Anyone familiar with Brian Ames’s three books of short stories—Smoke Follows Beauty, Head Full of Traffic, and Eighty-Sixed—will know that he’s a writer of imagination and depth. His stories explore the boundaries between everyday existence and the chaos that lurks beneath the surface of ordinary life. Some of his characters are shaken when they glimpse the reality that underlies the world of appearances, as when Dr. Mullenix, in “A Taste Like Fear” (SFB), discovers a murdered angel half buried at the edge of an African watering hole. Others slip through the fissures that open beneath their feet and are lost—sometimes literally, as in the title story of Head Full of Traffic. Some of these unfortunates are the victims of contingency, the mere randomness of things. Or they are undone when they ignore their responsibilities toward others, or transgress against the given order of things.
Salt Lick, Ames’s first novel, eschews the more bizarre elements of his short fiction—the supernatural appearances, the horror, the surrealism. Nor are his characters—the 38 souls who populate the fictitious town of Salt Lick in Washington’s Yakima County—quite the hapless, helpless individuals we often encounter in the stories—although they come close. What the novel does share with the earlier work are Ames’s concerns with the origins of evil and the way we respond to it, which he develops in this book with far more subtlety and humanity than he’s been able to achieve within the limited scope of the short story.
But for all its seriousness of intention, Salt Lick is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Ames ’85 is a gifted storyteller, and on that level alone, his novel delivers. In fact, it’s a very funny book—like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a prime example of black comedy.
The book spins out the many ways that Lothar Sturmhund, mayor and absolute ruler of Salt Lick, infects the lives of nearly everyone in the community. Sturmhund dies in the first chapter. But in those that follow—which read more like discreet stories than part of a continuous narrative—we learn a great deal about his nature as a control freak, megalomaniac, wife beater, child abuser, sexual predator, and all-around sociopath. We also watch a variety of characters either lose their moorings entirely or become enmeshed in situations ranging from the bizarre to the absurd, all of which circumstances date, strangely, from the time of Lothar’s death.
In the very first of this series of chapter/stories, in which the Reverend Mallford Jenkins makes a pilgrimage to a mountaintop to write Lothar’s eulogy, Ames delineates the basic terms of the conflict between Lothar and the community—indeed, the world—as an elemental opposition between good and evil. Driving along a forest-service road on his way to the ridgetop, Jenkins intuitively recognizes the country around him as a kind of Eden:
“Paradise, this mosaic of land, the flora and fauna of central Washington. Grand fir lifted everywhere from the ground, little Hammond’s flycatchers frolicking in the upper branches. Lodgepole pines stacked themselves together on mountainsides like happy sentinels. Juniper boughs moved in fragrant breezes, whispering the names of angels to ruffed grouse. The reverend knew that nearby brown bears dipped fish from streams, from the clefts of water-smoothed boulders. Great gray wolves gazed wisely across the forestscape, and eagles soared above it. Antelope bitter brush, spirea shrub, Oregon grape, longleaf phlox, mountain snowberry, arrowleaf balsomroot [sic], cinquefoil, lupine, western yarrow, vetch, bunchgrass—these were the mattresses of white-tail fawns. God’s sun shown down on all of this.”
Jenkins knows in his heart that Lothar’s was an evil nature and questions whether, even in death, he can be redeeme d. In a passage that suggests Lothar’s incarnation as an agent of evil in this paradise, the Reverend thinks, “But what could a person say? That he was in no way connected with the notion of salvation? That of all the men who ever lived, for whom God had sent his Son as redeeming sacrifice, Lothar alone was excluded? That he, in his willfulness and bullishness and fulminance, was, alone of all men, irredeemable?” Jenkins knows too that he himself facilitated that evil by never confronting Lothar, and he suffers remorse at the sycophantic relationship he had with Lothar while he lived. Yet he’s torn between his desire to speak the truth and his impulse to gloss it over, feeling intimidated by Lothar, even in death. The issue is settled when, Jenkins having reached the mountaintop and settled down to dispassionately assess Lothar’s good qualities against his evil nature, a storm sweeps overhead and a lightning bolt strikes a few yards from where he’s sitting. Jenkins interprets this otherwise random event as a directive from on high to write a eulogy praising Lothar as a virtuous man.
