The Weight of an Infinite Sky begins with a life milestone that most everyone can identify with: coming home for the first time after leaving home for the first time. You find that your family is different, but also the same, while you suddenly see how much you have changed during your absence, too, even if old internal struggles and family conflicts remain.
In this case, Anthony Fry is returning to his family’s Montana cattle ranch after trying to make it big (and failing) as an actor in New York City. His father died three months ago, and he’s returning to check on his land, and also to run a small children’s theater camp in Billings. While plots unfold—his father’s suspicious death, the big mining company trying to move into town and several of Fry’s old flames—Fry is deeply conflicted about who he is, what he wants and whether he belongs at home at all.
The book is the sophomore effort of Carrie La Seur, an environmental lawyer who lives in Billings and moonlights as an author. It’s inspired by Hamlet and follows the structure of that story closely in some aspects (the book is centered on the death of a “king” and separated into five acts) and veers away sharply in others (while withholding spoilers, I’ll just say it ends way differently).
The book is solidly written, though the language isn’t anything special, and the plot feels similar: While it’s based on a classic, you can’t help but feel that the story is just going through the motions, and instead of building in interest and urgency, the book tends to plod forward in fits and starts as attention shifts from love interest to plot to subplot. It’s very difficult not to compare the book to A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, which is a retelling of King Lear through the life of an Iowa farm family. It may be unfair to compare any book to such a classic, but it does make the flaws in Infinite Sky clearer. While A Thousand Acres finds success in borrowing from Shakespeare to build a new world, it feels like Infinite Sky is shackled to Shakespeare: Its characters feel flattened by their source, and its story feels confined by it. There are several moments in the story when the main character recognizes his life’s ties to Hamlet, almost as if to admit the strangeness of it all.
The book’s biggest strengths are La Seur’s character development of the land itself and the community. Her writing is at its best when she is telling side stories about some of the minor women characters in the book. In fact, the strongest chapter isn’t about Fry and his family conundrum at all, but about an Indian family he visits, where two medicine women are busy at work. The chapter is a bit of an anomaly—not to mention a slight veer from the plot—but it seems like a time when the author relaxed and had more fun in her own world. In a recent interview with the Billings Gazette, Le Seur explained that unlike her first novel, this book went through several rewrites, including a switch to a male protagonist. I can’t help but wonder how the book would have read with a woman lead and less of a hard lean on traditional story formulas.
Thematically, La Seur does a commendable job writing about home and identity. Fry is far from alone when it comes to being torn between the community you grew up with and your own hopes and dreams, and the book succeeds in showing his struggle. But as a character, the increasingly drunk and whiny protagonist isn’t even likable in ways that well-drawn unlikable characters are, and as a reader, I was far more interested in characters on the periphery: Hilary (Ophelia), a black woman who marries into a ranch family but slips into deep postpartum depression after the birth of her child; Paula, a Native American woman who takes advantage of the men who fawn after her; and Sarah (Gertrude), Fry’s mother, who loves the land more than either of the men she married to keep it.
La Seur is a talented writer who knows how to write about Montana. Here’s to hoping she has the confidence in her next book to let her most interesting characters, with the most interesting stories, take the reins.
Carrie La Seur reads at Fact & Fiction Thu., Jan. 18, at 7 PM. Free.