ONE OF the most interesting developments in American fiction over the last several decades has been the emergence of a new kind of coastal Western in which no dogies are punched, nary a sidewinder slaps leather, and discouraging words are heard.
This boisterous, regionally flavored literature includes Don Berry's Trask, Ivan Doig's The Sea Runners, Annie Dillard's The Living (just out), and now Ghost Woman by Lawrence Thornton, whose Imagining Argentina won the 1987 PEN/Hemingway Award.
None is more ambitious than Ghost Woman. Thornton has set himself a massive, multi-dimensional task spanning generations and cultures. Part historical fiction, part pagan invocation, Ghost Woman paints a picture powerful enough to freeze a look of terror on the face of the Catholic priest, Fra Santos, who starts the saga so hopefully.
Ghost Woman is based on an old legend involving an Indian woman from the island of San Nicholas off the California coast between what is now Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. When Spanish authorities forced the woman's tribe to leave the island during the 19th century, she jumped off the boat into the sea. Swimming ashore, she lived on the desolate island for years until Fra Santos organized an expedition to bring her to the Mission at Santa Barbara, and Christianity. The woman was presented to the archbishop as an example of Church's compassion and concern for each solitary soul.
Before long, though, she was raped and impregnated by the Yankee captain whose boat brought her off the island. The woman, called Soledad, hanged herself after the child of this union was taken from her, but that's really just the beginning of the story. The crime of possession -- at once literal, symbolic, sexual and otherworldly -- continues to mark the lives of the people who knew the Ghost Woman. The rape of Soledad's daughter by the same Yankee who raped her seems as inevitable as the torture her half-brother devises for their mutual father, to be left alone on the barren island where he found Soledad 20 years before while the town fool maunders darkly about the Ghost Woman's hand.
There are moments when the imagery and conception of Ghost Woman are so striking that the prose becomes incandescent, as when the Ghost Woman's daughter encounters a tree aflame with butterflies. "In that instant the tree exploded into movement and the colony rose en masse so that the sky above the grove was filled with the rich orange of their wings. In their flight Constancia thought she saw the contours of the spirit ships that sailed on the granite ceiling of the painted cave. Then, in a movement so fast that the eye had no time to follow it, they changed into the shape of a woman's face with trailing hair. She stared, amazed, as the colony rose and the face was scattered in a thousand directions."
TOO OFTEN, however, Ghost Woman feels like a forced march. Thornton gives the impression he has a lot of ground to cover, and time's awasting. The plot seems to arise from the needs of the author's scheme as much as from the living, breathing needs of the characters. Much of the prose sounds hurried, too. Thornton is a gifted writer. with a marvelously supple voice, but in Ghost Woman he serves up acres of flat narrative prose and unconvincing plot devices.
The main problem with Ghost Woman, though, is the book's failure to develop Soledad. Unaccountably, she never emerges forcefully as an individual, leaving the book with a hole at the center. Still, I admire Lawrence Thornton for Ghost Woman. He has attempted a bold stroke, prodigal and vast, seeking magic in hard-eyed realism.
If he had failed to produce a novel as satisfying as Trask, it can fairly be said he has helped explore the true heart of the West.
"The New Literature of the West" originally appeared in the June 17, 1992 Washington Post Book World.