A string of comic stories follows in the next nine chapters, concerning in turn Ivan Manley’s addiction to pornography on satellite TV—even to the point of rejecting the very real advances of Vicki Aguirre when they interfere with his watching—and his subsequent obsession with women’s underwear; the burial of Jenkins’s dog under the freshly poured concrete of his driveway; Gunter Sturmhund’s use of the workshop he inherits from Lothar to construct a mechanical effigy of his deceased father; the deterioration of town clerk Nick Oxendine—called “Neat Nick from Salt Lick” because of his extreme orderliness—into a “disorderly, depraved . . . shambles”; the transformation of Ed Cubbins, who delivers bread to Salt Lick, from a bringer of joy to the town’s womenfolk to the near-murderer of his autocratic female boss, all for love of Flora Navarro; the stupidity of Helmut Sturmhund, Lothar’s older son, in dealing with a pair of dishonest tattoo artists; a racial dispute between African American Jimmy Bayles and Native American Mike Eagle Eye, which, with the participation of all the rest of Salt Lick, they “settle” by racing Hoyt Stone’s 1972 International Harvester cement mixer and 1940 American LaFrance 500-series fire truck, respectively; and Mike Eagle Eye’s abortive attempt to quit smoking.
It isn’t until we come upon Gib MacNaughton in Chapter 12—this for the second time in the novel—that we begin to see a pattern emerging. In Chapter 1, Gib, who lives with his little boy, Angus, and their pet peacock, Petey, loses his data-entry job in Union Gap, 21 miles from Salt Lick. Finding work in Zillah, 30 miles away, he puts their doublewide up for sale, intending to move closer to his new job. Lothar shows up at the doublewide as a prospective buyer, and, while viewing the living room, is so startled by the unexpected appearance of Petey, tail feathers in full display, that he has a heart attack and dies on the spot—which pretty much guarantees that no one will ever buy the property. So Gib takes the house off the market and decides to stay in Salt Lick, resolving to make the long commute work for him. As the sun sets on Chapter 1, father and son lie contentedly on the backyard lawn, watching the clouds drift by, Gib puffing on a joint, “a recreational habit he had acquired to relax, rather than drinking too much alcohol.”
In Chapter 12, Gib is discovered still flat on his back, this time on the living room sofa, and still smoking marijuana, a habit which by this time has gone way beyond recreational. Now he’s using it as a way to help him get through the day, and he doesn’t realize how dysfunctional it’s making him. Not only is Gib unable to complete a simple task like mowing the lawn, but his performance at his data entry job is suffer ing. When his boss finds him lighting up during his lunch break, he puts him on probation and tells him to find professional help— which advice Gib ignores. One day he runs out of cigarette paper and asks Angus to run to Sa
lt Lick and buy him some Zig Zags from Jacqua Druce down at the Pie Apple grocery.
Now it happens that most of the chapters of Salt Lick begin with a prolog about Lothar Sturmhund, fleshing out his character, providing details of his impact on the townspeople, and, most importantly, foreshadowing the main action to follow. Thus, in the prolog to Chapter 12, we learn about Lothar’s origins and boyhood in Nazi Germany during the latter days of World War II. His mother dead at childbirth, his father a casualty of the war, young Lothar survives by mastering “the tricks of provision. It might be argued that this is where he learned the ins and outs of general contracting,” Ames writes, “which is, after all, simply a matter of making connections. There is need; there is the mobilization to satisfy need.” Eventually, the needs that he finds himself satisfying are the appetites of a Russian officer for sex and drugs. In a scene reminiscent of some of Thomas Pynchon’s darker passages, we see the result of Lothar’s procurement for the officer of both the morphine and of his own beloved Uwe—”a young lovely who had already made Lothar a man”—with whom, he thinks, he could split the money. Too late, he realizes his mistake, and, overcome by jealousy, can only rage impotently as Uwe and the officer mock and humiliate him.
