It sounds like a great promise: “Big Sky Country” is the German translation of the American Callan Wink’s debut novel and taps into longings – for thinginess, for space, for landscapes, for animals, mountains, rivers and lakes, for something beyond of your own four walls and possibly even an even deeper longing. “Big Sky Country” depicts the idea of getting through life with as few words as possible. Just do what you have to, work, feed the animals, bring in the hay before the next rain, put the fishing rod in the river and wait for a fish to bite. The real life.
It can also mean getting involved in a fight instead of fighting forever for one’s rank in the group. Then things are settled and there is time to hang out, smoke, drink, drive around. August, the young hero of the novel, doesn’t like to fight himself, and he eschews conflict at all, even if he has no problem killing cats, for example. His father offers him a dollar per tail to decimate a plague. The narrator explains to us that it is the case with most farm boys that they kill animals. That is, he doesn’t explain it, he just says it.
An enchanting equanimity hovers over this novel. The English original, published in 2020, is simply called “August” after its protagonist. Not only is this the eighth month of the year, it also means “respected, sublime, venerable, admirable”. This is how his mother-to-be explains to the father-to-be when they negotiate names during their pregnancy. The tension between the two is immediately there. And August stands in between from the beginning.
Wink dissipates conflicts like electrical tension into the landscape
His father Darwin is happy with his small farm in Michigan. He built a house for the family himself on the property of his in-laws who died early. He sold their vacation home on Torch Lake to invest in dairy cows. Bonnie lets him know that the fortune comes from her family. At some point she moves back into her parents’ empty house. There she sits at the kitchen table smoking and reading when August comes over for lunch. The father hires a young woman as a helper, just seven years older than August, who will soon be more than that.
The father files for divorce, mother and son clear the field: A departure for a new life, across the country, to Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city, where Bonnie studies library sciences, then to the small town of Livingston in the Rocky Mountains. Callan Wink stages the trip to Montana as a road novel, not just in a westerly direction, but into another “earth orbit”. Janis Joplin sings, August perceives the maternal euphoria just as he accepts everything – a sensitive observer of the life into which his parents drove him.
The way the writer, born in 1984, deals with its tensions is fantastic. He doesn’t make a drama out of it, he transforms them into topographies, lets them merge into the landscapes, as if one could simply divert conflicts such as electrical voltage. “Big Sky Country” is a coming-of-age novel about feelings, men and women, but above all about the relationship between things and words. Do experiences become more precious and deeper when we have the right vocabulary for them? Do we have to further differentiate our language in order to grasp more and more reality? Or is that exactly what breaks the substance?
Like pebbles that sink into water, Callan Wink throws down the striking events that often only become deep impressions in the course of the story. Just before August leaves with his mother, the dog he gave birth. Twelve is a good age, says the father. Only later does it dawn on him that he was probably not referring to the dog, but the right age to experience the loss of someone you love.
When August wanders around the new area with no friends and sees a group of young people jumping off a bridge into the river, the somersault of a girl in a yellow bathing suit digs into his memory. Was it June, the smartest girl in the class? At the farewell party for a friend who was killed during the military operation in Afghanistan, she is later the victim of gang rape. Nobody speaks out what happened. After all, one day August says to a friend: “I know what that was.”
The novel is set in the Bush era around 9/11, and that is a reminder that violence and conspiracy tales did not first come to the US with Trump. Militarization and de-industrialization are intertwined. The uncertainty of the male self-image can also be felt where grossly different is claimed. When the mother talks to a neighbor on the terrace in the evening, August overhears their conversations, not necessarily exciting for him and yet an intimate school of life that culminates in seduction.
Callas Wink leaves out only a few opportunities to make fun of Montana’s male cult as “Mantana”. Fathers in this novel often stand for an increase in idiotic masculinity: “Everyone has an asshole for a father,” it once said. In contrast to, for example, David Vann in his violence-permeated accounting novels, Callan Wink awakens empathy for fatherly speechlessness. When father and son talk on the phone, they talk about the weather – and yet talk about their problems in a taciturn manner.
The author Callan Wink works as a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River in Montana during the summer. In winter he surfs and writes in Santa Cruz, California. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and made his debut in 2016 with the volume of short stories “Dog Run Moon”, which Hannes Meyer translated as stylishly as the novel as “The Last Best Place”. “Big Sky Country”, the name for the southwestern Montana, shaped by abandoned gold rush cities, is a suggestive title for an immense debut novel. The search for a language for a nature that asserts its resistance potential – against industrial agriculture and the tourism of nature-blessed snobs.
His fellow writer William Finnegan called Callan Wink a “Hemingway for our time”. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not exactly the point. The climate in Wink’s prose is harsh, but not heroic. In his novel, one thinks more than once of the essay “Radical Hope” by the American philosopher Jonathan Lear, who, in the aftermath of 9/11, used the example of the indigenous population of the Great Plains to reflect on “ethics in the face of cultural destruction”. With the behavior of the Crow, Lear showed that a special form of adaptation can also be brave, and one thinks that this teaching can also be recognized in Callan Wink’s novel. August has no idea what he wants or not, but he knows that the old ideals of masculinity have become absurd.