I think I can take almost any passage out of this book and write pages about it. The resonances are that thick. Take just a random paragraph, or even a random sentence:
"He never quit from last star to first, proving that the price of independence is slavery."
Or, "By the end he had nothing, as if loss were a fire in which he was purified again and again..."
Or, "The illusion of land ownership creates a cheap workforce in the fields: people who often pay more than they are paid to work, as we say, like slaves. But, oh, they are rich in the illusions of independence..."
This week's western novel is The Meadow by James Galvin. Fiction, history, and autobiography are here entwined into the form of a western, a multi-leveled naturalistic work of art. It was such a pleasure to revisit this masterpiece.
And that's what it is: a masterpiece. The blurbs on the back of the first edition dustjacket by Jim Harrison, William Kittredge, James Salter, and Marilynne Robinson proclaim it as such. On one level, it is a western in which the protagonist is spiritual human consciousness carving out a temporary home in a material world. Nature is beauty experienced and loved even when it is hostile to individual human existence.
The book has not changed since 1993 when it was first published, but I have. Back then I saw it mainly as existentialist and Hemingwayesque--focusing on the grace-under-pressure of its protagonists, braving the slings and arrows of fortune with stoic courage.
It can still be read that way, but my aged awareness is enhanced. This time I was able to look deeper into it, past all material existential ego and deeper into the heart of the work, the underlying consciousness of everything. It is akin to the works of Walter Van Tilburg Clark and the other novels of sacred naturalism discussed by Clark and Max Westbrook. Not quite as cold as pantheism--as that concept is casually defined--for here nature is embraced by consciousness, and loved unconditionally.
A consciousness grateful for this gift of life that we each have on loan.
The writing in The Meadow is beautiful throughout. Look at the resonances in the small opening paragraph:
"The real world goes like this: The Neversummer Mountains like a jumble of broken glass. Snowfields weep slowly down. Chambers Lake, ringed by trees, gratefully catches the drip in its tin cup, and gives the mountains their own reflection in return. This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened."
At first glance, this is a contradictory paragraph. The author imbues nature with human intent: snowfields weep, Chambers Lake is grateful and reciprocates for the gift of water with the gift of reflection. But in the last sentence, the observer declares them indifferent, unburdened.
Readers need not see all the many resonances I see in this paragraph. For instance, the broken glass. They don't need to see water as a symbol of spirit nor reflection as a symbol of consciousness. There is no need to hear in Chambers Lake a resonance of Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Nor to hear the word "unburdened" in Faulkner's As-I-Lay-Dying sense.
But confronted with that first paragraph, every reader should ask himself, Who is the observer here? These things only have intention and meaning, beauty and gratitude and a sense of loss, because there is an observer who gives it to them. Otherwise they are indeed indifferent and unburdened. There would be no story without the observer, the reflections of a human consciousness.
All stories are one, though the individuals within the story see themselves as separate, oblivious to the whole. My favorite protagonist in here, Lyle, is a reader himself, but he has no patience for William Faulkner. He says of him, "If that sumbitch wants to tell me a story why don't he start it at the beginning and tell it through to the end?" Lyle would have no patience for James Gavin's The Meadow either, for the story here is told in episodes featuring different protagonists who lived in the meadow over time, not just the humane and independently-minded Lyle.
And James Galvin's circle of life includes not just humans but extends to coyotes and other living things as well. There is a very sweet and beautiful passage pp. 5-7 involving birds in the snow. I hear it in a Kris Kristofferson voice. I want justice, but I'll settle for some mercy.
As I say, a superficial reading of this is still a great read. Readers blessed with the gift of metaphor will see even more in it. My copy of this (scanned above) is the first American hardcover edition, and I see that it is autographed. James Galvin's black signature on the title page is abbreviated and looks as stylized as a cattle brand.
Or as the tracks of birds in the snow.