Saturday, October 21, 2006

Pg. 69: "Augusta Locke"

Augusta Locke, the third novel by William Haywood Henderson, has earned some very impressive reviews.

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Augusta Locke is an uncommonly beautiful, haunting book. The writing is like prose poetry, ethereal and earthy at the same time. As we move through Gussie’s life, starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the landscape of the American west comes across as a living thing. Meanwhile, the characters who pass through her life are well-drawn, memorable, and not at all simple, whether minor players or major figures. … Henderson has managed to create one of the most arresting female literary characters in quite some time.
Click here to read more praise for the novel.

I asked Bill to apply the "page 69 test" to his book. Here is page 69 from the novel, followed by the author's explanation:
Augusta Locke buttoned Jack Fisher’s shirt against her throat and went out into the street. All altitude and cold air, the morning light skimmed across the melting snow, but Gussie could feel the spring heat on her skin, the sun burning through the last shock of winter. Down into the middle of Estes Park, she made her way, hopped the rivulets. Slush wicked into the worthless seams of her boots. She checked her pockets, counted the money, made her calculations—she had paid for the drive to Estes Park, for the hotel, sandwiches, bottles of wine, but still there was plenty. As long as she didn’t give in to any more extravagances, the money should last her at least a few weeks.

She stopped, turned slowly, looked up at the peaks. She was surrounded, every horizon looming. She felt the ache of starved lungs, thought of the valleys hidden in the granite folds, the old cabins buried to the stovepipe in snow, the roads and trails rising slowly out of ice. One day, she might return to hike the rocky passes, look up at the close undersides of clouds, see the earth reflected, the swift storms layered miles high. But for now, she would descend again to the plains, the budded green, and the simpler roads.

She bought herself a khaki version of Jack’s hat minus the stain…
Augusta Locke started out as an exploration of the life of someone I knew of briefly, years ago, in Dubois, Wyoming. She was a mannish little woman—in fact, when I first saw her working on a windmill below my parents’ ranch, I thought she was a man. Years later, I did a little research on her and learned that she’d come into Wyoming from Colorado in about 1917 with a young daughter in tow, and that she’d often done men’s work (road crew, teamster, ranch hand, outfitter) and even passed herself off as a man occasionally. No one I asked had heard that she’d had a daughter, and so I wanted to make the mother-daughter relationship the main focus of the novel, working out what their life together would have been like and what Gussie’s life alone would have been like after her daughter disappeared from the scene.

Here on page 69, Gussie has just lost her virginity to Jack Fisher, a young man who then headed east to volunteer for the Great War. She dresses herself in his clothes, buys a hat like his, and in these clothes she’ll soon be mistaken for a young man, setting in motion her life as a “man.” She’s also pregnant at this point, though she doesn’t know it. So, from this moment on, the particulars of her life have changed dramatically, and soon she’ll have choices to make that she never would have imagined.
Thanks to Bill for the input.

From the Chicago Tribune:
Augusta Locke is a fascinating and powerful character, matter-of-fact and not self-pitying. … While she spends her days anchored in the beauty and harshness of Western landscapes … thoughts of her mother, Leota, her father, Brud, and her daughter, Anne, recycle in her mind. So does the figure of Anne’s father, Jack Fisher, who was but a one-night-stand in Gussie’s teen years, on the verge of his departure for the Great War, although he is to resurface in her life decades later in startling fashion. … These characters become like fetish dolls that Gussie caresses over and over in her mind’s eye, the past renewing itself, phoenix-like…
And here's what Annie Proulx said about Henderson's second novel, The Rest of the Earth:
William Henderson writes some of the most evocative and transcendently beautiful prose in contemporary American literature. The Rest of the Earth is a work of art more like a series of paintings than the traditional novel. The high and remote Wyoming landscape—obdurate, dangerous, violently beautiful—is the great presence in it. Against slant rock and the long view we catch sight of a drift of characters whose lives brush against each other, blow away like smoke.
Bill attended Stanford University from 1989 to 1991 as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing; he used the time there to finish his first novel (Native) and start his second novel (The Rest of the Earth). He has taught creative writing at Brown, Harvard, and the University of Colorado at Denver, and currently teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.

To hear William Haywood Henderson read from and discuss Augusta Locke, click here (podcast #40).

Previous "page 69 tests":
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue