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Breaking Clean
Judith Blunt
Alfred A. Knopf
344 pp.


The idea of a wide-open West of rawhide cowboys and windswept lands stretching beyond the horizon is a romance held dear by Americans, urban and rural alike, because it preserves for us our treasured national myth of an endless frontier, that place of hard work and sacrifice and rugged self-reliance that proves us a tough, determined people.

So suggests Judy Blunt in her new and widely-praised memoir Breaking Clean; in fact, it may be that very myth that has helped generate so much interest in this quietly powerful story of Blunt's childhood and early married years as the third generation of ranchers clinging to the harshly beautiful and unforgiving landscape of northern Montana.

From the first chapter, we know where the story will take us. "I rarely go back to the ranch where I was born or to the neighboring land where I bore the fourth generation of a ranching family," Blunt writes in her opening sentence. In the following paragraphs she outlines the framework of the pages to come: this Montana ranch life is one where laboring to bone-weary exhaustion is valued highest; where there is deep pride in granting no measure to pain or weakness; where a girl of fifteen can be promised to a man nearly twice her wage over a bottle of whiskey and a handshake; where that girl, grown a woman with children of her own, can come to realize that "it wasn't enough," saying "my faith in martyrdom as a way of life dwindled"; where that woman can one day gather the courage to walk away to a difficult but necessary freedom.

"Get tough," Blunt's father exhorts her in the second paragraph, and this, more than anything, is the heart of life for the sparse community of families that populate Blunt's childhood world. She faints in the garden and is simultaneously praised as a "tough little worker," and chastised for forgetting to wear a hat. Her brother spits out the chips of shattered teeth and wades back in to rope calves. A grandmother loses three fingers to the blade of a mower, "and finished the job before she came in to get help." Thrown from a horse and kicked by a cow in the stomach when pregnant, Blunt finds herself as a mother struggling to comfort her own children in their scrapes and bruises, biting back the "Oh for Christ's sake, you aren't hurt," of her mother and grandmother before her.

In a spare and unflinching prose, Blunt's memoir deftly explores the strange appeal of this ideology of suffering that she can respect even while demonstrating that it's an idea easier to love in the abstract than to live from day to day. In one harrowing sequence, she writes of the true cost of living far from the comforts of civilization. It's 1977, and elsewhere in America people are dancing to disco, and Star Wars is about to wow moviegoers. In Montana, with their young daughter writhing and convulsing with an impossibly high fever, Blunt and her husband climb into the truck on a rainy night to face what might prove an impossible journey over mud-clogged roadways to the hospital. The child stops breathing as the trip begins, and though her breath at last returns in ragged gasps, the parents must endure more than two hours of uncertainty, fighting and clawing their way mile by mile to help.

There are times when Blunt's book calls to mind the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder; what's engrossing about Breaking Clean is that the 19th-century discomforts and life-and-death dramas of howling winter blizzards, scorching summer prairie fires, one-room schoolhouses and homes without running water or electricity unfold against the distant backdrop of a prosperous Baby Boomer America of color TVs, rocket ships, and Elvis. Where the modern world seems finally to intrude on the story is in the slow dawning of realization, for Blunt, that for the women the Western myth of fierce self-reliance masked a kind of indentured servitude.

"As a young ranch wife, I wed my sixties-style feminism to a system of conflicting expectations and beliefs only slightly altered by a century of mute nobility," Blunt writes. "My brand of feminism celebrated strength through silence. A woman could do anything, so long as she did it quickly, quietly and efficiently. It never occurred to me then that silence looked passive from the outside, or that the two served the same purpose of not making waves, maintaining the status quo."

It was the women, Blunt writes, who rose first to feed husbands and fathers and ranch hands, who labored from before dawn to well after dark in the garden and the calving shed, over the stove and the canning jars and down in the root cellar, who cleaned away dinner plates and set the next morning's bread to rise after the men had stumbled to bed, who managed it all with closely-spaced children underfoot, only to see the land of their fathers passed only to their brothers, and the land of their husbands given only to their sons. Blunt recalls a family meeting where the point was made clear by her father, "We girls would be left something of value, but we should know at the outset that we would never inherit the land."

