Post Road Magazine #10

Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell
Don Lee

In his seminal study of the short story, The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor makes a quiet yet startling assertion. As a form, he says, short stories may allow for marginal, unsympathetic characters, but novels cannot—they must contain at least one major point of view with which readers can identify. This seems to me a rather specious, reductive, and limiting pronouncement. I can think of a number of novels with marvelously unscrupulous and unsavory antiheroes to refute O’Connor. Nonetheless, I’ll concede that a certain level of empathy between reader and character makes a novel’s appeal more likely, and I’ll go one further: when there is an identification between reader and author, especially when the reader is a writer as well, when it’s more than that familiar barometer of “I wish I’d written this book” and rises to “I wish this author were my friend,” then you know the novel is truly beloved. For me, such a novel is Mystery Ride, by Robert Boswell.

Boswell—known as Boz—is the author of two story collections and five novels. For a long time, he and his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, taught at New Mexico State University, and now they’re ensconced at the University of Houston. Born in Missouri in 1953, Boswell spent his childhood on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. Because of a predilection for recreational drugs, it took him five and a half years to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona, where he then followed up with a master’s in rehabilitation counseling. He worked as a caseworker in San Diego for a couple of years, and then returned to Arizona for his M.F.A., first writing clunky, awful poems, then thankfully switching to fiction. His books have been, as a whole, well received, but it’s Mystery Ride, first published in 1993, that was his breakout book, and it remains most of his fans’ favorite.

Mystery Ride covers nearly a twenty-year period, opening in 1971, when two idealistic newlyweds, Stephen and Angela Landis, buy a farm in Hathaway, Iowa. As they move into the house, they discover the cellar is filled with years of accumulated trash—piles of liquefied, rotting filth. They haul everything out to a field and burn it, and, next to the flames, they feel hopeful, thinking they “have taken something putrid and made it into something beautiful.” The next chapter flashes forward to 1987. Angela is now living in Southern California, having left Stephen after only six years on the farm. She’s remarried to a Hollywood agent, Quin Vorda, and working at the Center of Peace and Justice, and she’s preoccupied with several developments: she’s about to turn forty, and she’s pregnant; her husband, Quin, is cheating on her; and the daughter she had with Stephen, fifteen- year-old Dulcie, is, quite possibly, becoming a sociopath. At wit’s end, Angela takes Dulcie to Iowa to spend the summer with Stephen, who has been trying to eke out a life on the farm. The timing of Angela and Dulcie’s arrival isn’t exactly perfect: his new girlfriend and her teenage daughter have just moved in. And there’s another problem: despite time and geography and other obvious impediments, Stephen still loves Angela, and, in a more muted way, she might still love him.

A lot happens in the book as we shift points of view and learn more about what occurred in the intervening years, and the intimate compassion Boswell has for each character—as they reach for love, family, decency—becomes irresistible. Moody, epiphanic moments, such as this one, in lesser hands would seem sentimental, but in Boswell’s, they seem genuinely profound:

The rain began to fall harder, and it distracted him, but he tried to pull himself back because he felt on the verge of understanding something large and important. It seemed to him that this moment—the light and wind, the sweep of fields, the falling rain, the lowing cows . . .—captured a sort of life that he longed for, a life of order and harsh beauty, and although this was his farm and his vision, it did not seem to be his life. It seemed instead to be the thing for which he must daily give up his life, an act of submission to something he could not name and only rarely, in moments such as these, have a sense of. Life during these moments seemed neither lost nor ruined but a power to be shared, as the grass shares its power with the living things that devour it.

Mystery Ride, of course, owing to the inanity of the publishing business these days, is out of print. But fortunately there are libraries and used-books outlets. Get Mystery Ride, and then Boswell’s other books (I recommend Crooked Hearts and also his latest, Century’s Son). They might change your life, or, at the very least, make you wish Robert Boswell were your friend.

Don Lee is the editor of Ploughshares and the author of the story collection Yellow and the novel Country of Origin.

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