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Book Reviews

Way Out West reviewed by Vermont News & Media

Look at the straight lines of a Mark Rothko painting or the splatterings of Jackson Pollack, and you know that this art won't expect you to linger on the lush folds of a garment as you might in a Rembrandt. If you see "Waiting for Godot" and you criticize it for not being "realistic" or not depicting characters with psychological depth, you're missing the point: the play deliberately upends those expectations. Halifax writer Wyn Cooper's new novel — his first — "Way Out West," too, upends expectations, guiding us to read it not as a simple, straightforward narrative, but rather as narratives juxtaposed against each other. True, there is roughly a chronology — a plot. Tyler is out west working as a lighting technician for a movie.


He flees the set. Meanwhile, Robin, a beautiful woman of wealth and addiction, has plunked herself down in Baker, Nevada. She goes out for a drive and bumps into Tyler. We surmise they will become a couple, but a kaleidoscope of unpredictable events unfolds, worthy of David Lynch or Hunter S. Thompson. Surprise — the producer pulls up in his impressive car and makes Tyler the director of the movie. An assortment of characters populates this desert landscape: Lou, a recently released nuclear testing employee who is convinced the government is ready to start secret nuclear tests above ground; his wife Sandy who is unhappy with Lou's investigations; Jim, who drives a 240 Z with a stash of drugs; and Sonny, a bartender with a lust for Robin and overdeveloped FOMO.


The book is set in 1983-84. For much of the novel, I thought Cooper wanted to sidestep the inconvenience of cell phones and internet: people can find out too much too quickly in contemporary novels. Only toward the end of the book does the timeframe really resonate. Further, without giving away too much, most of the book seems oddly out of time, but the end clicks into the conspiracy-permeated present. (I have subsequently learned that Cooper originally wrote the novel years ago. The novel's ending then may not have been planned, but prescient.)


"Way Out West" has some wonderful passages of writing, befitting a writer of five collections of poetry. In the first chapter (titled "Fire and Ice," recalling Robert Frost's apocalyptical poem), Tyler's "breath is a mix of granola, gin and fear." This whole first chapter is an existential tour de force: isolated man, climbing desert terrain, running from something (we don't know what exactly) toward the mountaintop, mind abuzz with the detritus of 20th-century living. Later, Robin is characterized by this passage: "all dressed up, isn't there somewhere to go? But she's already gone, and this is where she went." After listing various nuclear test sites, Cooper writes, "No Public Access, it says on the map, which blocks them in with dotted lines, as if they were meant to be cut out. We may have to yet: there's mustard gas in these hills, put there because it's nowhere, because it doesn't look like our planet."


At this point, friends and fans of Wyn Cooper, please kindly skip to the next paragraph (because he and they are probably tired of this story). In 1984 in Utah, Cooper wrote a poem called "Fun," collected in a book of poetry published in 1987. Of the 500 copies of the book, one turned up in a used bookstore in Pasadena, California, where it was picked up by two men working with Sheryl Crow, who right at that moment was stuck on a song, having lyrics that weren't quite right. She tried Cooper's poetry, added a line about the sun coming up over Santa Monica Boulevard, and, months later, unexpectedly, Cooper's work hit the zeitgeist with force.


That odd, unlikely sequence of events tied to "Fun" parallels the logic of this book (and maybe all of our lives?). A woman wanders into the bedroom where she used to live and at that moment, well, something unusual is happening. (And that's not the only intrusion of people into private spaces in this book.) Another woman happens to take a drive, happens to get distracted, and just at that moment her life is changed. Two deaths occur in the book: natural, or not? Can we know for sure? Serendipity plays a bigger role than our egos might give it. (But, a human hand, a wizard behind the curtain, may pull some levers. Can we know?)


Cooper's first novel is a bold experiment, daring readers to upend expectations and venture off into the desert with him. Although Cooper is your guide, you'll be on a solo trek through a blasted landscape. With imagination and a willingness to laugh in the face of adversity, who knows what you will discover?


--Gordon Dossett

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