Life altering lines
Mark Spragg releases brilliant 'Bone Fire'

by Joe Foster

Bone Fire by Mark Spragg. Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. 304 pages. March 2009

Mark Spragg has a beautiful new novel called Bone Fire. Spragg stands high in the modern Western lexicon with the likes of Annie Proulx, Kent Haurf and Wallace Stegner. This newer Western isn’t about horses and cowboys, although they sometimes play a part, but both about the West as an idea and about Westerners as people. Small town Colorado, remote Wyoming highways, redrock desert cactus blooms, wild rivers and huge skies, the land here molds the people who inhabit it into something you won’t find elsewhere. The very sights that greet us every day forge our souls into different shapes than if we spent our days gazing at concrete and glass. This the lexicon upon which Spragg stands as an accomplished and brilliant craftsman.

About 9 years ago I was living just north of Denver in the suffocating sprawl of suburbia, working a soul-crushing sales job and watching a bad relationship dwindle quietly into nothing. My days off from work were spent alone either sitting through matinee showings of bad movies or scouring random bookstores for something, anything, to rattle my brain. Every morning I drove to work headed west toward the mountains, a particularly cruel torture since there was nowhere on Earth I wanted to be more than up there. The stifling heat of the concrete oven where I was stuck felt like hell, but the mountains, up there, had different weather, different clouds, and embodied everything that was missing from my life. It was during this time that I was wasting some hours in a little used bookshop, escaping from life and the heat of early summer, when I found the book that changed the course of my life.

I’m not sure that everyone has one of these books, the one that came along at that perfect moment to shift things just enough that you become someone else. I would hope so, but that’s because of what I do. Anyway, nestled deep among the shelves of this store I found a book with the intriguing title, Where Rivers Change Direction, by a guy named Mark Spragg. It’s mostly about his childhood growing up on a dude ranch in the Tetons. It’s about Spragg’s parents, who forced literature and philosophy down his throat, and it’s about the mountains. It was enough to alter things. I left the burbs a few months later and came to Durango and grew a beard. The coolest part is that I got to have dinner with Mark this last September with some other book people, and so got the opportunity to tell him that he made me a hairier man. Dreams do come true.

Where Rivers Change Direction was Spragg’s first book and he’s followed up with three others: Fruit of Stone, An Unfinished Life (remember the movie with Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman?), and his newest, Bone Fire. Spragg has the ability to write sentences that will awe you and alter the way you look at things. He has slowly become a writer that other writers seek to emulate, his eye for beauty and grandeur, and his attention to those little things we all do without thinking of it elevate his stories to the sublime.

Bone Fire tells of an old man getting ready for the end of his life, and the talented young woman artist who has spent her life helping him with the land and the ranch they both call home. A sheriff tries to come to terms with the growing violence in his remote corner of the country while Parkinson’s and a failing marriage work to corrode his grip on life. A young boy earnestly tries to discover what it means to be a man, while his father, now divorced, watches his ex-wife remarry and live happier than she could have with him. These are people that we know, these people may even be us flayed open for the world to see.

Spragg’s true genius shows itself in the way he crafts his sentences; spare, beautiful, perfect at times. There exists a genius behind Spragg, though, in the form of his editor, the famous Gary Fisketjon. Fisketjon has worked with some of the greatest names in literature, including Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf, Thomas McGuane, Annie Dillard, Richard Russo, Raymond Carver, and so many others. His projects have won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, The Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and more. I don’t think enough time and space is devoted to the craft of a skilled editor, but that’s a conversation for another time. Suffice it to say that one of the greatest editors in the world loves working with Mark Spragg. His books are beautiful, and at least one of them changed at least one person’s life for the better. I can’t recommend this writer and his latest book, Bone Fire highly enough. •



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