A harsh world and its haunted figures

By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / February 1, 2010

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‘What ever happens to anybody in Wyoming?’’ says a bored young gas company worker in Alyson Hagy’s third collection of stories, “Ghosts of Wyoming.’’ “A whole lot of nothing.’’

But you wouldn’t know it from these vibrant tales of disappearance, murder, bad weather, loneliness, generosity, betrayal, and, yes, ghosts.

Hagy has set herself a challenge in tackling a narrow genre, the Wyoming Gothic miniature, where another writer reigns supreme. Annie Proulx, of “Brokeback Mountain’’ fame, has published three volumes of Wyoming stories - tight, furious, sardonic things with hardly a false note among them. “Ghosts of Wyoming’’ isn’t going to unseat Proulx, but these sharp-eyed, tender stories have their own considerable charm.

Hagy’s tales are set in and around Laramie, where the author lives, and mostly in the present, with a few dips into the 19th century. Her characters are bound by geography, a certain independence of temperament, and the ghosts who haunt them, both figuratively and literally.

In “Border,’’ a young man on the run is given up by an apparently sympathetic stranger - and revealed to have left a body in his wake. In “The Little Saint of Hoodoo Mountain,’’ an adolescent ranch girl displaces a child’s bones, with consequences that threaten her family from all sides. In the goofiest and least successful of the stories, “Superstitions of the Indians,’’ a slacker grad student with a fondness for Counting Crows and Frisbee golf is befriended by the ghost of a long-dead university librarian.

This last story strains credibility, not because of the supernatural apparition, which Hagy handles with ease, but because the author never fully inhabits the voice of the dude-bro narrator. The quiet ghost of “How Bitter the Weather,’’ on the other hand, fits seamlessly into the swirl of solitary souls around a more convincing character. Melanie, who is calm about the haunting of her tiny Laramie home, reports on her “small, ambivalent city’’ for the local paper, indifferently sleeps with old boyfriends and married men, and nurses addictions to espresso and diet pills. She is thrown by the disappearance of a man named Armand - of unspecified European background, dignified, alcoholic, poor, and a local fixture - who, with the ghost, forms a kind of matched set of symbolic absences. Like everyone in Melanie’s world, they are known and unknown, there and yet out of reach. Hagy paints a delicate, moving portrait of a protagonist terminally hungry for more than she can get, subsisting like the sparrows on a “regular diet of crumbs.’’

Hagy’s final and most powerful tale, “The Sin Eaters,’’ captures the bewildering clashes of an earlier, wilder Wyoming through the eyes of an outsider. In 1889, a young Protestant missionary from Iowa is traveling to Fort Washakie, where he will compete with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians for the souls of the natives. Riding from one homestead to the next, he finds a gruff hospitality everywhere. Yet the people who give him berth turn out to be a complicated lot: cattle rustlers, whores, and killers, locked in unnavigable feuds with each other. Even the mixed-race mule driver who takes the young man under his wing - a hallucinatory figure with mules named Terpsichore and Betsy Ross - is far from pure of heart. He can only warn his Midwestern guest that this is no place for him.

Hagy renders this tale as vivid and surprising to readers as it is to the young preacher. She offers little explanation, simply letting the players and the landscape unfurl before us. Her Wyoming is a harsh world, but one shot through with transcendent moments, as when the traveler and his hosts raise their eyes to the night sky: “The silver hook of the moon seemed poised to lift them all into the net of heaven’s stars.’’

Amanda Katz is a writer and editor based in New York.

By Alyson Hagy
Graywolf, 192 pp., paperback, $15