Pam Houston is one of the authors invited to this year’s The Nature of Words. She writes fiction, although on her website she is quoted as saying that 82% of what she writes is true. That means that her stories are somewhat, but not quite, autobiographical. Cowboys are My Weakness, published in 1992, is filled with stories of tough women in relationships where communication just doesn’t quite happen.
Her stories are mostly set in the west, in places like Montana or Utah. My favorite story in this collection is called “Selway”. The narrator of the story and Jack, her boyfriend, set off to raft a river that is impossibly high with treacherous rapids. Houston does a remarkable job of portraying both the adventure junkie and the girl who won’t back down. “Jack was untamable, but he had some sense and a lot of respect for the river. He relied on me to speak with the voice of reason, to be life-protecting because I’m a woman and that’s how he thinks women are, but I’ve never been protective enough of anything, least of all myself.” This story reminds me of the adrenaline rush of rafting and leaves me wondering why, once I left college, I never went again.
In the title story the protagonist wants to find a cowboy of her own and ends up on a ranch in Montana. I thought the following was pretty interesting to think about: “The west isn’t a place that gives itself up easily. Newcomers have to sink into it slowly, to descend through its layers, and I’m still descending. Like most easterners, I started out in the transitional zones, the big cities and the ski towns that outsiders have set up for their own comfort, the places so often referred to as ‘the best of both worlds.’” Bend, the town Houston is coming to for the The Nature of Words, is a ski town, but has really only been transforming itself into a resort town for outsiders for the last 10 years. Or, at least that is my impression. I wonder where it falls on the scale of being western. It seems the west as an idea doesn’t really encompass the coastal areas where I grew up, but more the big sky open areas from the Cascades to slightly east of the Rockies.
Many of the stories in this collection have dogs or horses in them and her debut novel, and most recent work, is called Sighthound. I am interested to read her next set of short stories called Waltzing the Cat to find out if her heroines have learned how to communicate.