November 18, 2018: “The Dancing Bear” by Maxim Loskutoff

Happy Friday, Story366! Glad to be posting today, this last day of November. I’m also more than happy to put off some end-of-the-semester grading, shopping, and light-hanging. If that’s the case, you might see twenty-five or so more entries between now and Christmas. We’ll see.

Today’s entry is a bit delayed, as in I’d read a few stories from the middle of Maxim Loskutoff‘s debut collection, Come West and See (out this year from Norton), some time back in early August. I was all set to write up a post, but just didn’t. I was in Chicago with my boys, staying with my mom, and had just worked my last extended homestand at Wrigley Field of the season. I don’t remember the details exactly anymore, but several things went wrong, the most memorable of which was my car dying in my mom’s driveway. I’d loaded it up, had my kids ready to go, but when I turned the key, it stalled. Or, it never even whimpered. I had just driven it not an hour before, too. What was up? My brother tried to jump me, but that didn’t work, so I called AAA—I actually had to reup with them right there and then—and the guy came out, jumped me, said I was good. To be safe, I left my car running for a half an hour to charge the battery, then ran for gas for the trip. After gassing up, I tried to start my car and again, nothing. Zilch. I was stuck at the pump. I called AAA again—they were confused: had the first guy not come?—and as I waited, some dude in an awesomely orange Dodge Charger jumped me instead. That worked. I went back to my mom’s, got my boys, and headed out on the road toward Missouri.

I pretty much needed a new battery, but there was also a chance I needed an alternator or even a starter. I really didn’t have the time to wait around—I forget what was going on the next day, but I had to be back in Missouri—and since this was all happening on a Sunday, there were no garages open to get me a new starter or alternator. So, that day, I drove all the way back to Missouri … without turning off my car. Really, this wasn’t that tough, as I don’t stop much, anyway. Two tricks, though: 1) I’d need to stop once for gas, and 2) my kids would have to go to the bathroom.

What I ended up doing was stopping somewhere on the far side of St. Louis, chanting to myself as I pulled into a station: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, as I’m the type of guy who can drive six hours, use up a whole tank of gas, thinking the whole time how I don’t want my car to stall on the way and have to call AAA for a third time in one day, but then absentmindedly turn off the car as soon as I was in park. My boys were chanting with me: Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car. Don’t turn off the car …, and thank God, it worked. We got gas—it’s only mildly dangerous to pump with your car running, right?—then pulled up to the side door of a Lion’s Choice—there’s never anyone at those—and all ran in to pee, leaving the car running outside. We were out in about forty seconds and back at it, on the way home.

By the time I pulled to a spot in front of my house, we’d been driving almost nine hours, the car running the whole time. I turned the car off, took a deep breath, and tried to start it again: Nothing. This car was not going to run again without a charge, without maintenance. The next morning, my kids wherever they had to be, I called AAA, the guy came out, told me he was sure it was the battery and not the starter or the alternator, and jumped me so I could drive to the battery store. At the battery store, I explained what was going on, that I couldn’t shut off my car, and the techs let me pull right into a bay. The fixed me up with a reasonable battery and my car was good.

Sometime between then and now, I had in my mind that I’d be relaying this story in a post on Loskutoff, probably within a day or two. Then I couldn’t find the book. Then I couldn’t remember the stories as well and knew I’d have to reread. Then I got other books. Then I found the book but didn’t have time for a post. Then I lost it again. Then, we cleaned for Thanksgiving, I found the book under the couch, and here I am, nine days later, finally sharing my stupidity with all of you.

I decided to read different stories from Come West and See this time around, just so I could get further into the book, and I’m glad I did. Back in August, I’d scrounged through the middle, picked a story here or there, but today, I read the first three selections and am glad I did. I remember liking what I’d read before, but today, I feel like I understand Loskutoff and his project a lot better than I did over the summer. The book’s front inside jacket talks about it being a collection of linked stories, and for one, when I’d read back in August, I saw no evidence of that and wouldn’t have mentioned it (which mighta made me look kinda dumb). Today, that project is much clearer, so I at least want to mention it. A lot of (but not all) the stories in the book deal with this event, surrounding the Redoubt, an isolated piece of land in Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. The Redoubt has been proposed as an animal sanctuary of sorts, but also as a safe haven for right-leaning libertarians. From what I can tell, it’s a movement created by folks who want to live out in this beautiful, isolated region and just be left alone, free from government intervention. Mostly, at least. Of course, the government can’t just give up a huge chunk of its property to groups who want it, no matter what their cause, so the people who want this end up clashing with the government. It gets to the point where the Redoubters are viewed as a militia, doing illegal things, though their supporters look at them as patriots and heroes. Isn’t that how this goes, the different between patriot and traitor just a matter of perspective?

