One of the longer pieces in this set of 18, most of them more sketches or anecdotes than short stories, is about an old man who has become "a workhorse of condolence," attending the funerals and grieving relations of all those who die within quite a stretch of the plains around Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Another is about the fan belt on the narrator's car breaking "at so gifted a place it would have been heartless to complain"--near a ferry across the upper Missouri where he's delayed for a weekend and gets to know the family who lives there. The other, shorter stories, similarly populated by mostly Indian and some white Great Plains people, share the longer ones' photographic clarity and poetic intensity. Gilfillan's previous writing experience as a poet shows in a chastity of diction, an ear for nuance, and a transparency of vision that put these pieces in a class with the interstitial sketches of Hemingway's In Our Time
and Jim Heynen's yarns about "the boys" (which are more humorous and consciously mythic, to be sure) as some of the purest, most concentrated "fiction" in American prose literature. Astonishing. Ray Olson
From Kirkus Reviews
Heart-wrenchingly well-written stories, often as stark as an Andrew Wyeth farmscape. Gilfillan has three books of poetry and a prize-winning essay collection (Magpie Rising, not reviewed). Most of us shouldn't read, and perhaps couldn't absorb, more than one of these stories at a time. Set in the rusted gas-pump Flicker River country of the Great Plains, they're filled with retarded folk (``Everyone called them the Slows...''), misfits, castoffs, starving Indians, Ethiopian immigrants, and traders who run ``bone sheds'' and sell ``Used Cow Parts,'' antelope and elk bones, and live rattlesnakes. Dogs loiter about the yard or creep onto their rag beds under the porch. Many of the stories seem to offer only description without narrative, but that's a deception: Looking back from the rise at a story's end, a reader is likely, at that moment, to discern the pattern of what has just been traversed. The title story opens: ``At first glance, nothing in the valley appears animate, unless you count the few snowflakes hedging from a glaring white sky as animate, or the ice-edged low-water creeks knifing their crooked ways. Even the frozen dirt roads, snow-white against the pale grasslands, show no tracks or signs of passage.... Then, the good deep well, engineless cars filled with rough overflow storage, a brown horse and a colt, laundry frozen on the line, a big pile of firewood.'' Out of such stillness some meatless Indians sneak up on a herd, kill and quarter a cow, take the four legs, leave the frozen fuselage, and go home to make a bubbling Christmas soup: ``Three grandmothers sat together in a corner, so old and leaflike and primary that they communicated by the positions of their hands in their quiet laps.'' Like the land they describe, Gilfillan's stories reward close attention by revealing layered signs of life. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.