Western literature is peppered with the archetype of the Bad Boy. Whether he lopes into town on a dark horse or comes roaring in on a motorcycle, the Bad Boy's job is to stir up all sorts of trouble before being taken out by a hail of bullets or the author's decision to send him packing as mysteriously as he arrived. So it's not surprising that the Bad Boy of Kim Barnes' novel Finding Caruso comes slinking into Snake Junction, Idaho, in a black Lincoln Continental, nor is it odd that her Bad Boy has both a few crinkles around the eyes and an inscrutable past. What is unusual, however, is that this particular Bad Boy is named Irene.
"I knew there was going to be some tragedy in this story, and I knew this was going to be a cautionary tale," says Barnes, adding that she saw her story as a retelling of the classic Western, Shane. "With Irene, instead of riding in on her horse, I saw this beautiful redheaded woman riding into town in her black Lincoln Continental. But it's the same story. She's running away from a dark past, she's trying to escape her fated place in the world. It's the story of the scapegoat, the archetypal scapegoat, who must fulfill her destiny and take up her fate."
Irene's destiny is inextricably wound up in the westerly movement of two brothers, Lee and Buddy Hope, who come to Idaho in the 1950s escaping poverty and their brutal childhood on a farm in Oklahoma. For Barnes, it was a natural progression. Her first book, the memoir In the Wilderness, was the winner of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and was a finalist for that year's Pulitzer Prize. In telling the story of her childhood among the tall pines of the Clearwater, she relates the story of how her family sought out the religious, physical and economic freedom of life in North Idaho. In her second memoir, Hungry for the World, Barnes unflinchingly portrays herself as a young woman determined to break free from her family, yet shaped by their legacy in ways she never could have imagined. Finding Caruso is Barnes's first novel, but in many ways it feels like a companion piece to her previous two books.
In fact, with the novel safely put away, she's currently working on her third memoir. Tentatively entitled Out of the Fire, the next volume of her "Idaho trilogy" is a sort of happy-ever-after story in which she meets and marries her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, and discovers writing, which she teaches at the University of Idaho.
One of the things Barnes has had to come to terms with is a family history of violence. Her first chapter ends on a note like an intemperate backhand upside your head -- there's the moment of shock, and then a rush of shame and hurt. Barnes says lots of reviewers have questioned her about this part of the book, but she had trouble identifying it for what it was when she was in the process of writing it.
"They didn't call it violence back then -- no one ever used that word," she says. "Everyone knew my great uncle's dairy cows when they got out because they were the ones whose tails were always broken. Whenever they kicked, he'd break their tails. So they abused their animals, they abused themselves, sometimes they abused their wife and kids. But back then it was just called 'orneriness.' It was a euphemism."
Finding Caruso begins in Oklahoma but finds its center in the town of Snake Junction, circa 1957. As Barnes describes how the Snake and Clearwater rivers form a confluence west of town, and how the pulp mill fills the summer nights with its sulfurous exhalations, it's clear she's actually describing Lewiston.
"I made it up," she admits when asked about the origin of Snake Junction. "I think the original name for Lewiston and Clarkston was something like Mud Flats or Tent City. And the Nez Perce name was even worse, it was something like the City of Illness, or Valley of Illness. It's kind of an ongoing joke. Lewiston just didn't have the right feel for what I needed, and I came up with Snake Junction."
Inspired by memories of her two uncles singing "Goodnight, Irene," their voices blending in the kind of melancholy harmonies that a kid listening never forgets, Barnes has the Hope brothers becoming something of a musical sensation. Although they're fictional characters, their regular gig at the Stables, a popular Lewiston nightspot, is also based in regional history.
"It was going to be the Stables the whole time. So I can't imagine writing this book anywhere but where it is," she says. "I can't write away from rivers. So many of my metaphors and my symbols are connected to this landscape that I know, that is so deeply embedded in my bones. I'm interested in how people come to engage in the landscape that they do, what makes a person find home in Paris or Manhattan, or what makes them find home here. I've made the decision to stay in this landscape because it feels like an extension of who I am."