BREAKING CRYSTAL MOUNTAINS.
From the comic adaptation of the Breaking Crystal Mountains prologue. Art by Dennis Hart.
The following was written to support my 2018 application for a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship
I intend to write the next great American novel. I understand that being Canadian stacks the odds against me, but I have never been the type to back away from a challenge. Also, I have a Green Card.
Breaking Crystal Mountains is a literary examination of an outmoded way of life that persists in Wyoming’s backwater mountain towns. The central conflict of this novel is born in the space between the incompatible ideologies of locals and outsiders who live on either side of a thin white line; traditionalists who believe they have been marginalized by modern society and those not bound to the past by institutional discrimination, frayed family ties, or blood debts. This is not an indictment of either, but rather an assessment of how these disparate factions manage to share the same rarefied mountain air.
BREAKING CRYSTAL MOUNTAINS: SYNOPSIS
Claire Béliveau is a blue-eyed California girl with dreams of putting down roots in postcard-perfect Wyoming, but she has no sense of the fragile foundation upon which the Bighorn Mountains were built.
Miller Wilcox is a red-blooded country boy whose childhood is but a shimmer in the rearview of his battered pickup. He vows that Claire will never know the hurt Wyoming put on him, or the full truth of the life he left behind.
The death of Miller’s father created a fissure in the fulcrum that balanced their lives. Garrett Wilcox was a decent, god-fearing, family-first man all his life, but that life was altered irrevocably by the exile of his son. Bested by the bottle, the fracture of his family and the failure of his beloved Greybull University of Taxidermy Sciences (GUTS), he became a hard-drinking, fist-throwing son of a bitch bent on extracting his version of revenge from anyone willing to toss him a sideways glance.
When they arrive for the funeral in Greybull, a swaybacked small town perched on the shoulders of the eastern Bighorns, Claire and Miller become embroiled in the mysterious circumstances of Garrett’s death, a death owed in part to a woman with a skull face, an ornery sheriff with a stiff trigger finger, a rogue assembly of Crow Indian ghost dancers, and the truth of the terrible crime Miller committed when he was young.
Claire, a disgraced journalist with her own duffel packed with old bones, must deftly orchestrate this Rattlesnake Opera or risk losing herself to the wildness that has consumed generations of the Wilcox clan.
PROCESS AND METHODOLOGY
The difficulties in describing a literary work which is incomplete are many. However, the fundamental truth about this novel is that it is piece of creative fiction based on my own experiences as a Wyoming outsider.
Breaking Crystal Mountains is not the latest addition to the hard-boiled, tight-lipped small-town sheriff procedural canon of Western American fiction. That is the domain of Craig Johnson, CJ Box, and Elmore Leonard, and I dare not trespass. My novel occupies space between Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, S. Craig Zahler’s Wraiths of a Broken Land, and Dave Canterbury’s Wilderness Survival Guide. Like Annie Proulx I “[dream about] rural North America, regional cultures, the images of an ideal and seemingly attainable world the characters cherish in their long views despite the rigid and difficult circumstances of their place and time.” The difference is that when the attainable world spins out of reach I force my characters to saddle up and give chase. Breaking Crystal Mountains blends sardonic wit, crunchy eloquence, and my ability to craft hopeful characters in the face of hopeless circumstances.
I offer protagonist Claire Béliveau, a journalist of some renown, as my avatar – she is younger, more determined, more talented, and in possession of an attitude that is unwaveringly positive. Consider this excerpt from my opening chapter on Claire’s expectations of Wyoming:
She rolled down her window and inhaled deeply. Wyoming smelled wilder than other places. Chaotic spring winds whipped off the broad shoulders of granite giants and carried an aroma of Western grace over vastness that was perfectly unfathomable. Arid hills, ocher and tawny and russet, smelled of a freedom that was elegant and sincere. Snowfall in springtime was not poetic license; it was part and parcel to the Wyoming experience and it lent the landscape a fairytale elegance. A chill wind came then and caught her unaware, and she wound her window back into place.
Contrariety emerges immediately. Her first meeting with Greybull’s sheriff suggests that some folks here have become cloyed by the banality of small-town life. “Garrett Wilcox spent the last 22,540 days of his life Wyoming,” the sheriff says, “and never did intend to break that streak to pick up a jug of mayonnaise at the Costco in Billings.” A self-styled arbiter of redneck reason, the sheriff serves to decode for Claire the argot of the mountains.
Claire’s experiences are charged and changed significantly by her gender: when she begins investigating Garrett Wilcox’s death, she is dismissed by local law enforcement as frail; Greybull’s newspaper editor suggests her journalistic credentials have been exaggerated by her beauty; and the schemers and opportunists consider her an easy mark for exploitation given her superficial lack of grit.
Claire’s gender and the divisiveness of identity politics are an important through line here. Wyoming sits on the cusp of the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, with events planned across the state throughout 2019 and 2020 to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the landmark territorial legislative decision. Breaking Crystal Mountains examines not how far women have come since 1869, but rather the havoc equality has wreaked on irrational adherents of an antipathetic frontier mindset.