‘Bone Fire’ ignites conflicts, connections that remain unclear

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / April 30, 2010

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Mark Spragg conjures the West with style and gravity. He can burrow into the tightest chambers of the heart, and his belief in family is palpable and moving. Unfortunately, he doesn’t marshal his talents and emotions coherently in “Bone Fire,’’ his intermittently engaging new novel.

Certain characters from his other novels, “The Fruit of Stone’’ and “An Unfinished Life,’’ resurface here, suggesting Spragg wants to dig deeper into how a boy becomes a man, why marriages wear out, and the race between ambition and keeping a family together. All that is worth exploring, and characters like the patriarch Einar Gilkyson, whose aging has brought wisdom, Griff, his resolutely artistic granddaughter, and Crane Carlson, the heavily burdened sheriff of beautiful but remote Ishawooa, Wyo., approach the captivating. But Spragg often disappoints because it’s not always clear what the connections and conflicts are between the characters.

The story is convoluted, the writing austere. Griff has dropped out of college to care for the ailing Einar. Crane, Griff’s stepfather, has to solve a murder linked to an explosion in a meth lab, figure out what he wants from his wife and Griff’s mother, Jean, who numbs herself with booze, and deal with a nerve disease that felled his grandfather. Complicating a plot that never jells: Marin, Einar’s sister, has lost her partner and returned home to bond with Einar. Kenneth, Einar’s ward, discovers who his real father is, becomes a runaway, and has a great time at a carnival. Paul, Griff’s boyfriend, is in graduate school with plans to volunteer in Uganda.

So many plot lines, so many connections, so little cohesion.

There are rituals, too, even whiffs of paganism. Griff’s sculptures, which captivate Marin, ground Einar, and work as symbols of the book’s title, provide especially strong imagery in a well-written if otherwise flawed book:

“The figures were human-sized, five adults — a wolf-headed man, his mouth wide in triumph, she-bear, moose, long-horned bull and bighorn ram — and a single child, its skull reptilian, fragile and snake-fanged. Their knees were cocked, arms extended heavenward, backs arched, one offering up a nugget of agate in its raised hands. On another, a tail curved away in an S, the last of its vertebrae no bigger than a snail’s body. It was as though the earth had thrown up an accumulation of its dead, regathering the parts into this resurrection of creatures.’’

So vivid a passage feels like a gift because reaching it is such travail. Over time, however, the reader who sticks with “Bone Fire’’ realizes that instead of telling a story straightforwardly, Spragg is unfolding it, attempting to build impact through accretion. Trouble is, he didn’t connect the plot lines. The drug murder Crane probes could have been the basis of a cool methedrine Western. The relationships between the kid Kenneth (whom Spragg clearly likes) and the adults he interacts with could have been expanded. The contrast between Crane’s stern sense of justice and the weary, worldly ways he makes peace with his women could have been explored.

But it’s not only lack of focus that capsizes this. It’s the constantly shifting points of view, the commingling of story lines. Reading “Bone Fire’’ is like listening to a radio station in which the songs seem to be fine, but the reception is so spotty you can’t tell precisely what they are.

Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff is a contributor to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website.

BONE FIRE By Mark Spragg

Knopf, 256 pp., $25.95