In 2016, armed men seized the headquarters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. Depending on who you asked, the occupation was driven by a land-rights dispute, or the overreach of the federal government, or an enveloping rural anger.
At the time, Maxim Loskutoff was living in Portland, Oregon. The aspiring writer had grown up in Missoula since he was 5, always dreaming of cities where he thought "art was happening, where life was happening," he said recently at a reading. When he did live in Los Angeles and New York for college, he "always felt myself being drawn back here, and trying to reconcile those two personalities."
He'd been struggling to find his place as a writer, through several unpublished novels.
His friends in Portland thought an armed occupation of a bird sanctuary was absurd. When he moved to a small coastal town named Otis, everyone took the occupation seriously, whether they were for it or against it, he said. He admits that he'd laughed along with his Portland friends, but became nauseous when he realized he'd been living inside a bubble not dissimilar from the gap between his hometown of Missoula and a neighboring town in the Bitterroot.
He became "obsessed" with the occupation, by his own account. He would spend hours, sometimes up to eight a day, listening to the occupiers' live feeds online and following them on social media.
That obsession with dueling interpretations of the changes roiling the West became the backbone of a collection of short stories, "Come West and See," released last month on W.W. Norton Co.
Loskutoff, 33, describes the book as "a conversation about the West," vacillating between dying small towns where mills and mines have closed, and people living in rapidly growing cities with "a very modern, very new and strange personality," such as Portland, Seattle and Denver.
Some stories date back to 2011. Others were completed in 2016 before the presidential election, which pushed the urban-rural divide into the national consciousness.
"There is so much anger and darkness in small towns and now you’re seeing it manifest itself in so many ways in this country," he said recently in an interview.
The first of 12 stories opens much earlier, in 1894 in Montana Territory. He intended to set a stage for the ways white settlers have an "awe of the landscape coupled with a desire to tame it," as he described it. A lonely trapper finds a bear feeding from the apple tree near his cabin in the Rattlesnake and begins to obsess over it in a carnal way. From there, Loskutoff leaps forward to the present, where the stories reference a Malheur-like occupation.
In another story, a mother tries to raise her children while her husband is away at the occupation. Loskutoff said he'd become fascinated by the Malheur occupiers' stories. "I found a lot of conflict and belief in what their husbands were doing, but also a lot of struggle," he said. They were taking care of families by themselves and worrying about whether their husbands would survive, much less find another job.
In another story, a young woman who's recently moved to a Denver suburb worries about her future with her husband and whether she wants children. She becomes fixated on a pine tree in the yard of their rental home, and decides she wants to find an invasive mountain pine beetle to kill it. She drives out to the woods, where she sees "a brown sea stretched in all directions. For miles and miles. Along the edges, a battle was being waged. Pockets of green clinging to life between the extending brown fingers," Loskutoff writes.
"I search near the trunks and even though I couldn't see the beetles, I could imagine them from the pictures in books — their black armored backs and eyeless faces. Squirming beneath the bark. No bigger than a grain of rice with spiky jointed legs. Thousands, millions of them, coring out the wood, excreting their fungus. Gorging themselves and mating and then moving on, insatiable, to the next."
The occupation in Loskutoff's stories takes place within a geographic region called "The Redoubt."
That term is not fictional, or at least it's not a fiction Loskutoff made up. The concept was first outlined in 2001 on Survivalblog.com by a writer named James Wesley, Rawles, who uses a comma to distinguish between his given and family names, according to his website.
In the original post, he examines the potential for societal upheaval and makes a case for like-minded Christian preppers to relocate to "safe haven states," like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He also includes eastern slices of Oregon and Washington. He chose the boundaries based on some factors including defensibility (mountains), potential for self-sufficiency, and politics (no coastal types welcome).
In the last half of the book, the Redoubt movement has made further progress than in reality. Loskutoff imagines what would happen if the occupation became a revolution and the Redoubt enters into open conflict with the federal government.
In later stories, readers meet Redoubt "patriots," preppers and refugees, all trying to survive through the fall-out. Sex, violence and conflict are constants, surrounded by a beautiful and sometimes threatening landscape. Each character is acutely aware of their class, their side, how others might see or judge them.
In "Too Much Love," the narrator whose wife has left him returns to his hometown of Riggins, Idaho, "the capitol city of the Redoubt." He ruminates on their failed relationship while staying with his elderly mother. A friend convinces him to join up with the movement, and seeing few options, he agrees.
Loskutoff said he sees "a very deep, widespread undercurrent of general anger that can then be used and manipulated for a lot of different causes," that he tried to express.
