Reasons to stay

  • Split Estate: A Novel Charlotte Bacon 304 pages, hardcover: $24. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.



"Wyoming," Charlotte Bacon writes, "made you feel that an articulated reason to stay was a good thing to develop." In Bacon's new novel, Split Estate, that nebulous feeling drives Arthur King to leave New York City with his two teenagers, Cam and Celia, after his wife, Laura, commits suicide. He rashly moves the family west to his mother Lucy's Wyoming ranch.

During their first months in the town of Callendar, each King behaves recklessly - as Lucy puts it, each is "a streak of need." Shy, awkward Celia pines for a taciturn, unavailable ranch hand. Cam, her handsome, moody older brother, dates the duplicitous daughter of his ruthless boss. Arthur has two scandalous trysts. Even Lucy scrawls graffiti poetry onto mining equipment, daring the sheriff, an ex-boyfriend, to arrest her. All of this should limit the Kings' staying power in Wyoming, but in Split Estate, they get out of jail free.

The move to Wyoming, desperate but not hopeless, offers the family some needed distance and perspective. Celia, whose annoying obsessions underscore a longing for order, has a weak grip on reality. She experiences instances of "clairvoyance" (usually at crucial plot points), but even for her, Wyoming is solid and stunning, the honest opposite of Manhattan. Her brother, the most accessible character and the one most shaken by Laura's suicide, acclimates best: "Cam had found a place where he could manage, and he wasn't going to give that up. It was too important. He was still on the side that chose the daily smack of feet on a cold floor, a cup of hot coffee, a girl's warm body. These things still mattered to him. He had woken up to the mattering this summer, when he thought it was lost to him."

Lucy believes "suicides persisted with a spectral intensity, as if they might be glimpsed in the corners of rooms, among roof beams, in little-used hallways." Laura's sadness lingers long after her death. Her jump claims the book's characters invisibly, splitting their emotional state between past and present as decisively as mineral rights and surface rights are split by law on ranchland.

As Annie Proulx wrote in the short story "Brokeback Mountain:" "If you can't fix it you've got to stand it." Split Estate falls short because its characters don't stand it quite long enough.