Are we meant to make a connection between Gib’s sending of the 10-year-old Angus to buy Zig Zags so he can keep toking, and the procuring of drugs—not to mention sex—that the eleven-and-a-half-year-old Lothar did for the Russian officer? In asking his own son to facilitate the habit that’s destroying him, is Gib perpetuating Lothar’s legacy of corruption? Given time, that’s probably the way Jacqua Druce would see it. In any case, she’s deeply offended when Angus shows up at her store and she realizes the kind of errand Gib has sent his son on. She pockets the papers, grabs an ice cream bar for Angus, packs him into her pickup, drives him back home, storms into the doublewide, and flings the Zig Zags and the money at the astonished Gib. “Don’t you never,” she says, “ever, ever send this boy to get your dope papers. Not from my store. Not never.” Ames doesn’t let on how, or even if, the incident affects Gib. Instead, he ends the chapter with Angus, who, his innocence intact, thinks about how he liked the ice cream bar, and “how he might be able to get another soon.”
By the end of Chapter 12, then, the narrative has come full circle, completing a cycle that ends with a fairly clear dramatization of Lothar’s insidious influence on Gib MacNaughton, and, by extension, the other characters whose stories we’ve been reading. So far, we’ve watched the way that influence distorts people’s private lives, with minimal consequences for the community as a whole. But in the ensuing chapters, it takes on tragic dimensions and spills into the public sphere.
In the next chapter Juniper Jamison, the town hat blocker, who sought Lothar’s approval while he lived, strains to fill Lothar’s shoes now that he’s dead. He succeeds Lothar as chairman of the Tall Tree County secessionist group and tries to emulate him in a variety of other ways: wearing his hat, referencing the time of day as Lothar so often did, referring to Tristan Devon, a reporter from the Yakima Herald-Republic, as “Moke,” just as Lothar had called Juniper “Joop.” Although it grates on him that he’s unable to command the kind of fear Lothar inspired, what he really resents is that he was passed over in the selection of a new mayor for Salt Lick. Toward the end of the chapter, we see h im “reloading 30.06 bullets at a counterpress. He was thinking of what a strange thing it was that the people had named Hector Aguirre Salt Lick’s mayor and not him. . . He—Juniper Jamison—belonged behind Lothar Sturmhund’s old desk. That’s the way Lothar would have wanted it.” There’s a sense of menace here—menace directed against Hector. But Juniper has arranged to meet with Tristan Devon, who wants to talk with him about working as a publicist for the secessionist committee. And the tone of the chapter’s concluding sentence—”Juniper loaded his rifle and waited for the reporter”—suggests that he’s lying in wait for Devon, rather than Hector.
If there’s some confusion here, it’s probably in Juniper’s mind. This is suggested in the prolog to the following chapter. Consider: We leave Juniper, who apparently sees himself as Lothar’s spiritual heir, in what seems to be a murderous state, waiting in the gathering dusk, presumably with loaded rifle in hand. We turn the page, and there in the pre-dawn darkness is Gunter Sturmhund, Lothar’s biological heir, also sitting with rifle in hand, but in the woods, waiting for an elk to come along. The “foggy dark” in which he sits seems to be the outward and visible manifestation of the foggy dark that grows in Juniper’s mind. It’s a strange, dreamlike episode. Gunter rises and walks up the trail, where he comes upon the body of a crow. As he tries to puzzle out the corpse, Lothar appears as if from nowhere. Gunter “looked up at his father and knew that Lothar took delight in the dead crow. That laying [sic] there, in the trail, the bird was the same size and color of his father’s heart.” As a commuter plane passes overhead, Gunter raises his rifle and tracks the plane through the scope, imagining “all the possibilities.” As if reading his mind, Lothar says, “Nice to think about, ain’t it son? All that flame.”
