Cris Mazza's fiction has been called experimental, and stylistically it is, in the same way that Chekov's prose can be called experimental. Like the Russian author, Mazza uses an impressionistic technique to create characters so unusual, they become emblems for whole orders of social ills. Unfolding with the grim assurance of an autopsy, Girl Beside Him lays bare pathologies of self and society.
As the novel unfolds, a moody naturalist obsessed with target shooting meets his pretty assistant, rebounding from her bitter divorce, via a classified ad. Brian and Leya work together in the Wyoming outback, a landscape quick with beauty, death and sex. Ostensibly they have joined forces to track wild cougar, but humanity is the most endangered species here.
As the story lopes along, the naturalists, made feral by heartbreak and the drone of pop culture, spend the summer tracking cougars....
Taking Sartre's aphorism, hell is other people, to new, dreadful extremes, Mazza's varmits know that the only thing wrong with any landscape is who else is living in it. From deep inside her character's skins, Mazza brings a psychological awareness to her novel that would make Stephen King squirm.
In her ninth work of fiction, Cris Mazza walks the fence between man and nature, instinct and compusion, all the while throwing rocks into the yawning gulch between the sexes. As a portrait of our species, Girl Beside Him is a powerful book.
"A portrait of our species and genders" —Philip Herter, St. Petersburg Times
"Mazza build to a violent climax whose purpose is archetypal gentleness and sorrow. Girl Beside Him is simultaneously a metaphor for the wasting of the wild and for the wild's triumph over waste." —Claudia Keelan
"In writing that evokes a keen sense of a particular time and place, a moment in our culture, this novel explores the boundaries between human and animal behavior, and the concept of wilderness." —Jaimy Gordon
Ski season continues - bunnies abound. Bouquets of grinning balloons. White teeth and sun-black skin. Pale raccoon masks tattooed by designer sunglasses. Tired muscles vigorously content, or endorphins still surging in hot bodies that breathe fog on alpine mountains in late spring. Fun recent enough to sustain a kick in those departing for L.A. or Dallas and beyond. Adrenaline-rush of anticipation fuels the shit-eating grins on those boarding for Vail, Snow Summit, Aspen, Jackson Hole. Nothing to you. You'll see none like them where you're going. But be careful, this time you're on your own, no one watching you but you. No one giving instructions and assignments to fill up every hour. Watch it - with a change like this, the cold clot may rupture, questions get answered, hypothesis proven. Are you a sex killer waiting to happen?
The Denver airport sold cowboy hats in colors a cowboy - or girl - wouldn't be caught dead in. Brian fingered the hat bands made of anything from snakeskin to Indian beads to peacock feathers. He looked at baseball caps - one for every Colorado brewery, golf course, ski resort and sport team, plus some with pictures of fishermen, skiers or golfers. Then under a leaning stack of cloth fishing hats with Denver or Colorado stitched on the brim, he found an army green Robin Hood hat with a rooster feather. Airport white noise was Country. Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. -He's the-king of the road. -I wanna go home-oh Lord I wanna- Abilene, sweet Abilene. Unbreak my heart- He crumpled the feather, dropped it, and paid for the hat along with his USA Today. Final boarding for the commuter flight to Cheyenne had already been announced. He held the hat on his legs, under the newspaper, which he opened, holding the left-hand pages perpendicular to the flat pages in his lap, making a newsprint wall between himself and the woman in the window seat.
The hair she still had was white blond, butch-cut, shaved up the back of her neck, little pixie points beside each ear, with a short soft cap of white hair like a toupee placed on the top of her head, the sides and back the exact same length as the bangs on her brow. Her neck was long and thin with skin like eggshell membrane, small throbbing veins under the surface. Earrings of clustered blade-shaped silver splinters tickled her throat when she tipped her chin down. Her nose small, upturned, pierced with a diamond. Her mouth full, as though swollen. Her teeth caught and released her lower lip over and over. Wrists cuffed with silver bracelets that looked like manacles for prison chains. Almost every finger sheathed in a silver ring.
Okay, enough, focus now, just take out the field report on the relocated cougars in south-central Wyoming, study the relief map, review the procedures for setting foot snares, preparing anesthesia, using a jab-stick, or testing blood for plague antibodies.
He remained carefully in place. His knees balancing the hat and newspaper as though they were fragile. And as though turning pages under water, to keep them from ripping or disintegrating, he found the section where a news item from each state is reported. It was one way he tried to get his first feel for the places he visited for months of fieldwork, but invariably had little to do with his interaction with the locale.
Wyoming. Yellowstone National Park. AP A camper was arrested early yesterday after park officials caught him urinating into a pool of boiling mud just off the walkway in the sulfur pits area. Jerry Jersey, 32, of Toledo, OH, was booked on suspicion of public indecency, public nuisance, and fouling a national park. No one was hurt.
Brian's arm, holding the left side of the newspaper upright, was starting to tremble, invisibly. Years of conditioning to be able to support a competition rifle with such sure steadiness that even a leveling sensor placed on the barrel couldn't detect any motion - suddenly it didn't seem to extend to any ability to hold a sheet of newsprint. Okay, perverts go on vacation too. The cougar relocation area isn't anywhere near Yellowstone. No tourists. No skiers. And no one with you in charge of the fieldwork.
