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'Wyoming': An impressive debut from J.P. Gritton

J.P. Gritton is the author of

J.P. Gritton is the author of "Wyoming," his first novel. Credit: Katy Tartakoff

WYOMING by J.P. Gritton (Tin House, 246 pp., $15.95)

“I’ll tell you what happened and you can go ahead and decide.” That’s the first sentence of “Wyoming,” a first novel by J.P. Gritton. That sentence will appear again 220 pages later, in the closing pages of the book, because some big holes in the story are finally getting filled in around that time. So maybe now you can go ahead and decide.

Our narrator, Shelley Cooper, may or may not be as good a carpenter as he thinks he is, and he is definitely a failure in most other aspects of life, but one thing the man can do is tell a story. His looping narrative style, dropping big news in a single sentence, moving on, circling back, skipping away and returning later, seems as natural and conversational as can be. “But I am getting ahead of myself,” he’ll say, as if he’s innocently lost track. Nope. In this one area, Shelley knows exactly what he’s doing. 

For example, at one point our antihero, emphasis on the anti, opens a hotel room door to see “the devil himself standing there, smiling. ‘You got something to drink?’ he wanted to know.”

End of chapter. The next time we get back to that door, it’s a junkie prostitute named Candy coming in to personally escort Shelley to hell. What? Eventually it all gets cleared up. In due time.

Essentially, Shelley’s story revolves around a triangle of relationships between his older brother, Clayton; his “best friend backslash brother-in-law” Mike Corliss, and himself. Seeking a metaphor for the closeness between him and his brother, Shelley notes that “the snakes like to keep the rats nearby.”

The Cooper boys are not a particularly appealing pair. Shelley has a mean streak and is a stone-cold misogynist. He can tell just by looking, for example, that Clayton’s wife and two daughters, aged 10 and 12, are trash to the core. He really didn’t bother with his own wife much after their abbreviated courtship and nuptials, so she took their son and moved to Kansas City with the next-door neighbor. 

Clayton has already done five years in Huntsville for drug possession with intent to distribute, but he’s back in business. As the book opens, he does his out-of-work brother a favor by sending him to Texas with 25 pounds of weed; when he gets back with the cash, he’ll get a commission. The situation is tense but it goes pretty well for a while, then the devil shows up in that hotel room. 

The “best friend backslash brother-in-law” Mike Corliss, works construction with Shelley — when there’s work to be done, anyway. In the first scene, a wildfire shuts down their job site. “I guess I looked up to Mike,” Shelley explains in one of many paeans to the man. “He was a couple of years older and had what you might call a way about him.” Mike and Shelley’s sister, May, has a young daughter who is dying of cancer, and while Shelley knows this is very sad, empathy is not his long suit. When he learns they are managing her hospital bills with regular financial aid from Clayton, he is furious and resentful. Now why would that be?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I think “Wyoming” is about the dangerous predicament of being a deeply closeted gay man in love with his “best friend slash brother in law.” As much as Shelley worships Mike, he also needs to destroy him, which leads to crimes against both the real Corliss and a hapless walk-on character who looks like him. “When you name a thing, you’re just telling lies about it,” is the way Shelley sees it. In this case, naming the thing would kill him.

So, back to that echoed first sentence. What are we supposed to decide? If Shelley is a bad person or good person? That can’t be it: he’s definitely bad. If his bad actions are justified? That might have been the hope when this narrative began, but by now it’s nothing but an indictment, and he knows it. There’s only one question left. As he puts it, “I wondered was there any such thing as forgiveness.”

Seems like there just might be. 

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