We’re clearly not in a rational world here, but in a realm where havoc—any havoc—is to be desired.
So perhaps it doesn’t matter, when Devon arrives in the gathering dusk for his appointment, whether Juniper means to shoot him specifically, or mistakes him for the usurper, Hector Aguirre, or just doesn’t care who is stepping out of the car. Under the guiding hand of Lothar’s spirit, havoc is the point, and havoc is what we get. Juniper shoots the reporter. Whereupon, without an instant’s hesitation, Jacqua Druce acts: first, to defend her store, and then, when she realizes that someone is down, to help him. Without a thought for her own safety, she bursts out of the Pie Apple and hastens to Devon’s side, where she, Flora Navarro, and two others try to help the stricken man. The police figure out where Juniper is and burst in on him, only to discover him, in final emulation of his mentor, dead from a heart attack. The EMTs do all they can for Devon, but are unable to keep his life from ebbing away. Too late, they discover they’d been treating the wrong wound.
We feel a change in the tenor of the novel as we read through this chapter. The derangement of one of Salt Lick’s own has resulted in the murder of an innocent person on the very streets of town, raising, in an instant, the consequences of Lothar’s lingering influence to a new and dangerous level. Further, the chapter’s shift in focus from the foibles of individual characters, considered more or less in isolation from one another, to a depiction of collective action in the public arena, seems to signal a change in the direction of the narrative. So it seems a bit puzzling that Chapter 15, which follows, returns to the earlier mode.
Intuitively receptive, like Mallford Jenkins in Chapter 2, to the beauty of the natural world, and a gifted artist to boot, Tina Druce, Jacqua’s daughter, turns out painting after pain ting of extraordinary beauty, faithfully rendering “hillocks, trees, wildlife, fences, logging roads, cattle, the people and places of Salt Lick.” But after Lothar’s death, her painting takes a turn to the ugly, she begins to view her previous work as a lie and to lament that before Lothar died, she, a 17-year-old virgin, had spent her days painting, rather than in sexual congress with him. It’s then that her mother decides to put an end to what she sees has happened in Salt Lick—that Lothar’s spirit, having outlived his body, has possessed not only Tina, but also, Jacqua realizes, the people of her town. Gathering her friends together, she lea
ds them in formulating and executing a plan to rid themselves once and for all of Lothar Sturmhund.
Readers might wonder why the shooting of the reporter wasn’t enough to mobilize Jacqua in that effort. Surely the taking of a life by a deranged member of the community should have spurred anyone to action. Is this—along with Ames’s apparent failure to sustain the change we’ve noted in the narrative—a misstep, a sign of the author’s inability to rise to the challenges of novelistic writing? I must admit that for a time I was inclined to answer “yes” to these questions. But then I remembered reading on Ames’s own Website something to the effect that Salt Lick had been seven years in the making. (Shades of Catch-22, which Joseph Heller famously labored over, off and on, for eight years.) Surely, I thought, seven years was long enough to identify and remove just about any flaw in the novel. So I looked again, and behold, I came to a different conclusion.
To begin with, we’ve already seen that Jacqua does act in response to the shooting of Tristan, and that she does so in a particularly selfless way. It’s no accident that she’s the first to arrive at the injured man’s side: her decisiveness and her impulse to succor him are perfectly in keeping with Ames’s depiction of her, at key points in the narrative, as a natural leader and rescuer. In this light, her reactions to Angus MacNaughton’s appearance at the Pie Apple in search of Zig Zags, to the shooting of Tristan, and to her daughter’s tribulations can be seen as points along a continuum of behavior that culminates in her rescue of the whole community. As to the question of why it’s Tina’s plight in particular, rather than Devon’s death, that prompts her to act against Lothar: At least as far as Jacqua can tell, at the time Tristan’s murder occurs there’s nothing to connect it with Lothar. Serious as it is, it remains an isolated incident and therefore fails to rise to the level of a triggering event (no pun intended).
