160 pages, hardcover: $20.
Random House, 2011.
Woody Creek, Colo.-based Joe Henry studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop with John Irving, but then detoured from writing fiction to work as a rancher, becoming a successful lyricist along the way. Henry's ravishing first work of fiction, Lime Creek, must have been inspired by the Western lifestyle he chose: It's filled with exquisite snapshots of life on a Wyoming ranch.
The cadences of his prose are unusual and arresting as he tells the elemental story of the Davis family, beginning when father Spencer Davis -- "whose soul parties with the antelope smelling of sage and horselather and covered by the insubstantial globe of a great tumbleweed" -- meets his future wife Elizabeth on his family's ranch. She's there for the summer with her wealthy Connecticut parents, and after Spencer heads to Cambridge for college, they elope.
The rest of the book is set on the couple's own ranch near the Never Summer Mountains, where Spencer and Elizabeth raise horses and three boys, Lonny, Luke and Whitney. There is some typical Western-rancher emotional distance to the relationship between the boys and their father, but what's more evident is their abiding love. In the moving "Tomatoes," the little boys pelt a fresh white sheet with precious, hard-to-grow tomatoes, but Spencer only pretends to whip them, never actually striking them.
In another outstanding section titled "Love," Henry beautifully conveys the significance of football to small-town teenagers, who attend practice after hard work on their family's ranches: "Almost as if the violence of practice and then of scrimmage released like a nightly catharsis the harsh sum of the highland sun in their backs and shoulders and the hard stiff labor of the day that still formed their hands."
Lime Creek follows the logic of beauty and emotion, not plot, leaving some gaps. Elizabeth disappears halfway through with no explanation, and Lonny appears only briefly. Late in the book, in a section narrated by a grown Luke, we learn "Elizabeth died when they were little." Nothing more is said about when or how she died, and in rare appearances, Elizabeth remains a vague, if loving, presence with "long yellow hair."
Still, it feels churlish to point out what Lime Creek is missing when what it contains is so close to perfect: a pure, tender and lyrical portrait of a ranching family.