Start with the Nebraska plain in the year 1871. Add 17-year-old elite-born Edward Turrentine Bayard III, just off the train from Connecticut, sent by his doctor to a lung-clearing sanatorium that proves pretty much nonexistent. Season with a large dollop of Dickensian characters and Three Stooges spice, and one has the makings of a Western novel that more than just “hops along.” “Turpentine” ($14 in paperback from Black Cat) by Spring Warren is an imaginative delight from the Davis-based first-time novelist (there’s more at www.springwarren.com).
Spring Warren will be appearing at Lyon Books in Chico at 7:00 PM tonight for a public reading and book signing. Married to historian Louis Warren, the author spent her growing up days on a Wyoming Ranch, and writes in publicity material that “my great uncle, Roy Montgomery, ran a bar and bordello in Gillette, Wyoming, called the ‘Buffalo Hump.’ He was the Democratic favorite for the governorship of Wyoming when the Republican faction levied charges against him for violating the White Slave Traffic Act. He spent a year in Leavenworth and no time as Governor.”
Some of that sensibility finds its way into “Turpentine,” which is the moniker Edward (“Ned”) receives early on in Nebraska. Ned is naïve but thoughtful, and falls head over heels for Lill Martine, but a marriage is not to be. Later, on his way back to Connecticut to unravel family mysteries, he meets up with his old tutor, Brill, who asks Ned, “Forgive my lachrymose thoughts. . . . How are Avelina and Tilfert, the love of your life, Lill, and the scoundrel horse, Chin?” “Dead, drowned, lost, and abandoned. Lachrymose indeed.” And that’s not even the halfway point of the book.
Back East, Ned teams up with a teenage coal miner named Curley and a cigar roller named Phaegin, a woman who loves dancing and who eventually loves Ned. Their adventures are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and mordantly grim. Along the way there are more identity shifts than in a Shakespeare comedy. Much later there will be time for reflection on just who one is and recognition that “the end and the beginning are much the same. Eventually no one owns identity.”
“Turpentine” is a rambunctious debut, captivatingly written.