With an emptiness unfilled by the unrelenting hours and endlessly repeating cycles of work, Blunt turned at last to writing, until one day her father-in-law, angry that lunch was late for the men, smashed her typewriter with a sledgehammer. Whether this was the proverbial final straw is uncertain; Blunt's departure, when "as the ultimate betrayal," she takes her husband's sons, and her daughter, and moves to Missoula, is included, literally, as an afterword. The precise details of that leave-taking are left mostly unsaid, but the book's ending makes clear Blunt's bittersweet recognition that the ranch lands of her childhood are a place where she could never really belong but can never truly leave behind.

--Caroline Kettlwell

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You Got Nothing Coming
Jimmy A. Lerner
Broadway Books
399 pp.


In 1998, Jimmy Lerner, a forty-seven-year-old former marketing executive with Pacific Bell, pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and began a two-to-twelve-year sentence in the Nevada state prison system. He did not fit the standard inmate description, of course, but as Lerner writes in his shockingly funny and compelling memoir, You Got Nothing Coming, he fared better than many readers might expect.

From Suicide Watch Cell No.3 (the standard first stop for newly arrested capital crime suspects), Lerner entered the state prison system as a "fish" in the "Fish Tank" (prison slang for the cell block where new arrivals are kept) and found himself, improbably, being taken under the protective wing of a giant, heavily muscled neo-Nazi nicknamed Kansas. (Lerner wisely kept his Jewish heritage to himself.) It was a friendship that Lerner desperately needed: even if he was too old to attract sexual predators, he could still get himself into deadly trouble simply by looking at someone too closely while walking in the Yard.

Usually, we let fiction and film show us prison life, with widely varying results. Lerner's account is memorable partly because he is such an articulate and keen observer--a rarity in most prisons, I'd expect. Lerner's dialogue, which captures the prison slang he learned to mimic in order to survive, is pitch-perfect, and his ability to keep his story flowing should rightly be envied by writers who have been working at their trade for years. But a lot of You Got Nothing Coming's unique appeal comes from the fact that Lerner carries so much of his corporate experiences into his prison observations. To say that he was a jaded, cynical executive with authority issues would be an understatement. As far as I can tell, the considerable expense Pacific Bell incurred to make Lerner a kinder, gentler company man simply helped prepare him to point out how many common traits prison life shares with the corporate world. (Remarkably, given Lerner's supremely ironic writing voice, he actually wrote the book while still incarcerated; he was paroled in January 2002, shortly before the book appeared in print.)

As fascinating as Lerner's insider portrayal of prison life is, the question that looms over the book is what, precisely, did he do that brought him face-to-face with a Murder One charge and a possible death sentence? While he teases the reader along with references to his victim, whom he calls the Monster, Lerner cunningly lets the question hang for the first two-thirds of the book, and only in the final pages does he describe the actual killing itself. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lerner presents his actions as self-defense, and cynical readers might find his version too easy and one-sided (after all, he's the only one telling the story). More sympathetic readers will probably conclude that, given a series of unfortunate events (like witnesses hearing Lerner tell the Monster he wanted to kill him, hours before he did just that), Lerner's pleading guilty to an act he didn't consider a crime was probably the best move he could make, all things considered.

However readers may fall on the larger justice issues, You Got Nothing Coming is undeniably a stellar look at life behind bars, and its irony-infused realism should earn it a place beside other classics of the genre.

--Woody Arbunkle

Table of Contents

David Mitchell
Random House
400 pp.



