Reliving the Old West in Téa Obreht’s ‘Inland’

Lee Polevoi

 

Inland

By Téa Obreht

Random House

370 pages

Inland, Téa Obreht’s second novel (following her bestselling debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife) takes place in the American West, circa 1893. In the barren, lawless Arizona Territory, a 37-year-old woman named Nora Lark grapples with a missing husband, a wheelchair-bound mother-in-law, a young son who claims to see monsters, and a cousin who converses with the dead. (Nora, too, speaks with the ghost of Evelyn, her deceased daughter.) A terrible, lingering drought makes the search for drinking water the focal point of Nora’s daily life. It’s a hardscrabble existence on the outskirts of civilization.

 

In a second narrative strand, a Turkish refugee and outlaw named Lurie Mattie finds his fortunes inextricably linked with the U.S. Camel Corps, a little-known (and real) adjunct of the military around the time of the Civil War. Throughout his part of the story, spanning some 40 years, Lurie addresses his dromedary pack animal, Burke, as they make their way across the Wild West.

 

Lurie, too, speaks with the ghost of a fellow renegade. Inland is saturated with the realm of the occult and more than a hint of magical realism. Impressively, Obreht weaves these supernatural elements into the drought-ravaged conditions of everyday life in and around the Arizona Territory.

 

At one point, Nora imagines what the family house would be like if she and her family were to pack up and leave:

 

 

“The house would fall silent. Mice, having prospected every last crumb, would nest in the eaves. Rattlesnakes would follow. The scrub oaks, with their thirsty roots, would wander down the hill, creeping, by and by, over the jackfence and over Evelyn’s little headstone and down toward the outbuildings. The yard would go to seed, all those hard-fought grasses returning in their prickly mats to outman the descendants of Nora’s cabbages.”

 

The landscape Obreht describes has a gauzy layer of myth, perfectly in keeping with our many received notions about the Old West. But nowhere does the writing rise so brightly to the occasion than in her loving descriptions of Lurie’s camel, Burke, and its fellow travelers:

 

“[Camels] are frowsy and irate. Their fur sloughs off and drifts, filling the air with a sweet, malty stench that frenzies mules and horses, who scatter to outrun their own terror. Those big, rubbery lips hide purple gums, gravestone teeth with which they try for everything in sight: hats, arms, ears, coyotes dogging the herd … They are sturdy from their ears to the soles of their feet. Their hearts belong to their riders. And their great height lays all the horizon to view.”

 

Where Inland may become more challenging for some readers is in its pacing and plot development. Clearly, the two disparate storylines are meant to intertwine—and they do so late in the novel, with significant impact—but many pages go by without a hint of convergence.

 

 

In the meantime, there are many back-and-forth conversations with ghosts, flashbacks within flashbacks, and overly close attention paid to certain plot elements (like a bitter small-county newspaper war) that demand much of our attention. Perhaps inevitably, readers will find one or the other of the two narratives more compelling than the other.

 

But still there’s the gleam of Obreht’s prose, as when Lurie thinks back on his life of crime:

 

“At the outset, our mischiefs were bored doings, heists only in name. Roadside holdups of travelers who happened through the clearing where we shared our midnight whiskey. We had one sixgun between us, but our quarry didn’t know that. I would follow Donovan out of the bushes and stand behind him while he aimed the barrel at fat bilks and jabbering drunks, and every once in a while, some cleric who tried to turn us godward.”

 

Fat bilks and jabbering drunks! The Old West comes alive again in Inland.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, and author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

 

Image Sources:

 

Maxpixel (Creative Commons)

 

Wikimedia.org (Creative Commons)

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