Rancho Weirdo
Laura Chester
212 pages, softcover, $18.00.
Bootstrap Press, 2008.

The cover of Laura Chester's Rancho Weirdo features a cartoon of an armless human bound in a black sheath, banging its bloody head against a boulder. The image could be a metaphor for the stories in this collection -- tales in which middle-class people, wrapped in conflicts with children and partners and friends, collide with nature as if it's a foreign object.

Chester, 60, who has published several volumes of poetry and prose, divides her time between Massachusetts and Arizona. Her intimate knowledge of both landscapes shows in her evocative descriptions, as she examines the intersection of humanity and the flat uniformity of Northeastern islands and vast Southwestern deserts.

"I had never seen so many cactus," she writes in "La Tortuga." "The mesquite trees were abloom with puffed out plastic bags that had snagged on their prickly branches." In this short story, Chester's deft, acerbic prose describes a woman who visits a disappointing guest ranch to celebrate her 50th birthday and unexpectedly experiences rebirth after being thrown from a horse.

The equine-themed stories in Rancho Weirdo stand out as original and engaging against other, less surprising tales of infidelity, divorce and unrequited love. In "Don't Tell Daddy," a group of traumatized teens from New York City -- some of whom witnessed the 9/11 attacks -- find comfort in horses at a therapeutic camp even as they chafe against canoeing lessons and campfire talk circles. Chester's magnificently spare "Barn Brats" explores the collision between a philanthropic pre-teen from California and the myopic Massachusetts debutantes who board their horses in the same barn. A Mexican stall-mucker represents the voice of reason, even as the gaggle of mean girls makes him a scapegoat.

Several of Chester's stories explore the cultural clash of upper-class Anglos and working-class immigrants. A Vietnamese house-sitter appropriates a professor's home in "Curse of the Forced Flower," while a silent Sufi confounds an overwrought guest at a bed and breakfast in "The Spoon." Nature itself becomes a foreigner, weird and slightly sinister. "I try not to think about the color of the water, which is not very clear, all stirred up," notes the B&B guest, "and then I see I'm swimming through a mass of tiny jellies, some kind of sea eggs that are going down my suit. It is almost like swimming through sperm."

At first glance, the stories in Rancho Weirdo are disturbing -- some angry, some violent. But a subtle poignancy and wit inform both Chester's writing and the book's illustrations, by Korean-born artist Haeri Yoo. Yoo's playful drawings frequently echo the human vs. nature theme -- a bear wearing a Red Cross sash presses bloody paws into a prostrate human; a man floats sideways, his head impaled by the trunk of a tree.

Chester's keen sense of humor leavens even the saddest stories. Nature, with its prickly deserts and murky waters, provides a backdrop for the tragicomic lives of these bitter, unfulfilled characters. Even the cartoon on the cover lends itself to multiple interpretations. Maybe the figure isn't colliding with a boulder after all; maybe it's just bending over to tell the rock a joke. Rancho Weirdo avoids obvious answers, and that's part of the pleasure of reading and re-reading it.