Arts & Culture » Lit

Word Perfect

Mitch Wieland's literary milestones


Mitch Wieland is in a good mood right now. And he has reason to be. The writer, family man, Boise State professor and founder and editor of The Idaho Review--an annual literary journal--has a lot going his way. His second novel, God's Dogs: A Novel in Stories, has just been released by SMU Press to high praise from the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford. The award-winning Idaho Review's 10th anniversary issue has also just come out and features high-quality fiction by authors such as Rick Bass, Chris Offutt, Melanie Rae Thon, Stuart Dybek and Edith Pearlman. One of Wieland's stories, "The Bones of Hagerman," which is included in God's Dogs, has been chosen to appear this fall in the anthology The Best of the West 2009 alongside writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Annie Proulx. "Swan's Home," also in the novel, won the annual Prairie Schooner award for short fiction this spring.

It's no wonder Wieland looked happy sitting in his book- and manuscript-cluttered office housed in a converted '70s-era apartment building on University Drive as he discussed his recent literary accomplishments.

"There really have been some exciting things going on lately," Wieland said, reaching for a copy of the new Idaho Review. "The issue just came out, and I think it looks fantastic."

He handed across the nearly 300-page journal, pointing out his fondness for the Godzilla cover art by Boise State Art Department Chair Richard A. Young.

"We redesigned the whole thing last year and are super pleased with the presentation, the new fonts and, of course, the really high quality work we keep putting out into the world," Wieland said.

The Idaho Review, which Wieland started in 1998, has been praised from the start as one of the country's top-tier literary journals, and has the awards to prove it. Nine pieces from the journal--which publishes fiction, poetry, the occasional essay and, this year, included a piece of illustrated fiction by Pinckney Benedict--have been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories, New Stories From the South and The Best of the West, The O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Awards: Best of the Small Presses.

"For a venture run on a shoestring budget, and staffed by dedicated students from the MFA and MA programs, our track record has given us a keen sense of accomplishment," Wieland wrote in his editor's note of this year's Idaho Review.

And this sense of accomplishment is no doubt coupled with pride and pleasure for Wieland as God's Dogs hits the shelves here in town and nationally.

"It's been so good to get the book out. These are stories I've worked on for several years now," Wieland said. "A lot of them I wrote when I was on sabbatical in 2004. I took the semester and following summer that year and really bore down, got the work done."

The linked stories in God's Dogs follow the life in exodus of Ferrell Swan, a former educator who has fled his half-broken life in Ohio to come West and live on a broad, desolate swath of land in the high desert below the Owyhee range. The book opens with Ferrell Swan turning 60 and "entering what he views as the steep downhill slide of his life," which he has chosen to live out in relative isolation. But throughout the book, his isolation is interrupted--sometimes the interruptions are welcomed, other times not so much--by his troubled stepson Levon, his beautifully philosophical and headstrong ex-wife Rilla, his eccentrically endearing neighbors Cole and Moonbeam, and Din Withers, who lives underground in a buried and fully outfitted storage tank.

Ferrell's life out West unfolds episodically as he deals with Levon's meddling and neediness, with Rilla's troubling companionship and desires to understand and love him, with Din and Cole's fractured pasts and with odd everyday occurrences, all the while trying to understand his own twisted up life and spirit, his own strange draw to his new piece of the world.

Throughout God's Dogs, Wieland tracks Ferrell's fascination with the raptors floating the high skies, with the rangeland's galloping wild mustangs, and especially with the howling songs and eternal presence of the coyotes (known as "god's dogs" in Native American lore). All of it leads readers vividly and poetically through the way a man like Swan confronts his life in the face of a harsh natural world.

The land itself becomes a character in God's Dogs, with Wieland's prose eloquently documenting seasons of blinding snow, heavy fog, charging wind and oppressive heat on the high desert.

A telling passage from "The King of Infinite Space," the second story in the book, reads: "An Indian summer runs its course in blazing afternoons of sun and sky. Along the river the trees burn in perpetual flame, while higher up the redtails slip their shadows over the ground. When Rilla does daily tai chi in the yard, Ferrell naps in his shorts and bare skin, the sunglow a narcotic in his blood."

Wieland works hard to put us inside Ferrell's head and spirit, and upon that land he walks and breathes, throughout God's Dogs. And it's a complicated pleasure as all good fiction must be, to be cast out there with Ferrell and Rilla and the rest as so many big questions are dealt with: How do we love? How do we share who we are? What do we run from? Who do we run to? Where do we belong? Where is home?

--Christian A. Winn

On First Thursday, Wieland will read and sign books at A Novel Adventure, 906 W. Main St. from 6-9 p.m. On Thursday, July 16, he'll read at The Cabin at 7:30 p.m. Keep an eye out for his upcoming readings at Borders this summer and at Boise State in the fall.

Read more about downtown Boise this First Thursday.