Number9Dream, David Mitchell's ambitious second novel, opens with a promising show of creative muscle. Eiji Miyake, a nineteen-year-old boy from a remote Japanese island, has traveled to Tokyo to confront a high-priced lawyer about his father's real identity. He's not naturally aggressive, though, and as he sits in a café across from the lawyer's office, stoking his courage, we glide effortlessly into a series of sci-fi-tinged fantasies in which Eiji accomplishes his goal with agile aplomb. In one, he manages to con his way into the lawyer's office, only to find she's smarter than he expected and has duped him, at least momentarily, with a double:


I glance at my gun, still on the floor halfway between us, letting my eyes linger a moment too long. She may be a professional blackmailer but she is an amateur hit man--she falls for my ploy and lunges at the gun. Her eyes are away from me for only a moment but that is all I need to aim the carrier case in my arms at her and flip open the switchclips without entering the disabling code. The lid-mounted incandescent booby trap explodes in her face. She screams, I roll-dive, her Zuvre fires, glass cracks. I spin, leap, boot her face, wrench her gun from her grip--it fires again. Her fingernails drill into my wrist, I elbow her face, her heel crunches my nose, the Zuvre flies from my hand, but finally I score a full-force blow to her head and follow up with a crushing uppercut. The real Akiko Kato lies motionless on her bioborg twin. I didn't think I killed her. Okinawan silverspines thrash on the soaked carpet. Crunching glass, I retrieve the Zuvre--a much more potent gun than my own--and the sealed file of my father, which I stuff into my overalls. I close the door on the stain already spreading over the carpet. I stroll back toward the corridor, whistling "Imagine." That was the easy part. Now I have to get out of PanOptican, and not by means of a body bag.


Not surprisingly, the real Eiji doesn't actually get his father's secret file that afternoon, and his superhero fantasies--which he controls--are soon replaced by Kafkaesque nightmares that refuse to obey his wishes. Many of the scenes are memorably surreal--like the one in which Eiji is forced to bowl with a gangster boss (instead of bowling pins, their targets are the heads of the boss's still-living enemies). As unsettling and captivating as the individual nightmares and visions are, though, the novel fails to establish an equally strong reality in which the story can take root. And as appealing as Eiji and his surprisingly concrete, gentle backstory may be (his twin sister's death by drowning at the age of eleven causes him unrelieved guilt, and she still preoccupies his idle moments), the text swings from one simulated world to the next with a numbing momentum.

As he has demonstrated both here and in his first novel, Ghostwritten, Mitchell's creative range and vision are breathtaking, and his willingness to take artistic risks that challenge both him and his readers is admirable. But Number9Dream is best enjoyed by readers who don't require their books to be dissected into easily understood, coherent chunks.

--Morris Leech

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Scorched Earth
David L. Robbins
368 pp.
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Scorched Earth is the fourth book by David L. Robbins, and it seems to have more in common with his first book, Souls To Keep, than with his more recent work--at least on the surface. It tells the story of a sleepy Virginia town that starts out as a bucolic, blue-collar kind of place but through a series of events turns into a smoldering pile, waiting for the right winds to turn it into an all-consuming blaze of hate.

When an interracial couple loses a child moments after birth, everyone is saddened by the tragedy...but not enough to let the mixed-race child stay buried in the all-white Baptist Church graveyard. After the child has been exhumed and moved, someone dumps kerosene on the church and sets fire to it. The next morning, a body is discovered in the ashes, and a case of arson turns into the possibility of murder committed during a felony--a capitol crime.

Robbins's white knight is a lawyer who had left town in order to begin a new life, but finds himself pulled back into the grimy pork-barrel politics he had tried to leave behind. This is the battle that has become a Robbins trademark--the regular Joe who heroically rises to meet all challenges. Instead of playing it out on the grand scale of a world war (War of the Rats, The End of War), Robbins brings this taut, emotional chess game closer to home.

While Robbins has always been an excellent storyteller, Scorched Earth contains some of his finest imagery and prose. His tight, Hemingwayesque prose has been given more poetic twists and seasonings, and the result is a satisfying blend of language. Imagine if John Steinbeck had written To Kill A Mockingbird and you'll begin to get the idea. Robbins also scores big with some of his supporting cast, especially a flawed clergyman who tries to get his congregation and himself to do the right thing.

Scorched Earth is another fine chapter by an author worth watching.

--John Porter

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