Jeff Price: “Improbable Fortunes,” A Review
Launch party for debut novel of longtime Telluride local and screenwriter Jeff Price. Event takes place Thursday, March 24, 6 p.m., at Arroyo Telluride. “Improbable Fortunes” is available at Telluride’s Between the Covers bookstore.
“Improbable Fortunes,” Telluride author Jeff Price’s roller-coaster ride of a debut novel, begins with a bang, literally: a wall of mud slams down a hillside, destroying a 40,000-square-foot house – and the lives of several unlucky souls in its path.
We then switch gears into reverse, going back about 20 years or more ago with the birth of the story’s hero, Buster McCaffrey, born under mysterious circumstances in a howling snowstorm.
The novel proceeds along a timeline that begins with labor strife in the small, once-prosperous uranium mining town of Vanadium (Nucla?) in Southwest Colorado, now populated by the “direct descendants of Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, a naturally suspicious and xenophobic lot.” The novel then fast forwards to the Kulturkampf of the present day. Sandwiched in between is mayhem and loads of laughs, no big surprise given Price’s resume: co-screenwriter of “Who Framed Robert Rabbit,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “Shrek III.”
Price’s nimble prose and barbed humor makes it all one wild, woolly – and weird – ride that turns into a gallop as the author leads us towards a gasp-worthy (and ultimately Hollywood) ending.
But despite the fact “Improbable Fortunes” is set in the West – and Price does depict home on the range with insight, honesty, and attention to detail and manages to evoke an undeniable sentiment for place – the author does not emulate Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey.
In fact, the novel is not strictly speaking about the West.
“Improbable Fortunes” is a post-modern Western, whose underlying message has everything to do with one particular species of tree.
A bristlecone pine refers to one of three species of pines, all long-lived and highly resilient to harsh weather and bad soil. Bristlecone pines survive the odds.
In “Improbable Fortunes,” bristlecone pine is spelled B-u-s-t-e-r.
Buster MCaffrey is an orphan, who grows, well, like a tree, into a beautiful, lovable giant of a cowboy, shades of Joe Buck of “Midnight Cowboy” fame. Somehow, through strength of will, of character, he manages to survive the mildew and rot of four adoptive families, three of whom give him up because his foster fathers mysteriously bite the dust.
In Price’s tale of whoa, time and again Buster takes it on the chin and he often goes down – but never for the count. When things don’t work out, Buster does not indulge in the porn of pessimism. He gets right back up on his feet again. A perp as some townsfolk think? Hardly likely.
Though naive and unschooled, Buster is smart, but not from book-learning; he is self-taught, can fix almost anything and easily build a life from the land. His one true crime is trusting his fellow man (and woman) too much and too often.
Price paints Buster as the one really good person, amidst some really bad, really odd ducks, in his story, but not as a saint. The character is, yes, a rugged individualist – the image of the mythic cowboy of the Old West comes to mind – but he is also flesh-and-blood: Buster knows how to sin good. He drinks. He lusts. Think Tom Jones, another famous, fictional foundling – in muddy Carhartts. All Buster really wants out of life is a piece of land and a piece of, well, a girl named, ahem, Destiny.
Beside Buster, the archetypical tall, handsome, brooding cowboy, the rest of Price’s updated commedia cast features other Western and some universal archetypes, a ragtag gang of cattle ranchers, cowboys, crooks, kooks, romantics, lovers, haters, benefactors, the occasional nudist, and a kindly sheriff.
Most of whom point an accusing finger at our hero.
Also in the mix is the unfortunate millionaire carpetbagger Marvin Mallomar (after the cookie) and his wife Dana, a variation on the theme of Monroe, bi-polar disorder, drug and alcohol-addiction and all that jazz.
(Price himself makes a cameo as a deputy sheriff – which he was in Telluride.)
Dang. Was Buster really up to no good? Did he do Marvin in? What about his adoptive dads?
Therein in lies the mystery – and figuring it out is just some of the fun.
When all is said and done, “Improbable Fortunes” is a character study and a study of character that happens to be set in the West, Price’s home. It is a love story (with the word “love” writ large to encompass romantic, maternal, and land) and a mystery that puts the human comedy, zits and all, on peacock display.
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