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The Vast And The Violent Rural Northwest, In 'Come West And See'

May 18, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 5:28 pm

The title of Maxim Loskutoff's debut book is an invitation. Or is it a command?

In the short story collection Come West and See, he writes about a region that is wild and aggressive, standing in stark opposition to the society that exists in, say, Washington, D.C., or New York City.

Loskutoff grew up in the American West, in Missoula, Mont., but back then, that fierce, rugged individualism didn't quite appeal to him.

"My definition of the West was a place that I wanted to leave," he says. "I always dreamt of the cities on the coasts, the cities in other countries. And for me, these were the places where life and civilization was really happening."

When he could leave, he did. He went to college in Los Angeles and grad school in New York, then lived around the world. But eventually he was drawn back to the West — and to how the region struggles to define itself.

Come West and See is made up of linked stories in the isolated region of the inland American West that has become home to a heavily armed, rule-of-law, libertarian, religious separatist and survivalist movement. The American Redoubt is an actual political movement which encourages ideologically similar resettlement in this geographic region, and Loskutoff's fictionalized Redoubt sees an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge — not unlike the real standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

In an interview, Loskutoff says he has observed the tensions in his fiction his whole life.


Interview Highlights

On growing social divisions and contempt between rural and urban Westerners

There was a lot of tension between the kids whose parents were loggers, or whose fathers were loggers, and whose parents were professors, you know, perhaps in the environmental studies department. So for me, that tension has carried throughout my life. And when I started really sitting down to write, it was to try and express that growing chasm between the rural West and the cities on the coast. ...

I also think it cuts both ways. I think there's contempt that both sides have for each other. And part of what I'm trying to do in these stories is to bridge that by showing how universal so many of the baseline emotional struggles that people go through are. The desires for love and understanding — these are just as true in Libby, Montana as they are in Denver or Portland or New York City.

On the violent and animalistic behavior in the stories — and on the first story, where a man falls in love with a bear

I think that for me, another aspect of the West is being in awe of this vast landscape which is just so much bigger — it's overpowering — while at the same time wanting to control it. So in the first story in the collection — which is in many ways foundational, it's sort of the rock dropping in the water from which the ripples spread forth ... in it, a trapper falls in love with a bear, in sexual love with a bear, kind of representing the many, many animals that he has killed.

Something I really wanted to express in this book is that there was never was this idealized time of harmony which I think both sides of the political spectrum want there to have been. This moment in the West, either where all the mines were running and there were good jobs and ... a man could make a living and have a family/a woman could make a living and raise her children, or on this other side, before the white people came at all when there was this state of harmony. What I'm trying to express is: There was never this harmony. It's always been this incredible struggle with our urge to love the land and then our urge to tame it. ...

Yeah, and to be honest, all these stories come from things that I've felt in some kind of way. For me, I've never fallen in sexual love with a bear, but there's this feeling that I've had when I'm out alone in the woods, and there's a bear around, and it's a beautiful and exciting feeling. And it has aspects of myth, but it also has aspects of the most mundane, everyday turmoil that I feel in a city or out in the woods. And so yeah, I wanted to write this stuff — really the only way I know how to write is to truly feel like it's happening to me, or it's happening to the character.

On fixing the divided, irrevocably post-industrial West of his fiction, in spite of the dark and off-putting actions of its characters

I think that for me that the answer is the title of the book — it's to Come West and See. ... My goal for this book was to show just how much anger and darkness there is right now, and which is bubbling up in this country. And for me, this is coming from this great chasm that's opened up between two sides. And so, yeah, I certainly don't pretend to have the answer for bridging this chasm.

I think this book for me was — it came from this really sick and frightened feeling that I had watching the Malheur occupation develop, and the way that it was interpreted utterly differently in Portland, Oregon, where I was living when it began, and then in the small town of Otis, Oregon, where I moved about halfway through it. And it was something that I had felt deep inside myself before, but hadn't been able to put into words. So with this book, it's more: The challenge is to show how far things have gotten, and in the wake of that, to try and begin to bridge that gap.

Connor Donevan and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The title of Maxim Loskutoff's debut story collection is an invitation or maybe a command, "Come West And See." The West he writes about his wild, aggressive and stands in stark opposition to the society that exists in places like Washington, D.C., or New York. Loskutoff grew up in that West, in Missoula, Mont. Back then, that fierce, rugged individualism didn't quite appeal to him.

MAXIM LOSKUTOFF: My definition of the West was a place that I wanted to leave. I always dreamt of the cities on the coasts, the cities in other countries. And for me, these were the places where life and civilization was really happening.

SHAPIRO: And so when he could leave, he did. He went to college in Los Angeles, grad school in New York, lived around the world. But eventually he was drawn back to the West and the region's struggle to define itself. He told me he even noticed this struggle as a kid in Missoula.

