Stegner seeks a true lie in his novel of the American West

June 26, 2012

Is it possible to salvage a life gone wrong?

That’s the question Wallace Stegner sought to answer in 1971 when he published Angle of Repose, his novel of an artistic New Yorker married to a rough-and-ready engineer of the American West. Their story is told as a rather speculative family history being assembled by Lyman Ward, a wheelchair-bound retired historian whose first-person narrative frames the book.

Lyman’s grandmother was Susan Burling, a pretty woman from a modestly well-to-do farming family in Upstate New York. At a rather stuffy Brooklyn party on Dec. 31, 1868, she met Oliver Ward, a bright but untrained engineer who longs to accomplish grand things as a self-made man of the West.

Susan’s interest in Oliver is tepid at best. Then the man she fancies, the brilliant and upwardly mobile magazine editor Thomas Hudson, becomes affianced to Augusta, her best friend. Ward, who has functioned as a sort of backup plan, soon returns from his Western travels, and an engagement quickly follows.

Oliver’s passion for Susan burns brightly from the start. But like a fire built from freshly cut wood, her love for him never bursts into full flame unless conditions are favorable. She constantly measures her marriage against Thomas and Augusta’s seeming idyll, and her union usually suffers by comparison.

In many ways, Oliver is an outstanding man — but also a flawed one. Both honorable and compassionate to a fault, he is loathe to ingratiate himself with supervisors and social superiors. He is rarely able to find work that can sustain his growing family. And what jobs Oliver can get — as a mine manager, surveyor and would-be irrigator — often requires long and difficult separations from his wife and three children, the firstborn of which is narrator Lyman’s father. The family’s time together is often full of challenges, too, as they endure frontier hardships.

Meanwhile, thanks to her innate talent and a boost from Thomas Hudson, Susan launches a thriving career as an illustrator and writer of travelogues and fiction. For many years, the income she generates keeps the Wards fed and housed.

Oliver’s excellent qualities inspire loyalty in a few followers — but over time, these followers’ lives become tangled with the Wards’ in tragic ways. Lyman Ward ends his narrative roughly halfway through his paternal grandparents’ lives, after the central drama in their lives has come to a climax.

The book’s title borrows a geological term designating the steepest slope at which loose gravel or other solid material can lie without sliding.

And Lyman himself is enduring something of a denouement. Having removed himself to the rural California estate where his grandparents finished their days, the crippled 58-year-old historian now relies on a pair of aged family retainers and their flighty 20-year-old daughter to see to his most basic needs. Lyman has rejected entreaties from his son and estranged wife, but he begins to wonder if the awkward accommodations that lie in his family’s past represent the best hope for his future.

In lesser hands, this could have been a rather generic work of historic fiction. Indeed, some of the contemporary drama in Angle of Repose seems a bit dated — much of what was novel at the start of the 1970s is now firmly in and of the past, and little admired.

But Stegner brings the late-19th-century West to vivid life. And the heart of his tale concerns what happens when airy idealism meets hard reality, an eternal theme.

At 569 pages, this volume is not for the faint of heart. But like a miner who discovers a rich vein of metal, the reader who embarks upon this tale will find rich rewards.

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