Last Year's River

by Allen Morris Jones

published by Houghton Mifflin

256 pages, 2001

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Big Sky, Noisy River

Reviewed by David Abrams


In his debut novel Last Year's River, Allen Morris Jones marries the landscape of the West with that of the human heart. The result is fiction that haunts and sustains like a piano chord resonating long after the fingers have lifted from the keyboard. The music of Jones' words will also linger long after the eye has lifted from the page.

Combining the sparse prose of Cormac McCarthy with the social-penetration plots of Edith Wharton, Jones writes of a star-crossed romance as poignant as that of Shakespeare's Verona lovers. Last Year's River is a novel that is at once familiar and bracingly fresh. You may have heard this story before, but Jones confidently plunges forward with every sentence he writes.

Virginia Price is filled with such Whartonian angst and torment that she could very easily have just stepped from the Lovell Mingotts' parlor, unbuttoning her gloves and shaking the snow off her small, leather lace-up boots. Like The Age of Innocence's Countess Olenska or Summer's Charity Royall, Virginia is a woman caught in the post-Victorian swirl of scandal. The year is 1924, Miss Price is 17 and pregnant. Pregnant by means of a rape, no less.

Her mother, horrified at the looming stain to the family's reputation in New York society, shuttles Virginia off to Wyoming until she has borne (and born) the fruit of her sins. Virginia is joined in exile by her no-less prim Aunt Pauline. The two travel West to a ranch near Cody, in a "hardscrabble, mosquito-bit valley," owned by a rough abusive moonshiner who hopes to make a profit on his land by turning it into a dude ranch. It's an austere life by comparison to Manhattan society, but Virginia soon finds reason to like Wyoming: her eyes have fallen on Henry Mohr, the half-breed son of the ranch owner and her heart starts galloping like a Thoroughbred.

Henry is the strong silent type. He's got Gary Cooper written all over him -- if, that is, Coop had fought in the trenches of World War I and returned home a shell-shocked ghost of a man. Jones thrusts us into Henry's harrowing war experience in just one short chapter (most of the chapters in Last Year's River are tight and economical) early in the novel and we emerge from those paragraphs shaking and flinching.

When Virginia meets Henry, she sees a cautious, taciturn cowboy who seems to be her emotional twin. Both have been betrayed by life, both are seeking a solace they may only find in the vast timbered wilderness. Henry, Jones writes, "has always found his truest satisfactions in work, in the imposition of order on a world that erodes order at every breath; in the inevitable vanishing of time before a new irrigation ditch, fixed fence or gentled horse. He loves the loss of himself in these jobs, and, at the end, waking to find some new bulwark established against the decay of time."

Henry, in fact, is always on the move -- always saddling up, always riding off into the horizon, hunting elk or delivering moonshine for his father. As the Jazz Age blares loudly back in Virginia's New York, Henry can already feel the noose tightening around the neck of the Old West (it's no coincidence that Jones sets the novel near Cody, home to Buffalo Bill, the showman who, by some accounts, started pulling the curtain on the frontier with his Hollywood-style Wild West Shows). When Henry rides up into the mountains, he might appear to be running from the ghosts of war, but he's really searching for the ghost of the diminishing West, which is rapidly being eaten away by "the frenzy of possession."

It's not hard to find the shimmering spirits of the unspoiled Rocky Mountains -- just turn to any page of Jones' book. There, you'll find beauty in nearly every sentence:

"a black tin sky shot through with silver holes"

"(a) ridgeline of horizon inconsistently swaled, as if cut with an awkward pair of scissors"

and sandhill cranes "take to ponderous flight, calling to each other with a sound like the ratcheting of a thousand spoons down a thousand washboards"

Wyoming is a thing of delicate (though leather-tough) beauty and Jones makes it as integral to the story as the growing attraction between the pregnant Virginia and the war-battered Henry.

The romance is told in the rosiest of terms. But yet, behind the neo-Victorian style there is also a splash of the contemporary urge to toss in particular details, such as how a lover's kiss tastes:

She pulls his head down to her and closes her eyes. His lips are dry, and, at first, held tight together. But then his mouth is open and hers is open and the seal of their bodies is broken and she can feel his breath in her mouth. His taste -- wood smoke and tobacco and canned peaches -- blends with hers, creating something entirely unexpected. A new taste that will, from this moment, reside only at the juncture of them.

This is a love story, yes; but it's also a romance between man and land, a land which, even in 1924, was starting to lose its virginal blush thanks to the uncontrolled urges of progress.

Jones, a former editor of Big Sky Journal, has written an unforgettable book. It creates a sound in your head -- it is the music of a lone guitar-picker sitting around a campfire, the strings vibrating beneath his fingers while, just beyond the firelight, a coyote tips its head back and howls with melancholy beauty. | November 2001


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.