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Wyoming

by JP Gritton

Wyoming by JP Gritton X
Wyoming by JP Gritton
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  • Paperback:
    Nov 2019, 246 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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A character study of family dysfunction and brooding resentment in 1980s, working-class America.

Looking to read a story set in Wyoming? You will be disappointed. The novel is not about Wyoming at all (see Beyond the Book for insight on the author's choice of title). Instead, it's a character study of protagonist Shelley Cooper, depicting how his dysfunctional family struggled to make ends meet in Colorado in the mid-1980s.

The story starts with Shelley getting caught stealing a compressor from his boss at a construction site. He is fired and soon finds himself in need of money. Clayton, Shelley's brother, has plenty. Clayton is the family benefactor. He earns a lot of cash growing marijuana in Colorado and selling it in Houston. He's also Shelley's nemesis. Nonetheless, Shelley agrees to drive a shipment of dope to Houston for Clayton to make some cash, and in due course, sibling resentment leads to self-sabotage.

Wyoming hops around geographically, but also temporally, back and forth through Shelley's adult life in the late-1970s and early 1980s. His story is pieced together via non-linear recollections. Tracing the family's dysfunction across Colorado, Missouri and Texas while also trying to keep track of when things are occurring induces a pleasant vertigo. One wants to interrupt and ask clarifying questions, as though a friend was relaying the story off-the-cuff.

At the start, it's easy to cheer for the protagonist; he builds a rapport with the reader. Shelley is candid about his innate character flaws. He is a caustic individual when he is mad, and he is mad a lot. His resentment corrodes every relationship he has. Yet, in the beginning, his anger does not seem entirely unwarranted—it makes sense that he disapproves of his brother dealing drugs.

As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Shelley may not always be telling the truth. Whenever and wherever he shows up, there are fires to put out—metaphorically and otherwise. He's biased, unreliable and he depicts himself in a positive light at the expense of others.

JP Gritton is masterful at developing a well-rounded cast of characters. Since the book is narrated in the first person, this is done almost entirely through cutting dialogue and visceral scenes. Family members and acquaintances are three dimensional, and the disdain they feel for one another is palpable. For example, Shelley has a falling out with his best friend and brother-in-law, Mike:

"You're a sickness, Shelley," he said then. "You're a kind of disease. You make my fucking skin crawl."
"You're drunk," I told him. "You're just drunk."
"Sure, I'm a little drunk. But I'm not as drunk as you might like to think I am. I'm sick of you, that's all. I'm sick to death of you and sick to death of pretending I ain't."

The pacing of Wyoming complements its non-traditional form. There is not much action, but the character and situational dramas are so deep and vivid that it never bores. Upcoming plot twists are deftly foreshadowed, creating mini-cliff hangers that make the plot increasingly captivating. Fire is the principal theme; the book begins with a forest fire, and proceeds to run through a series of fiery relationships and smoldering guilt. It ends with the reader trying to find salvation through the smoke and ashes. Is Shelley a guileless dupe? His own worst enemy? An anti-hero?

The author succeeds at making the reader care enough to find out. Unlike a forest fire's immediate and comprehensive destruction, the interpersonal relationships in the novel are destroyed via slow burn.

No one escapes Wyoming unscathed.

Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

This review first ran in the November 13, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  An Interview with JP Gritton

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