But why, after signaling a broadening of the narrative of Salt Lick from the private to the public sphere in Chapter 14, does Ames seem to undercut his own intentions by plunging us back into the troubled mind of a single character, Tina Druce? The answer lies in the parallelism between the stories of Tina in the woods and Reverend Jenkins on the mountaintop. Of Jenkins, Ames writes: “He imagined that on the seventh day, if God had chosen this of all the places in His world to rest, . . . he would have reclined here with his head on the future spot of Union Gap, arms flung wide, the right hand resting on Mt. Adams, the left over Wenatchee, sandals dipped in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.” We hear echoes of that passage when we read of Tina, 13 chapters later, that “of all the colors composing God’s palette, of all the hues and shades and timbres with which He chose to drape the eastern cascade foothills and wash across the juvenile receptors of her eyes, Tina Druce liked best those she thought of as ‘local.'” As Jenkins is an ordained minister, presumably communing with God, so Tina is in communion with God’s creation on an almost shamanistic, or, as her name suggests, d ruidic level. Surely that’s the import of her depiction as a child of only six or seven, seated, deep in the woods, “in the chair of a fractured cedar stump,” recording—in a description that recalls Adam’s naming of the creatures in the Garden of Eden—her own “invented names for all of the hues and shades” of the colors of the world. Like Jenkins, she possesses priestly qualities—but where Jenkins is jaded, Tina’s perception of the divinity of the world is fresh and immediate. As if to dispel any lingering doubts that Tina is a true child of the forest, Ames literally makes her the child of Forrest—Forrest Druce, that is—whom Tina lovingly remembers, despite the fact that he abandoned her and her mother years before. Although she knows better, she insists, over the objections of her elementary-school teacher, on spelling “forest” with two R’s as a way of commemorating her father “in the word for vast tracts of fir, salal, mosquitoes, pine, cougar, ravens, cedar, lichen, elk, spruce, mushrooms, bobcats, aspen, stone, moss, hemlock, deer, vetch, bear and the forbs of the understory. God’s most beauteous, cycling creation.”
In Tina’s story, then, Ames is returning us to the paradisiacal world of Chapter 2, not through the jaded eyes of a compromised cleric, however, but through the unmediated experience of a child of nature. As such, Tina is a conduit, a messenger, who gives voice to the pre-lapsarian world through her paintings. That’s why the degeneration of her art into ugliness is so grievous. That devolution reaches its nadir in a painting consisting of a flat green blob enclosed within a field “explicitly and only brown . . . not any of Tina’s notebook shades, but brown,” representing, in Tina’s own words, “everything that could have been, but never was . . . . such as Lothar Sturmhund and me.” Beyond its personal meaning for Tina, the image represents the soiling of the world, the utter defeat of the unfallen nature Tina once celebrated, the absolute victory of evil over good. In this light Lothar is more than just an irredeemably evil man, as in Chapter 2. He is the expression of something larger than any one man, an abstraction, a malevolent force, and, as Ames writes, “in all of us he dwells.” Jacqua recognizes this universality when she sees what’s happened to her daughter. In other words, while she’s initially motivated by her daughter’s individual plight, she also sees that Tina’s not alone—that what threatens her threatens the entire community as well. And so she acts.
