KR Reviews

“Story Comes From Place”: On Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles

New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021. 208 pages. $25.95.

In a 2009 Paris Review interview, Annie Proulx asserted that “story comes from place,” a theorem that she proves many times over in her own fiction, whether it’s set amid the crumbling remnants of the once-thriving fishing industry in Newfoundland or the majestic and forbidding plains of rural Wyoming. “Place provides the architecture,” she goes on to say, the structures within which her characters do their living and dying. It’s striking that Proulx uses the word “place” rather than the more traditionally literary “setting.” Setting may be the more expansive term—it includes time as well as place—but it also carries passive connotations, implying the inertness of a theatrical set or a backdrop. Maybe place implies more potential for agency. Both noun and verb, place is also habitat—a locale full of living beings, human and otherwise, that act in dynamic tension with their environment and with each other, and in so doing, become the source of story.

Debut author Claire Boyles’s new collection Site Fidelity includes ten stories that come, deeply, from place. Boyles’s places strike me not so much as architectural—though they do serve structural purposes within the fictions—but as abundant natural resources that Boyles lovingly mines. Her settings exist as characters in their own right, carefully detailed, possessed of complex backstories, and imbued with definite, sometimes dangerous, agency. A new fracking site, for example, installed next to a Catholic school playground, emits toxic fumes that incite Sister Agnes Mary to commit risky acts of civil disobedience. A flock of threatened sage grouse who return annually to the sagebrush on a rural Colorado ranch prompt an ornithologist—a woman who grew up on the land, protecting the grouse—to sneak onto it to prevent the current rancher’s illicit midnight burn. Massive die-offs of endangered river trout caused by unregulated chemical spills from a construction site provoke Mano, a receptionist at the local water treatment plant, to create, in an all-night, alcohol-fueled rage, a riverside art installation made from animal carcasses, an act that stirs local tensions. In each case, the story’s events emerge directly from its highly animated setting. Place provides plot.

This equation holds true for most stories in Site Fidelity but not all. In some cases, place provides not plot but rich detail—raw material that Boyles uses to create her characters’ layered interior landscapes. In “Alto Cumulus Standing Lenticulars,” Ruth, a homesick young mother, pregnant with her fourth baby and married to an unreliable long-haul trucker, decides to take a job as the janitor at the nearby Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, which offers the sights of both a fossilized ichthyosaur, evidence of the now-desert’s former identity as ocean bottom, and the remnant structures of a defunct mining town to its visitors. Ruth wants to save up her own money so she can move back home to rural Colorado, where her sisters (Sister Agnes Mary and Mano) still live. Either that, or take nursing classes, another gesture at independence. Time and again, Ruth identifies with the desolate landscape, finding affinity with the fossilized ichthyosaur, for example, “sunk for all eternity into the sand, everything cool and familiar having evaporated, the world dried-up, unrecognizable, tarantulas migrating annually over its bones,” or resisting the seeming demand of the desert heat to “get inside her,” because “she [is] carrying enough already.” Meanwhile, the landscape has thoroughly penetrated Ruth’s oldest, eight-year-old Charley. He loves the migrating tarantulas so much that he allows them to crawl over his arms; he memorizes the names of the dramatic cloud formations that streak across the big rural Nevada sky, including the “alto cumulus standing lenticulars,” stacked, disc-like clouds that Charley thinks look like spaceships. In this story, as in others, setting’s raw material structures characterization.

If I were to get picky, I might argue that Boyles risks overdoing it at times. At least four major place-based image motifs figure into “Alto Cumulus Standing Lenticulars”—five, if you count the spaceships-and-aliens theme—while three might have been more than enough. Occasionally, the emphasis on detail drags the story’s pace, and sometimes, the dazzling settings don’t fully compensate for an unresolved ending. Why doesn’t the ornithologist bent on saving the Gunnison sage grouse turn in the transgressive rancher? (The existence of the rancher’s young daughter, revealed in the story’s final scene, strikes me as not enough of a reason to let him off the hook). Why doesn’t Ruth punish her husband for his unrelenting betrayals? What happens when Sister Agnes Mary stages her final dramatic protest against the fracking? Boyles seems to prefer the more naturalistic impression of an unresolved ending, but sometimes the avoidance of resolution can feel a little like a dodge. But that may be a novelist’s complaint, one that masks underlying praise: I wanted to stick with these vivid characters and settings all the way, to live through their problems until justice was done or comfort found. Several of the stories—more so as the collection proceeds—give us just that experience, landing at that elusive sweet spot where the story’s ending resounds with rightness.

And really, I don’t want to get picky. Because Site Fidelity bursts with pleasures—not just its lush attention to place but its frequent moments of humor (as in “Chickens,” when a man defending his illegal brood of hens gets attacked by his own rooster), as well as the delightful frissons of surprise that shiver off the pages each time we catch a reference to a previous story.

When, for example, we meet the adult Mano in “Early Warning Systems,” and recognize her to be the grown-up version of Ruth’s younger sister, a girl whose unusual name we learned in “Alto Cumulus Standing Lenticulars.” Or when, in the same story, we meet Ruth again, later in life—divorced by now, a full-time nurse, living back home in Colorado, her four kids raised. Or when, in perhaps my favorite story in the collection, “Lost Gun, $1000 Reward, No Questions Asked,” we meet cloud- and spider-loving Charley, all grown up, writing letters to his now-senile mother about his doomed effort to see his long-lost father Del one last time before he dies. Charley’s letters, which make up the whole of the story, are so poetic as to strain belief—“The wind blew dried leaves off the tree, opening pathways to the sun so that it flashed like shagbark paparazzi, the image of you impressed with light like a reverse X-ray, into and through me, seared onto my bones”—until, that is, we remember the kind of child Charley was, a boy transported into imaginative ecstasies by poisonous spiders, cloud formations, and obscure constellations. Then, the voice becomes exactly right, and the character blossoms into fullness.

Boyles teaches us the meaning of her collection’s title in the opening story, “Ledgers,” when we learn that the Gunnison sage grouses’ drive to return to the same mating ground is so powerful as to be self-destructive. Even after the solid ground of their lek gets inundated by a reservoir, the grouse still insist on returning to that very spot, only to find treacherous winter ice that prevents them from mating. Still, year after year, they return. “The entire family just died out,” Boyles writes, “pining for their land.” Site Fidelity pines for its lands, too, testifying to their beauty and power while alerting us to their fragility, reminding us of the importance of paying attention to place—not just to the rivers, ranches, mountains, deserts, and big skies that populate Boyles’ fiction but also the unique features of our own beloved places, whatever those might be.