It was Peter Gallway - someone Brian barely knew - who, about four years ago, had gotten a grant, along with the necessary permission and permits from Fish & Game and the states of Wyoming and California, lined up the participation or cooperation of whatever agencies or organizations would be helpful or mandatory; then, more than two years ago, trapped, tagged and sterilized a dozen lions in the back country of San Diego - where some had been starting too frequently to come into close proximity with human habitation - relocated them outside the most desolate ranch country in Wyoming, and stayed to observe their adjustment. Gallway's proposal had specifically stated its purpose was not to move the animals in an attempt to protect either the species or the human population of Southern California, but as a study to determine if such habitat relocations were a better option for wildlife management than killing.
But a month before Gallway's scheduled follow-up field work to assess the progress of the relocated cougars, he'd broken both legs and his pelvis skiing in Switzerland, and was still there, demanding frequent faxes - starting as soon as Brian arrived in Rawlins and then every time he observed anything, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Obviously it had been too late to find someone more experienced, in either the terrain or the particular study, or even someone who'd worked with mountain lions before. Likely anyone Gallway would've thought of calling before Brian had his own field work, his own book to write, his own on-going grants and proposals and lifelong study. Brian never finished, never even started his own PhD in wildlife biology. Never either regretted nor congratulated himself for the decision. Didn't remember that it was a decision. Instead, as though a long-standing appointment, the next step was flight school. An ability to fly both a small plane and a helicopter, combined with a degree in field biology, got him plenty of calls to work in the field for other people. And that was probably the real reason he had this job as well. Maybe there'd been a recommendation from a friend of an acquaintance. Someone from the tortoise inventory in the California desert.
Remember? You lodged in Independence, the county seat where they'd first held Manson after the murders. Sound traveled forever on the high desert, a shot lasted minutes when you did target practice at dawn, shooting at fenceposts - never cactus nor Joshua trees - the first shot still quaking against the Sierra by the time you were set for the next. Then at dusk, jeep races across the desert, once stumbling upon a long-abandoned dune buggy, you all circled it, went over every inch like archeologists, wondering if it had been one of the Family's stolen lookout vehicles. You took your turn at the pranks and jokes. Once you covered yourself shallowly with sand and jumped up at a teammate like a sneak Indian attack.
The girl beside him sighed heavily. Afterwards he could hear every breath she took. The fuselage vibrating through turbulence was like a jeep on a dirt road, with softer seats but a closer ceiling. The pilot announced there'd be a spell of medium chop, so he was leaving the seatbelt light on. She was breathing hoarsely, through her mouth. Brian could feel the heavy metal buckle on his lap, under the hat. And then became aware of the entire oval brim of the hat, a warm circle on his thighs. He turned to the classifieds, the noise of the newspaper crackling like fire.
The first roommate? Maybe the second. One of your college buddies played drums. Roadie for his rinky-dink top 40 band, your ears rang 'round the clock, a gig till midnight, up for shooting practice at the indoor range at dawn. That year it was difficult to hear a radio through the wall or pick up whispered conversations in the library. A new roommate every year as each abandoned the dorms for apartments, every year a freshman roommate, but what better way to learn to be the congenial college man? Spit and threw garbage out the windows at your roommate's passing friends, three-day old pizza under the bed, Olympic sliding contests across the shower floor with a panel of judges lining the windowsill. Adopted by each roommate's circle and included. One year you all played PacMan and had Rubic's cubes. One year beach volleyball. Year by year you filled the dorm room with sharpshooting trophies. Illegal to keep rifles in the residence hall, but you did anyway, locked in carrying cases. The rush of triumph after each trophy dissipated by the next morning. You had to start over, week by week.
The girl gasped. Then the air came out of her with a low moan. The plane had hit an air-pocket - the pilot said Whoopsie-Daisy, and people laughed. Something tugged gently, steadily on Brian's shirt sleeve. His temples pounding, he looked around the edge of the newspaper. There was a thin, curved scar on her forearm, seeming to originate from the inside of her wrist, snaking up and around, mostly concealed under her bracelet. She was gripping the arm rests on either side of herself, digging her fingernails in, the tendons in her hands straining under the skin. And she'd caught a little of his shirt by accident.
He tried to move his arm off the armrest. There may as well have been a knife jammed through his shirt and up to the hilt into the upholstery. His head bobbed with the turbulence, his eyes fixed on the newsprint. The girl was making a little dog-whimper with each breath. The seatbelt buckle under the hat under the newspaper seemed heavier, hotter. His legs trembled. He realized he was holding his heels off the floor, tensing his calves, holding his breath, as though necessary to keep his lap level. As though someone were sitting there. Releasing the air, slowly lowering his heels, his chin dropped, his eyes cleared and continued reading.
Estate gardener, lives on premises, will move anywhere.
Girl Beside Him
Girl Beside Him