I grew up in the American West and reside here, still. In the West, story is the amniotic fluid from which we are thrust. We may not later recognize its taste or scent or syrupy weight in our lungs, but neither are we inclined to distinguish the acrid pine in the air or the doughy aroma of damp wheat if we have never lived far from the forest or ranch. Narrative –our own taciturn, fratricidal, tortured mythos — is as omnipresent as any god and as ruthless. In every tale, life rattles from some poor thing’s ribs and, though death is only a few pints of air of difference, the space is profound enough for all the gods and philosophies and epics to inhabit, as well as the doubts and uncertainties attached to them.
The act of telling them seems arrogant as often as it does generous. It requires a person to elevate his or her experiences of the world to the perspective of a deity. Maybe this is part of the curse of walking upright. Hunters holding a rifle over a kill certainly cannot help but feel their act is imbued with the generosity of flora and fauna that puts man with animal and the arrogance of hurtling lead that separates them. We reside mostly in the anarchy between, a country that is the opposite of hope. Self-annihilation is our dream. We long to pitch ourselves backwards toward a time primitive enough to erase our presence, but killing an animal in the wild is as meager an act as we can manage.
Smart, to me, has always meant the capacity to hotwire a car or retool a firing pin or school a mean dog to guard your truck. Growing up, I recognized the rituals of manhood in this country and responded fittingly, though I did so with a wooden self-consciousness that kept me concerned I would be found out.
Not long after I turned fourteen, my mother married, remarried, and I found myself living in my father’s basement beside forty-three rifles, twenty-four pistols, a slingshot, and a golf bag full of Playboy magazines. My father nicknames anything he values too much to trade and anyone he knows past courtesy. My stepbrother, Steve, was called Coyote. Attending school, keeping steady work, killing deer in season all conflicted with being a mythological character. He embodied the Indian stories enough to secure a five-year stretch in federal prison. His existence become a yarn he was required to add to each day, though, he had no Turd Sisters to advise him and no Fox or Kingfisher to step over his body three times and awaken him after his death.
I was never mistaken for an Animal Person. My Senior year in high school, I dated a cheerleader, was admitted into college and voted class president and had two step-siblings to bootleg beer for me, yet I recall myself perched upon a rock overlooking the river, feeling like a cut steer, fit for little more than the butcher. A bolder man might have thrown himself from the cliff’s edge, floated for a few heroic seconds, then left a poignant dent in someone’s garage or parked car.
I could talk about the years following, but I’m not too sure that would matter. I spent them mostly drunk, sullen, wounded, pathetic. I hurt people, but mostly I was too inept to do much damage, then I killed a man, but that was ineptitude, too.
Much later, I realized, we, in the West, are left to navigate our lives not through stories but between them, averting our Scylla and Charybdis and piloting the moon’s pull on the tides and amend our course and our narrative with stories required to be a mother or daughter or father or son, reminding ourselves the necessity to remain aware of the deceptions of the larger currents and eddies siren songs of myth tugging at us.
I beg my own children’s forgiveness often. Like most people, I tell them, I am wrong more than I am right, but unlike those people, I am their father, and a father, like nations and religions and, yes, epic stories, possesses a capacity to defy ethics and common sense and convince their own flesh and blood that the fault lies within them. It is too much power for a man or a god or a story to possess.
So, after this indictment of narrative, why tell stories? Maybe to contradict those that haunt me; maybe to deposit a layer upon them that complicates the matter enough to raise questions that appear obvious to me now; maybe because I don’t know how to do much else; maybe because one story is the only way to answer another.