-eye view, but in a lot of ways it’s a much more sophisticated book than Anaconda— a title so enslaved to its master that even a kid could see the chainsPlus: pictures!

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I’m not much of a fisherman. I mean I was raised fishing, crappie and bass in lakes Conroe and Tyler, a little bit of coastal stuff with my dad, catfish anywhere we might find them, which was almost anywhere. My maternal grandfather was briefly a shrimp boat captain on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and I remember one trip with him where I spent hours catching little sharks and throwing up over the side. I went to southeast Alaska a few springs back and caught a 90-pound halibut in Chatham Strait, which felt like hauling a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood through 300 feet of water, but it was my buddy Brandon who actually J3072x2304-03440set the hook and gaffed it. Then again, a 90-pound fish is a two-man job.

Even when I lived in Montana for five years I never learned to fly-fish. Which is not to say I never fly-fished. I did, once, with a borrowed rod beneath a bluff called Sunset Cliff about halfway down the Smith River. My friend G.O. loaned me the rig and showed me what to do with it. I landed a little brown trout right off and let it go. The sun was setting and I was three days into a new river and the bluff was glowing and two hawks were riding the thermals and I’d just caught my first trout on a fly. It was one of those unimprovable moments, so I gathered up my gear and left it at that.

9780816665327.bigBut learning to fly-fish is a different thing, and learning to fly-fish in Montana is like learning to say the rosary in the Vatican. It’s intimidating.

I wrote a column in the new Texas Observer about trash fish, and fishing literature, and a less successful fishing trip. YOU CAN READ IT HERE. If you like it, or hate it, I’m sure the good Observer folks would welcome any comments. Here’s an excerpt:


The granddaddy of them all, the ultimate bigger-than-yours fishing tale, The Old Man and the Sea, ought truly be titled The Old Man and the Marlin. I just read it again. It’s still pretty plain. It’s still really depressing. It remains a remarkably humble disguise for a pompous treatise in defense of just keeping on, with sadness galore and a little bit of honor, by a writer who offed himself in his bathrobe just seven years after winning the Nobel Prize.

Even when you catch the fish, the fish isn’t necessarily yours to keep.

Speaking of trash fish, here’s a video, just for shits and cringes, of two self-congratulatory doorknobs murdering a dinosaur.


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Right now this is my favorite photo from my recent canoe trip on the North Fork of the Flathead River in northwest Montana, even though it’s one of the few that wasn’t taken from the boat.

This is from the drive up, where the pavement stops, looking across the North Fork into Glacier National Park, maybe 20 miles south of Polebridge, which is about 16 miles south of the Canadian border, which is where we put the boats in.

We spent two nights and parts of three days on the river. THERE ARE MORE PICTURES ON MY FLICKR PAGE.

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img043I probably paid too much for this first edition of A Moveable Feast, everybody’s favorite college book, but I really wanted it.

It looks like there’s a new version of the posthumously published (and edited) classic forthcoming, according to this story in the New York Times. I’m good with mine, which I bought at The Bird’s Nest, a used book store in Missoula, Montana.

img044Missoula, remember, is the home of Robert Jordan, the emasculated hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, this slipcased facsimile first version of which I picked up at Missoula’s Book Exchange.

img045I didn’t pay anything for my paperback of Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories, which was recently gifted me by a friend who’s inordinately jealous that I’m going to get to spend the better part of the next year in Ann Arbor, not too terribly far from the Upper Peninsula Michigan haunts of titular Nick.

There’s even a blue canoe on the faux birch-bark cover, to match my blue canoe — one of two I’ll be taking with me when I hit the road in late August.


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darkspacesTwo somewhat unlikely facts that I suspect make me slightly less than fully human, but oh-damn-well: I have never broken a bone (unless maybe a toe bone that you never know for sure and can’t really do anything about anyhow), and I have never spent a night in jail.

Knock on wood.

Read my Missoula Independent review of Dark Spaces, Montana’s Historic Penitentiary at Deer Lodge.

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