Drawing comparisons to the writing of Mark Twain and Truman Capote, Poe Ballantine’s newest work, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books, 2013) is part memoir and part murder mystery. Set mostly in Ballantine’s adopted home of Chadron, Nebraska, this new novel traces the nomadic and despondent lifestyle that led the author to the small high plains town, where eventually fame and family caught up. This excerpt—the introduction and first two chapters—offers the intrigue of a small-town murder before establishing the state of life for Poe Ballantine.
Jeanne (pronounced Gee-knee) Goetzinger, my employer for close to four years, called me on the phone on March 9, 2006, with news that our missing math professor had finally been found. Jeanne’s hotel, The Olde Main Street Inn, is right next to police headquarters and because you can cross-reference or background check any resident of this rumorous rural town at her Longbranch Saloon, I call it Grapevine Substation #1.
I lived just three blocks east of the Olde Main Street Inn, on First Street, right along the railroad tracks. I was looking out the window when Jeanne called. A train carrying lumber was passing slowly by. Jeanne told me in a thrilled hush she’d just received word that Professor Steven Haataja (pronounced Hahde-ya) had been found bound and dead in a ditch. That was all the information she had but she would call me back when there was more.
Two hours later she called again. The body was burned and bound, not recognizable as a man or woman, she amended, and they were doing some tests to determine its identity.
Fascinated by, and sympathetic to, the unusual details of Steven’s baffling disappearance more than three months before, I had undertaken a book on the subject, which had also afforded me the opportunity to discuss my very quiet but quirky Western Nebraska town and some of its exotic characters. I had no idea the story would turn out like this.
“Who else could it be?” I said, unable to imagine how such a thing might have happened.
When I learned that the burned and bound body was indeed Steven Haataja, that the circumstances surrounding his death had no explanation, that the police themselves had thrown up their hands, I thought innocently: I will solve this mystery and bring to Steven and his family justice.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.
I was 38, $5,000 in debt from a school loan that I’d wasted by dropping out of school (an aborted attempt at becoming a drug counselor). All my beliefs about sacrificing everything to become a novelist had amounted to nothing. To top it off I had just come off a dizzying romantic flop with a Spanish professor I had no business being with in the first place. I had been drifting for some time, starting all over freshly unknown in a new town—15 states in the last 10 years, without any measurable results. The road had long lost its savor. I was not in the best state of mind. It was no coincidence that I was about as far away as I could get from the people I loved.
A funny thing happened when I arrived in Chadron, however; a bucolic, hardscrabble, sandblasted prairie town of 5,000 in the northwest corner of the state, the panhandle as it’s called, elevation 3,400 feet, a quaint, forested, friendly old snow-still-on-the-ground-in-May town. Chadron had a water tower, grain elevators, a tanning salon, a video rental store, a small liberal arts college, a Hardee’s, a stoplight, and a curling yellow sign in the pet store window that read: “Hamsters and Tarantulas Featured Today.” There were abandoned houses everywhere. It felt like a dying town, politely hanging on. I felt akin. I felt indebted. I thought, you know, we can’t all win the game. So why not just shut up for a change and be satisfied with what you have? Why not just be a good neighbor and live an honorable life and take out the trash? Why not stop torturing yourself about fame and art? Why not relent, marry a reformed hooker, buy some old furniture and a ping-pong table, become a Cornhusker fan, open a dusty bottle of Kentucky straight, turn on the Rockies game, and enjoy the brief time you have left on this weird planet of sorrow?
Most people would live in an outhouse in Bangladesh before they would voluntarily move to Nebraska. They drive through the state on I-80 and think of it in a vague, resentful way as a flat expanse of interminable boredom sparsely populated with pigs, rednecks, and blue-eyed howdies juggling their nuts among the deep rows of sweet corn. Nebraska? Are you kidding me? I heard the same Nebraska joke twice before I got here: “Custer says to his men, got good news and bad. Good news is that we’re all going to be massacred at Little Big Horn. Bad news is that we have to cross Nebraska to get there.” The panhandle of Nebraska is actually more like Colorado in flavor, with topographical variation, forest, buttes, bluffs, black cowboy hats, gun racks in the pickup trucks, craggy, sinewy faces, cloud formations like lost civilizations, not much corn except for the ethanol fortune- seekers fouling up the water table, and the insistent message of self-reliance.
This town has been poor since it can remember, one reason people are so inclined to cooperate. The land is dominated by wheat, cows, and education. Unlike the rest of Nebraska, Chadron doesn’t quite sit on the great Ogallala aquifer, so there isn’t much water here. The closest lake is 20 miles. It rains about 16 inches a year. Western Nebraska is the only place in all my travels where I have seen the dust blowing and the rain falling at the same time.
I rented a room at the Roundup Motel out on the highway, right across from the Chuck Wagon restaurant, for $16 a night. The room was solid with homey touches, doilies, and a real quilted counterpane and pine wainscoting. The small phone book listed the businesses and residences of four states. In the weekly paper, The Chadron Record, amid the softball scores, the courthouse news, the sermon of the week, the super cheap houses, and the very few jobs available, I found a textual antidepressant called Police Beat, a log of the latest week’s calls to the Chadron Police Department:
5:24 p.m. Caller from the 400 block of Chapin St. stated that the dog across the street is not supposed to be outside because it is so small. She stated that the dog should be inside and if the owners didn’t want it she would buy it from them. Officer told caller that he could not require the owner to sell the dog, officer then inspected the dog and it was not lacking anything. Officer informed caller that just because the dog is not played with does not make it abused.
