Most of the writers whose books I take on for the first time I’ve carefully vetted through people whose opinions I respect, whether word-of-mouth from friends and writers or via trusted reviewers. So while maybe I haven’t read them before, their names at least ring familiar.
Matt Pavelich is a writer – originally from St. Ignatius, who now resides in Hot Springs – I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of. His 1990 debut, a collection of stories titled “Beasts of the Forests, Beasts of the Field: Stories,” won him the Montana Arts Council First Book Award for that year.
Since then, he has published two novels. “Our Savage” came out in 2004, followed by “The Other Shoe” in 2012. Having read his latest, “Survivors Said,” a collection of his best stories from a four-decade span of writing, I’m happy to have discovered him at all.
Writer Pete Fromm uses a driving metaphor in his front cover blurb of “Survivors.” Continuing that theme as it relates to Pavelich’s writing, his prose isn’t some slick, over-engineered sports car that, for all its speed and handling, is as likely to break down before it gets you where you’re going as it is to deliver you there in the first place.
It’s more like my trusty old F-150, the most beloved vehicle I’ve ever owned, that might not have been as flashy as the next rig but always delivered and always gave me everything I needed and then some. Pavelich’s writing is tight and clean, and he describes with just enough detail to make his locales – small cities and towns, an airport lounge, the action on a football field – perfectly recognizable.
A few stories in and the first thing I noticed about Pavelich’s approach is that his stories don’t always come to tidy little conclusions. A failing of many writers’ attempts at the form is to approach stories like tiny novels, with a beginning, some stuff in the middle, and then a conclusion that neatly sews everything up, usually with a twist of some kind.
Often Pavelich’s stories don’t do that. I’m not suggesting they end abruptly, but maybe just not in a place or fashion a reader may expect. I like that, that openness to interpretation as to what might come next based on what just happened.
The highlights, hands-down, are the characters and the dialogue that happens between them. With a light touch, Pavelich manages to subtly infuse lots of heart into his work, even in the tales steeped in melancholy. In a quote I’ve saved, Jim Harrison, talking about sentiment in writing, says, “I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.” Matt Pavelich clearly gets this. In other words, the man isn’t afraid to be a little sweet.
A couple of favorite stories for me would be “Empty Lot,” with a somewhat unreliable narrator in the form of a sixth-grade boy and his grudging befriending of the local kid who nobody likes, and “Danine or Not Danine,” the tale of a lawyer defending a woman from being sentenced to time in a mental institution, when all she really wants to do is just be left alone so she can kill herself.
“Lot” strikes me because of the way our hero views the events of his day as a series of one make-believe adventure after another, taking me back to my own youth, particularly given I too spent an abundance of my time alone.
“Danine,” meanwhile, is a well-handled meditation on how we treat the untreatable that explores why we deny people the dignity of ending their lives as they see fit, when truly they are at the end of their rope. I loved the story.
Chris La Tray is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Missoula. His work has appeared in the Missoulian and Montana Magazine. His short fiction has been published in various crime, noir, and pulp collections and anthologies. Read more of his work at chrislatray.com.