Yet there’s more, one other crucial element of parallelism that illuminates what Ames is up to in structuring his story as he does. Driving through the forest on his way to the ridgetop in Chapter 2, Rev. Jenkins ruminates on the relationship of a variety of characters to Lothar Sturmhund. The passage serves, in a way, as an introduction to the chapters that follow:
“Miniscule, resourceless Salt Lick had needed a firm hand on its tiller. Lothar’s hand had been firm and relentless. . . . Lothar’s sons, Helmut and Gunter, had needed a strong father. . . . Helmut Sturmhund would be the first to testify to his father’s tough love, and limp away afterward. Magda, his wife, needed a provider. Lothar had fulfilled that responsibility, at least in the sense of economics. . . . But what would the young, innocent Flora Navarro, who had . . . been forced to lay [sic] under him as if she were his wife, have to say about him? What would Jacqua Druce say, or Mike Eagle Eye, or Hector Aguirre, or Nicholas Oxendine? How would thumbless Hoyt Stone assess Lothar’s leadership and positive qualities? How would Jimmy Bayles testify? What tribute would Ivan Manley pay? Now Juniper Jamison . . . there was a man who might speak of Lothar reverently.”
If the foregoing passage anticipates chapters 3 th rough 14, Jacqua’s very similar meditation in Chapter 15 recaps them:
“Jacqua Druce knew, now, that it was time to assemble the townspeople at Lowell’s and broker a discussion. Hector Aguirre’s animal-part, road-kill jerky was one thing. There was sniper fire from Juniper Jamison rained down upon that poor writer from the Herald-Republic. O.K., that was another. Then, there was Gunter Sturmhund’s robotic amalgam graven image to his father’s memory, and his brother’s tattoo: NOT AXES! There was Reverend and Mrs. Jenkins’ poor mutt Eli entombed in the driveway. There was Ivan Manley’s fascination with female undergarments, and his remarkable inattention to Vicki Aguirre’s advances on Jacqua’s own living room couch. . . . There was Mike Eagle Eye incessantly attempting to quit smoking, sliding his snaky tongue all over a six-pack down at the store, smashing the town pumper into the Naches River. There was Jimmy Bayles standing atop Hoyt Stone’s cement mixer hollering about the African Mother into thin air. Gib MacNaug
hton sending his son to the Pie Apple to get his dope papers. Imagine! And Nick Oxendine—that was simply beyond bizarre.”
Clearly, Ames’s intention is for these two passages, not to mention the chapters in which they appear, to work together as a framing device for the stories that fall between them. So framed, those stories become a kind of box in which Manley, Oxendine, and the rest are imprisoned—a cage within which they circle endlessly, helpless to escape the consequences of their own weakness, venality, obsessiveness—whatever attributes of Lothar dwell within them.
The significance of Jacqua’s decision to act is that it shows them the way out—and indeed, the remainder of the novel takes place outside the box (this pun is intended). Nick Oxendine cuts off his beard and places a plastic bag full of the hair clippings in his desk drawer in the town hall. Gunter Sturmhund hauls a metal effigy of his father to the town hall and sits it down in Oxendine’s desk chair. Ivan Manley brings a truckload of cartons packed with women’s undergarments, Gib MacNaughton a garbage bag full of marijuana, Hector Aguirre his frozen “beast jerky,” and Tina Druce her most repulsive paintings. Why? I’m sorry, but for the answer to that question, you’ll have to read the book.
As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, Salt Lick shares a thematic concern with evil and its consequences with a great deal of Ames’s writing. Many of his stories are set in motion by an act of evil—not always premeditated, not always even understood by its perpetrator—that usually results in some kind of retribution. Or a perfectly innocent protagonist is overcome by a force, either of active malevolence or indifferent circumstance, against which he’s powerless to act. Insofar as Salt Lick departs from this pattern, it represents something new for Brian Ames: the idea that evil can be mastered and overcome. And insofar as he demonstrates in this first novel a high degree of craftsmanship and formal innovation, he has established himself as an artist with not only something important to say, but also the skill to say it supremely well. Where Ames will go with all of this is anyone’s guess. But this much is certain: whatever he has in mind, it will be worthy of our attention.