LOSKUTOFF: There was a lot of tension between the kids whose parents were loggers or whose fathers were loggers and whose parents were professors, you know, perhaps in the environmental studies department. So for me, that tension has carried throughout my life. And when I started really sitting down to write, it was to try and express that growing chasm between the rural West and the cities on the coast.

SHAPIRO: You talk about the cities overlooking the people in the more rural areas and your childhood desire to flee. One word that you didn't use but that seems to be a through line here is contempt - the contempt that people who live in the cities feel for the areas of the country that they don't understand.

LOSKUTOFF: I think that's true, and I also think it cuts both ways. I think there's contempt that both sides have for each other. And part of what I'm trying to do in these stories is to bridge that by showing how universal so many of the sort of baseline emotional struggles that people go through are - the desires for love and understanding. These are just as true in Libby, Mont., as they are in Denver or Portland or New York City.

SHAPIRO: But there's so much that happens in these stories that does feel alien, that feels violent and animalistic - people behaving in ways that I in my life have never seen.

LOSKUTOFF: Yeah. I think that for me, another aspect of the West is being in awe of this vast landscape which is just so much bigger - it's overpowering - while at the same time wanting to control it. And so in the first story in the collection, which is in many ways foundational - it's sort of the rock dropping in the water from which the ripples spread forth.

SHAPIRO: And this is the only story set in the distant past.

LOSKUTOFF: Yes. And in it, a trapper falls in love with a bear - in sexual love with a bear, kind of representing the many, many animals that he's killed. And something I really wanted to express in this book is that there never was this sort of idealized time of harmony which I think both sides of the political spectrum want there to have been - this sort of moment in the West either where all the mines were running and there were good jobs and there were - you know, a man could make a living and have a family, a woman could make a living and raise her children or, on the other side, before the white people came at all, when there was this sort of state of harmony. What I'm trying to express is there was never this harmony. It's always been this incredible struggle with our urge to love the land and then our urge to tame it.

SHAPIRO: When you describe a man falling in love with a bear, it sounds like that could be mythic or allegorical. And the story does not read as allegory or myth. The story is visceral and dark. And when I read it, I thought, OK, this book is going there. It's quite a way to start the reader off.

LOSKUTOFF: Yeah. And to be honest, all these stories come from things that I've felt in some way. And, you know, for me, I've never fallen in sexual love with a bear, but there's this feeling that I've had when I'm out alone in the woods and there's a bear around, and it's a beautiful and exciting feeling. And it has aspects of myth, but it also has aspects of the most sort of mundane, everyday turmoil that I feel in a city or out in the woods. And so, yeah, I wanted to write this stuff. Really the only way I know how to write is to truly feel like it's happening to me or it's happening to the character.

SHAPIRO: The stories in this book are loosely connected, and many of them center around a place called the Redoubt. Describe this place for us.

LOSKUTOFF: The Redoubt is a place that was set aside or designated as a sort of - a place where like-minded people could move together and take over local governments and institute constitutional law, and...

SHAPIRO: Air quotes there.

LOSKUTOFF: Exactly, so elect - the dream would be to elect sheriffs that would only enforce laws that were explicitly written out in the constitution.

SHAPIRO: Almost like a separatist stronghold preparing for a confrontation with federal authorities.

LOSKUTOFF: Yes or preparing for some sort of disaster to befall this country, at which time this would be the center of a new government, a new civilization that would rise.

SHAPIRO: So there are sort of separatist impulses. People are heavily armed. We've seen similar standoffs recently in Oregon and Nevada involving the Cliven Bundy family.

LOSKUTOFF: Yes, exactly. And many of the people who went to Malheur came from the Redoubt.

SHAPIRO: The Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon where there was a standoff with federal authorities recently - so if the world that you describe in your fiction is actually the world in which we live where there is this mutual contempt, there is this sense of fighting a world that has changed, this lack of pride, I mean, the question is, how do you fix that? How do you bridge that?

LOSKUTOFF: I think that for me, the answer is the title of the book. It's to come West, and see. And so I think...

SHAPIRO: But you invite the reader to come West, and see. And then what you show us is so dark and in many instances off-putting. It's hard to feel an identification with and a sympathy for some of these characters who are doing awful things.

LOSKUTOFF: Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, I think that my goal for this book was to show just how much anger and darkness there is right now and which is bubbling up in this country. And for me, this is coming from this great chasm that's opened up between the - between two sides. And so, yeah, I certainly don't pretend to have the answer for bridging this chasm. I think this book for me was - it came from this really sort of sick and frightened feeling that I had watching the Malheur occupation develop and the way that it was interpreted utterly differently in Portland, Ore., where I was living when it began and then in the small town of Otis, Ore., where I moved about halfway through it. And it was something that I had felt deep inside myself before but hadn't been able to put into words. So with this book, it's more - the challenge is just to show how far things have gotten and, in the wake of that, to try and begin to bridge that gap.

SHAPIRO: Maxim Loskutoff, thanks so much for talking with us today.

LOSKUTOFF: Yeah, thank you.

SHAPIRO: His debut short story collection is called "Come West And See." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.