I heard JP Gritton read at the North Carolina Book Festival this past February, and his debut novel Wyoming was one of the three books I picked up there as exceptions to my no book buying this year policy. A friend of mine, one of the organizers of the festival, recommended this and The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina as the books represented there that would most likely fit my tastes. He was right on both counts.
Wyoming sits comfortably on the same shelf as Winter’s Bone, No Country For Old Men or Tishomingo Blues. I love rural noir, and this is an admirable entry in that genre. Like the first two of those, it would make for an excellent movie in the right hands. Shelley Cooper is a protagonist with a deep seated anger and a propensity to make the worst possible decision every time he gets a chance. His resentment of his brother, his best friend, his ex-wife and others appears boundless. The cruel world of bone deep poverty in which he lives explains a lot of this, and explains why when asked by his brother to deliver pot grown in Colorado to Texas (the state of the title is metaphor not setting) he has to take the chance. Predictably, given the genre, the poverty and Cooper’s sheer cussedness, things go awry after the dropoff.
*Spoiler in this paragraph*
The narrative alternates between the delivery/its aftermath and the story of Cooper’s past. As in most rural noir, the world is a cruel, unrelenting place and Cooper’s mindset fits this world perfectly. What keeps this from being performative nihilism is that the reader gradually realizes that Cooper is a closeted gay man and dealing with the dual pressures of that and poverty have driven him to a very dark place. I probably should have picked up on this earlier in the book, but I twigged to it about halfway through. How this would play to a gay reader, I can’t say, but it worked for me.
This is an excellent debut novel. On the basis of it and the essay that Gritton read at the Book Festival, I am looking forward to more of his work.
Book Festival Exceptions and Everything Else 2020 44/35