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Writin’ like a Buddha: Lesson 251. The Bodhisattva’s Path: An appreciation of Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory

by Jim Ringel

Gary Schanbacher's novel just came out from Pegasus.

Gary Schanbacher’s novel just came out from Pegasus.

You can like almost anything, but when push comes to shove you usually got to choose.

Like Westerns. There’s those big mythic Westerns with gunfights and outlaws and strong ego lawmen. One guy’s good, one guy’s bad, that kind of Western. And then there’s the nouveau Western, which tells the story of small men struggling in large landscapes.

I’ve always preferred the nouveau. They’re more human, less predictable, more timeless, more Buddha, and more shaded with spiritual ambiguity. The mythic Western’s bombast can jolt you for a moment or two and maybe get you cheering for good to triumph over evil, but the nouveau Western haunts you for days and days, sticking with you like something finished but not quite done. Nouveau Westerns place us less in ourselves and more in the world. They’re not so smug. They spin their characters’ flaws and failures into the stuff of quiet redemption. Or maybe just a brief brush up against redemption. When we read the nouveaus, they help us feel fragile.

Gary Schanbacher’s written that kind of Western.  His first novel Crossing Purgatory tells the story of Thompson Grey, an impoverished Indiana farmer obsessed with the death of his wife and children and his failure to provide. There’s no bigger poverty than our failure toward loved ones. Suffering the guilt of losing his family, Thompson begins walking west into America.  If he’s searching for something, he’s not sure what. Should he find it, he may not even know.  He is uprooted, displaced, and uncomfortable in his thoughts and memories.

Crossing Purgatory is not a big novel.  It is quieter than that. Schanbacher’s sparse prose is his book’s first allure. Nothing is told in judgment.  Everything is told simply at plain face value. Thompson is a man in shock, and we the reader feel it.  We remain vigilantly sympathetic to his quiet observations, always a bit hopeful that the changing environment will coax some peace out of him. By the book’s end it has. Although it’s a quite peace at best, and one we know Thompson will have to keep pursuing long after we’ve finished our read and put the book back on its shelf.

That is the second allure of Crossing Purgatory.  In Thompson’s quiet observation we see and feel so much – about the time in which the book is set, about the environment and how it can simultaneously save and crush a man, and about the other characters, whose stories provide the main dramatic thrust through which Thompson’s journey plays out.

It may not be a big novel, but Crossing Purgatory is epic. Epic in how it interweaves so many disparate lives into the fabric of Thompson’s soul searching. He finds work with a wagon train heading for western Colorado.  On the journey he takes up with a family of travelers, for whom he feels responsible and from whom he remains aloof.  Is that the guilt he feels over losing his own family, or the very behavior that caused him to lose them?  Is Thompson moving toward redemption or deeper into his own hell?  Throughout the book the question persists.

Arriving in Colorado Thompson absorbs into an even larger family –different bloodlines bonding into a new frontier community.  While Schanbacher keeps Thompson the main actor, it’s the others who lives and challenges appear more dramatic. Like the landscape, Thompson is a canvas on which the novel unfolds. In his quiet way, he is our narrator and our hope for the society growing around him.

Which is the third allure of Crossing Purgatory – how the story is the story of the land, with its large sweeping ebb and flow of challenges and fulfillment, and how its stubborn persistence allows its majesty to quietly prevail.

In the nouveau Western the challenge is never complete. There’s no one big gun battle of hard won success. Success is something that plays out over time. That’s how Crossing Purgatory is. It stays with us on our path, as our path leads us toward wherever we may be going.

(cross-posted August 16, 2013 on jimringel.blogspot.com)

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