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While he wants the book to be a conversation, he doesn't shy away from characters behaving in unlikable (and sometimes abhorrent) ways. He does want the reader to have sympathy for them. In one story, a man whose friend recently died in the occupation tries to relax by going to a hot springs with his girlfriend, where he gets into an argument with rich hikers. Loskutoff said this character is self-conscious about his appearance, his girlfriend's appearance, the fact that he doesn't really have a place in his own town anymore. He's filled with a "mundane anger," he said. "This kind of anger that isn't glorious any more, it's petty and personal in the way that all of our anger is," he said.
Loskutoff was inspired in part by David Foster Wallace's story collection, "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," which he said explores a "certain kind of broken masculinity, which is not unique to the West or the 21st century. It's as old as humanity," with countless examples of a "disaffected class of young men that feels purposeless" and often expresses it through violence.
He found the voice for his disaffected young men by listening to those YouTube streams from Malheur.
"I liked the fact that I was just getting this one instance of their lives. I was getting them in this incredibly fraught and dangerous situation," he said.
Loskutoff's parents moved to Missoula when he was 5. His father is a carpenter, and his mother has worked as a wait staff, in senior health care, and in shops around downtown. Reading was always a "sanctuary" where he "had a space to create worlds in my own head." When he was in first grade, a teacher gave the students an hour a day to fill with projects. He wrote a book about a seadog named Ray who had to save a ship captain during their adventures.
He continued writing through middle and high school, but didn't think of it as a potential career. After graduating from Hellgate in 2003, he wanted to attend a small liberal arts college in a warm climate, enrolling at Pomona College in Los Angeles County.
As a freshman, he was given the lowest priority to enroll in a creative writing class. He was told he could show up on the first day and perhaps get a slot.
"There was a line, probably 30 people long, out the door," he said. A woman next to him had driven from San Francisco. She was holding an envelope containing a manuscript she hoped to give to the instructor, David Foster Wallace. Loskutoff, who'd grown up on Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath and science fiction and fantasy, had never heard of Wallace, one of the most influential writers of his generation.
After Wallace noticed the length of the line, he asked everyone who wasn't an enrolled student to leave. He asked Loskutoff to come see him later during office hours.
"He’d gathered from me that I hadn’t read him or much contemporary literature," Loskutoff said. He took a class from Wallace and worked as research assistant for him during an independent study his senior year. They became friendly and got along, he said, "partly based on the fact that we were so different as writers and people." Loskutoff liked writing short stories; Wallace was famous for outsized meta-fiction like his novel, "Infinite Jest," which runs more than a thousand pages in paperback.
He said Wallace encouraged him to find his own voice, which even then was rooted in Montana stories.
"Something that was so wonderful about him is that he never tried to change you or try to reshape (you). He wanted you to be the best at what you were," he said.
Wallace's commitment to craft and work ethic left the greatest impression.
"Every time you finish something, you’re not actually done," Loskutoff said. "Go back. Work more, try again and keep going."
After finishing at Pomona, he pursued his MFA at New York University, where he studied under Lydia Davis and Zadie Smith. Davis is known for her compact stories, some as short as a paragraph, which require a different kind of philosophical rigor than Wallace, he said.
"What is the kernel at the center of this? What can you strip away to get at just precisely what you were trying to say?" he said.
After finishing grad school in 2012, he pursued residencies and fellowships in far-flung places like Abu Dhabi, Botswana and Bangalore, India. He said he's had to "live extremely cheaply, and spent long periods of that time living out of my van going residency to residency."
The time abroad, though, was spent writing about the West.
Loskutoff is living in Missoula now to be closer to his family and to work on a novel, "Spirits," tentatively scheduled for release in 2020. It's set in the Bitterroot Valley, which he sees as a "microcosm" for similar themes about the divisions in the West: the wide gulf in income between fly-in landowners and families struggling to get through the winter; communities as disparate as the government-funded Rocky Mountain Laboratories and the separatist Mormon town of Pinesdale and the displaced indigenous people.
The protagonist is a young woman and her single father; the "breaking apart" will be "symbolized by these very strange creatures that appear in the Bitterroot Valley, and people start hunting them on sight without knowing what's going on." It's a conceit that can bring the themes together, one that he imported from a favorite genre, science fiction.
He "loves the way you can focus on the mundane issues that we all face: heartbreak, loneliness, and trying to find a way in the world, and you can add an element of speculative fiction or pure imagination that can bring clarity to those complications. Instead of overwhelming those conflicts, it can bring them to the forefront," he said.