I know that books get made into movies, and that each should be judged on its own merits. Mark Spragg’s novel An Unfinished Life just arrived in bookstores. Miramax Films will release the movie (directed by Lasse Hallström, with a screenplay written by Spragg and his wife) this December.
I only wish I didn’t know that Jennifer Lopez and Robert Redford are starring.
Part of the pleasure of reading is envisioning the characters and scenes as they’re described on the page. At the risk of sounding crotchety, I think it would have been nice if Spragg’s novel had had a little more breathing room between its publication and its appearance on the big screen. You wonder how a book might be influenced when the writer knows that it’s bound for Hollywood and is writing the screenplay more or less at the same time.
Most of An Unfinished Life is set in Wyoming, a landscape Spragg knows well. Raised on a dude ranch just outside Yellowstone in the 1950s and ’60s, he’s written lovingly about the brutality and beauty of that region’s landscape and people in Where Rivers Change Direction (1999), an absorbing collection of essays. Here he recalls the elements of suffering and redemption found in his non-fiction and weaves them through the story of a broken family.
Jean Gilkyson is a single mother whose nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Griff, is much smarter than Jean is when it comes to men. "Everybody’s mother is good at something. Her mother’s good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives." Ten years earlier, Griff’s father was killed in a car accident when Jean fell asleep at the wheel, and her father-in-law has never forgiven her. Secretly pregnant at her husband’s funeral, with no family to call her own, Jean leaves Wyoming to wander from Bobby to Johnny to Frank. When the novel opens, it’s at a trailer park in Iowa with Roy, a man whose simple internal logic works this way: "He knows damn well there isn’t a woman in the world who can keep her mouth shut long enough, not through a man’s whole lifetime, where she won’t need to get smacked at least once. And he knows you wouldn’t have to if you didn’t love them. That’s just a law of nature."
After Roy shows his love once too often, Jean and Griff hit the road. Broke, bruised, and homeless, Jean heads back to her home town of Ishawooa, Wyoming, where the only person who will take her in is the one who hates her most: Einar, her father-in-law, who has no idea he has a granddaughter. Einar lives on his ranch with Mitch, a friend who suffers daily pain from his recent mauling by a grizzly bear. The two exist in a kind of grumpy-old-men marriage until Jean and Griff show up.
The story as it unfolds from there is quick and absorbing. Roy follows Jean to Wyoming, where she’s become involved with the local sheriff. Add the grizzly to the mix and you have all the ingredients for some tense scenes that will translate well on screen but occasionally tip into melodrama on the page.
It’s the moments between Einar and Griff that demonstrate Spragg’s fine touch for dialogue and human behavior. The two feel their way toward trust slowly, through that great Western catechism of hard work. In spare conversations and early-morning milkings, the two remaining blood links to Griff’s father carry on with living. And Spragg discloses both the simplicity and the difficulty of that task. Emblems of suffering abound, with Mitch as its most prominent advocate. Racked with pain that abates only with morphine, he embraces suffering "as a right, a burden, even sacred, for both man and beast." Life, no matter how difficult it becomes, must be taken whole.
Forgiveness and redemption figure into this as well, of course, and Spragg depicts their small movements in his characters’ lives with a spare grace that seems to spring directly from the landscape. Packed with descriptive detail that pays tribute to Wyoming’s harsh splendor, An Unfinished Life shows the power of place to save us. After years of living on the road with her mother, Griff begins to believe in the permanence of the mountains and plains around her. "The screen’s beaded with water, and she stands in the dark and breathes the wet air. It makes her shiver, but she feels a little bit like this place belongs to her. Knowing the different sounds helps, the rain and the wind and the creek. It’s like she’s already lived here, or it’s a place she needed to find. Like home." If the movie of An Unfinished Life is shot on location, we’ll have something to believe in too.
Mark Spragg reads at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday September 28 at Borders, 85 Worcester Road in Framingham; call (508) 875-2321.
Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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