A surprising sidebar to the publication of Mark Spragg's exceptional second novel, An Unfinished Life, is the fact that the movie version of the story will be in theaters at Christmas. That's a breathtakingly short leap from print to screen, and the explanation is that Spragg and his wife, Virginia, began working on the screenplay before the book was finished.
During the long gestation of the novel - over six years and "hundreds of hours of road trips" that Mark and Virginia made from their home in Cody, Wyoming, to visit friends throughout the West - the pair talked ceaselessly about the characters and events that were inhabiting Spragg's thoughts.
"It became a sort of wonderful puzzle to hit a point in the narrative and wonder how it could be satisfied in a novel and how it could be satisfied in a film," Spragg says during a call to the cabin he owns outside of Red Lodge in the Montana Rockies. Eventually Virginia, a therapist with no prior screenwriting experience, decided to take first crack at the film script. "It was utterly amazing," Spragg says. "She broke every rule I had in my mind about how writers develop." During pauses between drafts of the novels, Spragg worked on the script, too.
Spragg, who has wanted to write novels since his childhood on his parents' dude ranch in the remote Wapiti valley at the far edge of Yellowstone Park, worked briefly and unhappily as a scriptwriter in the 1980s. "I used to snowshoe out from my little cabin on the North Fork of the Shoshone dragging a disk sled with my luggage out to the main highway where I had a three-quarter-ton pickup chained up. It would get me into Cody and then I'd take a little prop plane to Denver and then a jet into Los Angeles for a script conference at Disney. I remember walking down the boardwalk in Santa Monica. I hadn't seen a human being out of wool and down for two or three months and there would be these young women skating by in their bikinis. It was like landing on another planet."
Collaboration with his wife on the film script of An Unfinished Life proved far less alien and far more fruitful than Spragg's previous movie business experiences. Directed by Lasse Hallström, the film stars Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. The movie's imminent release is no reason to forgo the many pleasures of reading Spragg's novel.
An Unfinished Life is, in the first place, the story of Einar Gilkyson's bitterness. Spragg relates that for several years his daydreams and night dreams were frequented by "an older man sitting tightly in a chair on a porch, scowling, sort of screwed down tightly in his bitterness, with a mob of half-feral cats about him. So my wife and I started to talk about him, and inevitably the question arose: why is this old man so embittered?"
Einar's bitterness, readers quickly learn, stems from the untimely death of his 21-year-old son Griffin in an automobile accident about a decade before the novel opens. Since then, Einar has retreated into isolation on his ranch outside of Ishawooa, Wyoming. His main reason for continuing to live at all is to care for his oldest friend, Mitch Bradley, a black cowboy who has lived and worked with Einar for about 50 years and who was grotesquely mauled by a bear some years before and is now confined to the ranch bunkhouse.
Spragg says he realized quite early that An Unfinished Life was "going to deal with forgiveness" and, with that theme in mind, he could "begin to populate the novel." Einar's opportunity to practice forgiveness comes when his daughter-in-law Jean shows up uninvited and unwelcome at the ranch after running out of places to go. Jean was at the wheel when her husband was killed, and Einar blames her for the death of his son; quite frankly, he is not about to forgive her.
And Jean is not about to forgive herself either. She has spent the past decade working out her guilt over Griffin's death in a series of abusive relationships. In fact when she arrives at the ranch, her most recent boyfriend, the malevolent Roy Winston, is tracking her across the country. Jean's one saving grace is her nine-and-a-half-year-old daughter Griff.
This child, with her mixture of tentativeness and bravery, wisdom and innocence, is Spragg's most shining creation. "I really like this kid a lot, as you can probably tell," he says. "She's a very brave child, a child who's required to act older than she is, but who has the same fears and dreams and hopes as other children of that age." The relationship that slowly and excruciatingly develops between Griff and her grandfather, both of whom are astonished by the existence of the other, is one of the marvels of An Unfinished Life.
But in fact, Spragg demonstrates throughout his novel that he is exceptionally good at portraying all sorts of human relationships. The relationship between Einar and Mitch, he says, is particularly important to him. "I hate the homophobic overreaction in our society [that says] if two men honestly love one another . . . that somehow must be sexual. Einar and Mitch are two men who honestly love one another, who have lived together and worked together and struggled together and who would literally - not figuratively - die for one another because their love is so profound. And they're both heterosexual men."
Spragg writes his novel with direct, tangible, unadorned but somehow poetic language that will remind some readers of Kent Haruf's writing. In fact, the two men and their wives have been close friends since the writers shared honors at the Mountain ∧ Plains Booksellers Awards some years ago (Haruf for Plainsong and Spragg for Where Rivers Change Direction, his marvelous memoir of growing up on his family's isolated ranch).
By the end of his remarkable novel of grief, anger, bitterness and forgiveness, Spragg has taken readers into the sensibilities, thoughts and histories of his characters in a way that a movie simply cannot do. So see the movie if you like, but most definitely read the novel.
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.