Chronicle Books published How I Came West, and Why I Stayed by Alison Baker 1993, just after Chronicle had become famous for producing lavish, photo-intensive cookbooks, and books featuring rich graphic design such as 1991’s Griffin and Sabine. Baker’s book was published in the era before McSweeney’s, back when fantastical fiction tended to be pigeonholed into magic realism. Although How I Came West And Why I Stayed is still in print, it was never reissued and bears the early-nineties obsession with Southwestern kitsch: the book has a cover with borders that would look at home on a piece of pottery. I bought my copy in a used bookstore in the mid-1990s. My copy carries the author’s signature, although I’ve never seen her read. You can find a copy of the book today at Albris for $1.99.
Baker writes stories that are not realistic nor are they allegorical in the fairy tale mode of Kelly Link or Shirley Jackson. Instead her stories are realistic but with very twisted facts. They are tall tales in the vein of Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. In the title story, a woman arrives in Montana hunting for wild cheerleaders who occupy the wilderness like cryptozoological fauna. Their cheers echo from distant snowfields. In another story, the narrator tells a vivid anecdote about the time the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead came to visit before a lecture at the university where the narrator’s father worked. The family decides to serve Mead authentic Midwestern cuisine: hot dogs and jell-o salad.
“Do you think she’ll get it?” said my mother, getting a package of hot dogs out of the freezer.
“She’s an intellectual, isn’t she?” said Aunt Roxie.
The narrator, a child in the account of the visit, gets ready to perform a made-up fertility dance. One of the professors from the university is fussily annoyed and says the narrator looks like “a mongoloid idiot.” The child doesn’t know exactly what this is, although she knows idiot isn’t good. Mead arrives “wearing a jacket like my father’s,” and a skirt. Mead is invited to dance in the made up dance, and she does. The detail is as specific and vivid as any first class lie.
After this account is over, the narrative, already clearly set from the point of view an adult looking back, informs us that after her mother died, the narrator and her sister examine the objects from the house. She asks her sister about Mead’s visit, and her sister has no idea what she is talking about.
“Jane didn’t remember any of it. ‘Our mother would never have served hot dogs to Margaret Mead,’ she said. The specific memory is met with a specific objection. We are left wondering then if this made-up story in a made-up story really happened.
The idea of the tall tale is to make the listener believe what they are hearing and then at some point to break the frame and say something like “Gotcha.” Although I suppose in a masterly tall tale, the author or storyteller may never let you know. Although they have a lot in common with myths, tale tales I think have less to do with allegories and more to do with surface of the story and the confusion of reality. In Baker’s book, the west, is an empty landscape waiting to be filled not necessarily with meaning, but at least with stories.
In “The Heaven of Animals,” the narrator says about the west:
As we drove across the miles and miles of flat gray countryside, I dreamed of the land we were approaching: towering mountains teeming with wolves; dark, uncharted forests heavy with the herds of buffalo. I’d read about the west: grizzly bears came right out on the road and looked in your car window. You could give them peanut butter, and scratch their ears.
Rediscovered Reading is a regular series in which Matt Briggs reviews overlooked collections of short fiction. Matt is the author of Shoot the Buffalo and other books. He blogs at mattbriggs.wordpress.com.