A reviewer should know better than to give away the ending of a book, but what about the beginning? In Téa Obreht’s Western-themed novel, Inland, the beginning appears to be a monologue delivered from one comrade-in-adventures to another—and in a sense, it is. The person who is speaking and his pal have just been in a scrape with some riders at a fording place. “True to form—blind though you are, and with that shot still irretrievable in your thigh—you made to stand and meet them,” the speaker says. Soon we learn that the speaker is an outlaw of Balkan and Muslim origins (a first in Westerns, I believe) called Lurie Mattie, a name he acquired in Arkansas. Not until about a quarter of the way through the book do we know for certain that the person Lurie is speaking to is not a person but a camel. At this point, you may find yourself thinking back and wondering, Do camels have thighs?
The camel’s name is Burke, which Lurie came up with because of a cry he often makes, “a fearsome, gargling buuuurk.” He is a year old at the beginning of their partnership, in 1856, and almost forty at the end, when Lurie, his faithful cameleer throughout, is still in the saddle and still talking. (To say more about that would give away too much of the end, not to mention the beginning.)
Inland combines two stories. For the adventures of camel and rider, Obreht evidently took a spark from the real-life Camel Corps that served with the army in the American Southwest before the Civil War. The book’s other plot has to do with a struggle between two Arizona frontier towns over which will be the county seat, and the machinations of a ruthless cattle baron who wants to crush the small landowners and run them off. County-seat battles and cattle-baron-versus-homesteader wars are, of course, faithful perennials in the Western genre. The cameleer’s tale is told from his point of view, addressed to a “you” who is always the camel. An indefatigable lawman is pursuing Lurie for a murder he committed in Arkansas, so he is on the run through most of the book in a picaresque flight that covers a wide swath of the West.
The story about the county seat and the cattle baron is told through the perspective of Nora Lark, a tough frontier woman, the mother of three sons and wife of Emmett Lark, owner-editor of The Amargo Sentinel (Amargo is the underdog of the two towns). Some of her dialogue is interior, addressed to Evelyn, her daughter who died in infancy but who has remained a living presence. Only Nora hears and sees her; post-mortem, Evelyn has grown into a sensible young woman who provides her mother with companionship and wise advice. Everything Evelyn says is in italics, and the conversations between the two sometimes help the plot along:
What is it, Mama?
A steer, I think. Probably one of Absalom Carter’s.
What’s it doing way out here?
Looking for water, same as us.
The dead appear to Lurie, too, and sometimes make him do things. They are present mostly in their never-to-be-satisfied “want,” with which he tries not to be infected.
Near the end, the two stories intersect. To reach that point without getting tangled, Obreht employs an elaborate and ingenious structure. The cameleer’s story follows a chronological line, from his arrival in America as a boy (from Herzegovina, I suspect from clues, though it’s not named), to his youthful days with an outlaw gang, his meetup with the camel detachment, his taking off solo with Burke, etc. To demark the sequence, we are given, as section headings, the names of the principal rivers of each region where the action takes place: the Missouri, the San Antonio, the Colorado, the Gila and the Salt in Arizona. These sections alternate with Nora’s story, which unfolds mostly at the family’s small sheep ranch in 1893 during a single day, divided into Morning, Midday, Afternoon, and Evening. Both stories also use flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks.
I’m a fan of all kinds of Westerns—fictional and nonfictional, books, movies, TV shows, paintings, Broadway musicals, whatever—so I felt encouraged that such a powerful writer who started from so far away would choose the genre. Obreht was born in Yugoslavia in 1985, left with her family when she was seven, and arrived in the United States in 1997. Her previous (and only other) novel, The Tiger’s Wife, which was published in 2011, became an international best seller and won enormous and deserved praise. Both novels interweave stories, both involve geographic conflicts (the Bosnian War; Amargo versus its rival, Ash River), and both feature visually dramatic animals out of place (the unnamed tiger who escapes a bombed-out zoo, the camel).
The main story in The Tiger’s Wife concerns Natalia, a young doctor whose grandfather has just died while away on a mysterious errand. The family is never identified as Bosnian or Serbian, but when she and another doctor go on a humanitarian mission to bring medicine to an orphanage across the border, it’s clear they are entering what had been enemy territory. The body of the grandfather, who was also a doctor, has been sent back from a village nearby, but not his things, and Natalia makes a detour to get them. Whether imagined or remembered, Obreht’s details of this off-the-main-road place register with authority and exactness:
It was a shantytown, a cluster of plywood-and-metal shacks that had sprung up around a single street. Some of the shacks were windowless, or propped up with makeshift brick ovens. Household junk spilled out of doorways and into the yellowed grass: iron cots, stained mattresses, a rusted tub, a vending machine lying on its side. There was an unattended fruit stand with a pyramid of melons, and, a few doors later, a middle-aged man sleeping in a rolling chair outside his tin-roofed house. He had his legs up on a stack of bricks, and as I drove past I realized his right leg was missing, a glaring purple stump just below the knee.
As the family mourns the grandfather, we learn about three mythical/supernatural characters who figured centrally in the grandfather’s life: the tiger, the tiger’s wife, and the deathless man. The tiger, after escaping the zoo during World War II, hides in the mountains above the grandfather’s boyhood village and comes down occasionally, shaking everybody up. The tiger’s wife, a teenage bride whose human husband brutally beats her, befriends and consorts with the tiger, shaking them up even more. And the deathless man, a kind of non-blood-drinking, affable Dracula, emerges from the dark every so often to argue with the grandfather about life and death and whether he really is immortal. If this sounds at all silly, it’s not—the book is truly spooky, and as arresting and emotionally plausible as the scariest fairy tales.
In some ways, Inland lacks that book’s assurance. A reader looking for accuracy of Western detail—probably not the smartest approach to a novel containing fantastical elements—will stub a toe now and then. The cameleer-to-be, at his story’s beginning, goes west from an unnamed coastal city and rides the train “all the way to where the Missouri shallowed to mud.” This would have been impossible in 1852, when the journey occurs, because at the time no tracks had been laid that far. A huge cutthroat trout caught in the Pecos River is described as having “red sails…along the top of its back”—a dream-bestiary rendering not consistent with the actual fish. And sometimes the dialogue goes haywire: Nora says that her son “lost about a stone of weight” from worrying, an unlikely unit of measurement for a non-English person to use in the Arizona Territory in 1893. People say “arse” for “ass” and “I do the washing-up” instead of “I wash the dishes.” Also, they use the word “fuck” in casual conversation. I can’t prove that isn’t how these characters would have talked, but I remain skeptical, even apart from the explanations for the similarly coarse language in the HBO series Deadwood as an improvement over the now quaint-sounding profanities of the day.
Comfortable Western tropes abound. When the marshal addresses a crowd of townsfolk to raise a posse, are the outlaws standing right there, unrecognized among them? Do the outlaws applaud his speech? Afterward, when pursued, do they stick together, or split up to disguise their trail? Is the town quiet and somber after the consequent public hanging, or is it raucous and rowdy? In the brawl in the saloon, what happens to the mirror behind the bar? Do some of the male characters in the book “live by their own unflinching laws”? Do people address each other as “mister,” saying things like, “I think you got me mistook for somebody else, mister”? In a Western it’s OK, even fun, to expect the expected.
And once in a while a trope gets the rug pulled out from under it, refreshingly. Like any frontier town, Amargo has its doctor, but in place of the usual booze-addled sawbones who needs a lot of coffee before he’s sober enough to treat anybody, Amargo’s doc is a tall, slim, self-possessed, immaculately dressed civic booster of Spanish origins who, by the by, hopes to make an offer on the Larks’ newspaper. And if we expect to be told, as is customary, that the West is changing and the old ways will soon be gone for good, we get instead this rumination from Lurie after he has been interviewed by “a writer who’d come to the West to make something of its stories”:
He asked me what I had learned of it all, and I told him I did not know—which struck him as a great profundity. Everyone he’d met had just about one thing to say: the land was changing fast. I supposed it was, but what struck me most was how much of it was staying the same. Lean holdings, miles that couldn’t be made unwild. That vast and immutable want everybody, dead or alive, carried with them all the time.
The tiger’s wife, who is small, sixteen years old, and an outsider (the only Muslim in a Christian village), and who alone gets close to the tiger, has a counterpart in Inland. Living with the Lark family is a feckless young hired girl named Josie, who is Emmett Lark’s orphaned cousin. She can summon the spirits of the dead and does so for various townsfolk. The human husband of the tiger’s wife, a butcher, beats her mercilessly, again and again. It’s painful to read. Similarly, Josie gets pushed around and disparaged by Nora, and as the book’s two stories come together, Josie suffers violence that leaves her gravely injured, her leg broken almost in half. After Nora and the sheriff find and rescue her, they leave her in a barn while the plot works itself out by means of a long monologue that Merrion Crace, the cattle baron, delivers to Nora and the sheriff at Nora’s kitchen table. Meanwhile, you’re wondering if Josie might be going into shock or bleeding to death out in the barn. Josie and the tiger’s wife both endure ill treatment that seems excessive. In The Tiger’s Wife, it works successfully with the plot, but in Inland (at least toward the end), it doesn’t.
A real Western ought to be lonesome, and Obreht does lonesome beautifully. Nora is the only capable grownup at the family’s place for days and weeks at a time. At the start of the book, her husband has left to look for the itinerant water-seller—terrible thirst runs throughout the story—and he has not returned. He appears only in flashback, as do her older sons. In another flashback, Nora remembers the visits of an old Indian woman, possibly a Navaho, who began to stop by when Evelyn was a baby. Uninvited, the old woman held her, but Nora was wary. The two had no language in common. The woman brought a blanket as a gift. Nora tried to reciprocate or buy her off with presents of sugar and coffee, while withholding the baby. The standoff, never resolved, finally angered the woman enough that she left and never returned. Nora feared she would send young men from her village to get revenge.