7:13 p.m. Caller from the 500 block of King St. advised that somebody cut his clothesline in his backyard and hung a scarecrow on it. He advised he just wanted it on record. He also advised that he was going to keep the scarecrow if nobody claimed it.
1:26 a.m. Caller from the 300 block of Lake St. advised he just got home from the bar and his truck had been wrecked. Caller stated he didn’t drive tonight because he knew he’d be drunk.
In The Chadron Record I also found a shack for $150 per month in the alley off of Mears Street, not far from the Native American Center, one block north of the railroad tracks. This had once been a railroad town. There had also been a Swedish-tooled flour mill along the tracks that had burned down long ago. Any hopes of rebuilding the flour mill had been dashed by the cost of the new parts required from Sweden.
My new home was two rooms, furnished, bathtub and toilet, a small yard with two tall Siberian elms, a bit “rough,” as the agent described it, with a small Smithsonian refrigerator that froze all my vegetables, giving new meaning to the word “crisper.” In the bedroom was Betsy Ross’s original mattress, the broken springs of which stuck up through the fabric like the tails of welded pigs, the whole nightly experience rather like lying on a bed of nails, though you could arrange your body on the mattress the way a river arranges itself through a forest, and it was better any day than a hard chair in a bus terminal or the front seat of a borrowed car at a rest stop.
My life was settled: one cup, one plate, one fork, one knife, a spoon, a Bible, fingernail clippers, radio, scissors, hydrogen peroxide, toothpaste, notebooks, grease-stained raiment, pots and pans and pens all in their proper places. A hamburger in a Styrofoam container. A dead grasshopper. An emaciated spider. A gallon of red wine. Three packages of Old Golds. How many times have I done this, vowed to end my days, started over, lied to myself about settling down, believed that something essential in me had changed, when nothing of the kind had happened? And how long would it be before I was packing up all my crap and running off again?
Though Chadron is a Lakota word for “city of barking dogs,” and each resident is required to tie his dog up in the yard until it barks itself unconscious, presumably to frighten off coyotes, there are times when the peace of this town, the quiet of inaction, is so thick that you have to get up and check out the window to see if the world has not come to an end. Time here is as big as the sky, especially when you don’t know anyone, so I would take long walks through town, past the abandoned homes, the rows of trailers and prefabs, the original 19th century log cabins, the classic Puritan boxes, the Dutch bungalows, the Georgian mansionettes with their wide porticoed verandas and weeping birch trees out front. Sometimes I walked up into the hills south of campus. There were trails that led back into the hinterland. If you walked far enough south the pine forest resumed. Standing up here you could see the curve of the earth and great floating rafts of rain, like islands made out of iron and whipped cream.
The year before, when I’d quit school midsemester, it was curious that the professor who had taught Beowulf would be the one to insist I see him in his office. I called him from a pay phone instead. He urged me to stay in school. He insisted that I had much to offer. My grades were good enough to make me eligible for many privileges, including an assistant teaching position and the probability of a handsome fellowship. He wondered what I would do if I quit school without a degree. I told him I did not know what I would do, but I wanted something more for my life’s work than a bench named after me or a memorial tree. I didn’t want to be comfortable in the cafeteria with the vents blowing Alzheimer’s spores all around and an unopened volume of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in my lap. “Do you remember where the glory in Beowulf is?” I asked him. “It is out amid peril in strange lands pitted against monsters and the mothers of monsters. It isn’t in the warm mead hall with roasted meats and the comfort of jesters and wenches.” Sometimes you can hear a nod on the other end of the line. He was silent for a time. I don’t think he ever dreamed that anything he taught would have this kind of effect on a student. He let me go after that, even wished me luck.
In spite of the fact that I’d already laboriously composed 14 complete novels unfit to print, the recollection of this adolescent fantasy, and also the fact that I had nothing else really to do, made me want to write another. If the horse throws you off, get back on, even if it kicks you in the head and you suffer irreversible brain damage. Who’s going to notice? Wasn’t Thomas Pynchon kicked by a horse?
My trusty 286 word processor had burned up in the Iowa summer heat the year before and I didn’t have the cash to replace it, but I had never been able to write anything worthwhile on a machine anyway, so I decided to write my next novel longhand. Name all the great novels written on word processors. If Dickens had a word processor Great Expectations would’ve been the first novel to circumnavigate the globe.My new novel sustained me. It was my psychological Jesus: comfort, purpose, magic, spirit, transformation, companionship, salvation, sacrifice. I jotted down gems on napkins, chanted sage insights sotto voce until memorized, remarked on an angle of light or a gesture. I snatched up my 110-sheet Mead notebook and scrawled epiphanies into the margins. The novel was my mad lover and my only faithful friend. It sang to me its sea-nymph song as the alley dogs yapped and the homeless Indians combed through the dumpsters for aluminum cans, as I shopped for green discount meat at Safeway, as the grasshoppers munched through the blasted verdure and the tumbleweeds bounced along on their way east or south. Now and then I would lean back in my chair and think of my academic debt, my enforced jack-off solitude, the stubborn lifetime of menial jobs that awaited me. No wonder I was so depressed.
Reprinted with permission from Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere: A Memoir by Poe Ballantine and published by Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, 2013.