So this is the backdrop of Loskutoff’s book, but again, not every story deals directly with the Redoubt. In fact, this morning, I only came across this theme in the third story, “Daddy Swore an Oath,” about a woman whose husband is stuck in the middle of a standoff, leaving her alone to raise their two young boys as reporters circle their house. The second story, “End Times,” is about a couple driving a wounded coyote—whom they’ve semi-adopted—to a no-questions-asked vet, hoping to save its life, as well as their relationship. Today I’m going to write about the lead story, however, “The Dancing Bear,” which serves as a prologue to the whole venture. “The Dancing Bear” is placed by itself at the start of book, under the heading “Montana Territory, 1893,” and after that story, we get another heading, “Come West and See,” which is the rest of the book. So, prologue.

In any case, “The Dancing Bear” is about this guy named Bill who, as advertised, lives twenty-two miles outside of Missoula in the Montana Territory, in 1893. He’s a successful trapper, able to live off the land in his little cabin, eating venison and wrapping himself in warm skins. Missoula is a day’s walk away, but he often goes months without sojourning into town. He’s got everything he needs at his cabin.

Almost. Bill seems kind of lonely. Or, really, really, really lonely. So much so, the eight-foot female grizzly bear who’s eating from the apple tree outside his cabin gets him thinking. At first, Bill’s just appreciative of this majestic creature, the way it stands on its hind legs and reaches apples on the highest branches, moving about like the dancing bear he saw in a Ringling Bros. sideshow years before. It’s so graceful and elegant, he doesn’t even shoot it, despite how much a full grizzly pelt would fetch him on the fur market. By the end of the bear’s first visit, however, appreciation turns to arousal, as Bill, standing naked in his door way (because of course he’s naked), finds himself aroused. After a bit of self-searching, Bill pleasures himself, watching the bear gorge herself on apples. When she leaves, he thinks about her the rest of the day. The bear returns several mornings, all of which become Bill’s time for good old self-abuse, standing at his threshold, both bear and man tending to their basic needs.

Because this is a bear, the grizzly eventually has enough to eat and disappears for hibernation. This leaves Bill heartbroken and again alone, so he tries to substitute piles of furs for his slumbering, absent lady. When this doesn’t work, Bill journeys into Missoula, looking to find some female company. As it turns out, Bill used to frequent a brothel run by a woman named Bad Lucy, but stopped going when he proposed to his favorite girl, asked her to come live with him in his cabin, and she politely declined. Rejection made Bill isolate himself at his cabin, never returning until his bear mistress left him for the winter. Bill picks out a new lover-for-hire, but quickly shuns her when he discovers she is not as hirsute as he’s grown accustomed to—who would be?—and he again leaves, swearing never to come back.

Bill sweats out the winter, as we’re jumped ahead to March, when Bill’s lady love returns. This time, she’s not alone: She has a cub. Like any dude interested in a single mom, the kid poses certain challenges.

I won’t go into those challenges here, as really, I’ve done enough summarizing of this piece, one I enjoyed reading a whole lot. Aside from the general fun of reading a story about a lonely guy getting all horny over a bear, I see how this story sets up Luskutoff’s themes, what he’s going for throughout Come West and See. Man’s relationship with nature and its animals is tenuous, sometimes love-hate, just like Bill’s relationship with this mama grizzly. Sometimes, people do things to help animals, like not shoot them when they’re feasting on your apple tree. Other times, we do stupid shit like put deer jerky in the tree so the bear will come back, even when all the apples are gone (“Don’t Feed the Bears!”). We can appreciate animals, share their environment, be part of their ecosystem, but it’s a thin line between this cohabitation on taking things too far. Maybe we eat the animals and use their furs to keep us from freezing, and that’s one thing; after all, animals eat each other in the wild all the time. But when we fuck with their eating and hunting habits so we can get a nut off? We’re doing more harm than good—and I haven’t even revealed the end of the story.

This theme grows exponentially with the Redoubt conflict, the idea of leaving something alone that’s better off left alone … though with an agenda. At least from what I can tell without reading too many books on the subject. Maxim Loskutoff captures a part of that in his stories—”End Times” utilizes it just as well—but also manages to write extremely entertaining and engaging fiction, set in gorgeously rendered landscapes, taking his readers on journeys that we probably haven’t been on before. You can tell I like this book from how many adverbs I’m throwing out there. I just saw this book on a bunch of year-end lists, including NPR’s huge array. It’s good stuff. You should check it out, one of my favorites from 2018.