One afternoon when her husband was again away, Nora saw a rider on the horizon. Thinking it was an Indian bent on killing her, she grabbed Evelyn and ran into the desert to hide. In her terror she lay on the ground in the sun for hours, and the baby became so overheated that she later died. The rider turned out to be a neighbor bringing a loaf of bread. The incident, kept secret in its full details from the rest of the community, never stops tormenting Nora. Evelyn was a casualty of Nora’s solitude. When she replays the tragedy, she wishes she had just let the Indian woman hold her daughter.
The desert—the “miles that couldn’t be made unwild,” the “vast and immutable want” of which thirst is only one symptom—creates a huge lonesomeness all on its own. After the camel drinks his fill, he can go seven days without water, much longer than oxen or horses can, and that means he and his rider can cruise places out of the reach of most. When threatened, they take off to where they can’t be followed. One day the camel gets sick, and some desperadoes who happen to be in their vicinity suggest that the Christian thing for Lurie to do would be to kill and butcher his animal and share some of the meat with them. Lurie says:
But as soon as that happened, didn’t we break camp and keep going till we reached the foothills and the blue desert beyond? The nights were still bitter, but the days were as bright and lonesome as we liked them.
Echoes of classic American voices can be heard throughout Inland, along with strains of García Márquez. The descriptions of the awkwardness of mounting and riding a camel call to mind Mark Twain’s observations on the subject, from his travel writing. The sometimes over-formal, stilted, and funny dialogue might make you think of Charles Portis and his most famous book, True Grit. (Nora explains her husband’s lateness in returning: “Sometimes being in the thick of some great excitement makes us inattendant to the passage of time!” In True Grit, when Mattie Ross tells Colonel Stonehill, the horse trader, that she has hired Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the horse trader replies, “How did you light on that greasy vagabond?”) The fact that Obreht’s cameleer takes the name Lurie Mattie while in Arkansas, home state of Mattie Ross, may even be a nod to Portis. Márquezian moments occur in the descriptions of the far-fetched achievements of the camels, such as when the citizens of a town bring all their possessions and load up the strongest camel to see if he can stand and walk while carrying such an equipage, and he can.
Like Willa Cather, with her Bohemian settlers on the Nebraska prairie, Obreht introduces immigrants never seen before in the West. Lurie’s fellow cameleers are from “the Levant,” or eastern Mediterranean. Most are Greek, but Hi Jolly, who’s a Syrian Turk, has made a pilgrimage to Mecca and taken the name Hadji Ali. He and the others, except Lurie, were real people. There’s no reason Greeks or Muslims or anybody can’t be in a Western; it’s a synthetic genre of unlimited flexibility. Westerns (in dime novels and Wild West shows) began to flourish just after the Civil War. America, so recently torn apart, needed a setting in which opposing forces—cowboys and Indians, cattlemen and farmers, sheriffs and badmen—could perform their colorful and dreamlike pageants, reach their stylized happy endings, and make the country seem whole again.
In the Balkan world of The Tiger’s Wife, everybody is on one bitterly antagonistic side or another, though it doesn’t always show. After Natalia and her fellow doctor cross the border, they stay with an elderly couple who talk with them tactfully about the crops, “in order to avoid any political or religious tangents.” The house is decorated with clumsy paintings of the family dog; later Natalia learns that the paintings were done by a teenage son who was killed by the enemy’s paramilitary. When a surviving son tells his story to Natalia, “he could have said, your paramilitary, but he didn’t,” she recalls. “I kept waiting for him to say it, but he didn’t, and then I let him not say anything, and I didn’t say anything, either.”
A sense of irrevocable division also fills the end of Inland. By then, the adults closest to Nora have been revealed as schemers, victims, or collaborators. E pluribus unum hardly obtains; the cowmen and the farmers will never be stepping to the footlights arm in arm and belting out, “O—o-o-Ok-lahoma!” Lurie and Burke, having seen a sampling of the whole West, reach a full stop, finally, on the Larks’ ranch, near the would-be good place, Amargo. Along the journey they’ve passed by hundreds of the dead, who are themselves an atomized community. The want-filled dead souls haunting the West can see and yearn toward the living, but they can’t see one another.
Earlier, when Lurie learned that a fellow cameleer had gone back East to fight in the Civil War, he had felt a moment of shame at not having done so himself. Deciding against it, he said:
But I had no people outside the Territories. No certainty, even, that wherever you [his camel] and I landed would be annexed to whatever rattlebag country would be left to stitch back together when the fighting was done.
Lurie’s point of view is true to its moment. He couldn’t know what America would look like after the war. In fact, the country would reunite and grow rich and step up to join the other empires, and Queen Victoria would meet cowboys and Indians (but no cameleers) when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show came to London on its way to dazzling the capitals of Europe. A glorious epoch of Western half-fantasy and half-truth would begin. For people to see that there was more to it—to see America as a just-barely-stitched-together country underneath, as Obreht does—would take a while longer.