For her second novel, "The Weight of an Infinite Sky," Carrie La Seur tinkers with some elements of the mystery genre, inserting puzzle pieces along the way that keep the reader turning the pages until, at least in my case, a short stint in the reading chair turns into an unplanned, multi-hour affair just to see what happens next. The narrative, a subtle spin on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is an excellent follow-up to her 2014 debut, “The Home Place,” which features at its core the same troubled eastern Montana ranch family.
Anthony Fry’s father, Dean Fry, has died in a horseback riding accident while Anthony was away in New York City trying to make a career as a stage performer. The two men never saw eye to eye, and we learn right away that the son was slow in returning to the ranch that sprawls in the wide-open landscape within the geographical and cultural orbit of Billings. The ranch’s existence is now threatened in the wake of the patriarch’s death, as mining interests are after a lease on the land. Fry’s mother, Sarah, has been going it alone, but has enlisted the aid of Anthony’s uncle, Neal. Neal Fry was Dean Fry’s younger brother, and he comes across as sullen, angry, and resentful toward his nephew.
The mystery here is that Anthony bears suspicion that Neal Fry had a hand in the death of his father in a ploy to get rich selling out to the mining company. Also, hints arise that maybe the mining company has connections to illegal interests in the wider world. How Anthony juggles these suspicions and his troubled family ties is the crux of this story.
La Seur handles it all with a deft touch, avoiding the tropes of more typical Western fiction taking place “under a big sky.” There aren’t pages and pages of romantic descriptions of the land, or over-romanticization of the hardscrabble people who occupy it. The unrelenting landscape is part of her story, certainly, as are the real world tribulations of generational ranching families in the 21st century. La Seur shows us the land is what it is, that life is hard without beating that truth into us. People just do their best to endure.
A word of caution to the particular reader who insists their main characters be likable: Anthony Fry is not. He is self-centered and treats everyone around him poorly. He is emotionally abusive to his mother, and to a young woman who clearly cares for him; he rebuffs her attempts at kindness at all times except for when he has sex with her. Instead he pines for the ex-wife of his cousin — who is also his best friend — and is cowardly in facing up to it when he learns the cousin knows about the affair Anthony had with the woman while they were still married. He seems to go out of his way to prick at the nerves of the people closest to him. For example, when invited to a family get-together at the ranch, he agrees to attend, but chooses to wear silly dollar store flip-flops, “the most inappropriate footwear he could come up with for a visit to the ranch.” Fry comes off less as someone bucking conventions, and more just as a childish jerk.
I won’t belabor the details of Anthony’s struggles that make him someone I wouldn’t care to have any kind of close relationship with. All of these issues are part of the arc of the family story that links "Infinite Sky" with “The Home Place.” It’s a kind of coming of age story — though at 27 I would argue Anthony should have arrived years ago — in a part of the world on the lip of tumbling over into the churning hopper of the age of extraction.
Will the Frys lose their ranch? Will Anthony make peace with his relatives and relationships, not to mention his place in the world? Will he learn the truth of his father’s death? These are all questions worth reading La Seur’s new novel to have answered.