Wheel of Fortune, Wheel of Fate

Author Jonis Agee imagines the unvanquishable human wrecks whose lives revolve around the NASCAR circuit

Set in the Sandhill region of Nebraska, the novel comes off like a prairie still life compared to the roaring speedway that framed Agee's story collection. But the author, who grew up in rural Nebraska, knows this place, too. "One of the things I try to do in my writing is preserve the remnant of the natural world and the rural lifestyle that is disappearing so quickly," she says. "I think we'll be the last people to see that world. It makes me very sad. So, often in my books there's a sense of nostalgia. I try not to be sentimental about it, but I'm trying to register the sense of this profound loss."

Like a lot people who once lived outside the city, Agee has seen her history partially bulldozed into the ground. "I moved here in '75 and I used to go just north of St. Paul to ride my horses. Now, everywhere I kept a horse, everywhere I've ridden is gone," she says. "That's true in Omaha, too. My grandfather's farm is still there, but they've put an interstate through it. Everywhere I rode there, even the creeks, and this old graveyard that I discovered--that's all gone, subdivided and developed. I don't know what they did with the graveyard; I guess they could have just plowed it under. But to make the land itself disappear?"

Agee laughs, and chastises herself for being a grim conversationalist. She laughs a lot, in hearty, infectious peals like Patsy Cline on old ballroom recordings. The cars she loves are the reason the land she loves is disappearing, and the only thing she can do about that irony is write it all down.

Writing for the checkered flag: Jonis Agee
Daniel Corrigan
Writing for the checkered flag: Jonis Agee

"I don't want all of our cultural decisions and cultural values to be set by people who live surrounded by pavement and buildings and non-natural conditions. There's a real physical life in rural areas that people who live there [use to] define themselves--through their physical labors and rhythms. I think a lot of us miss that. I think that's why we always romanticize anyone who works in the natural world."

Yet there is little romance in The Weight of Dreams. Working outdoors is dirty and exhausting, and Agee's characters are so tired they can scarcely speak to one another by the time dark falls on the land. It's a hard life for a kid, and the novel's Ty Bonte grows up a little warped after working on his abusive father's ranch. Agee lets him escape and become a soft-hearted horse trader, but a familiar from his youth tracks him down, and Ty becomes entangled in a horse-killing scheme that echoes an earlier act of violence.

"It's a hard book to read in some ways, I know it," Agee admits. "But I think it serves some purpose in confronting these issues. We read novels for instruction, in part, and also for entertainment. But people don't always realize they read to learn how to behave. Ty does something bad, but he spends the rest of his life paying for it. It's sort of the classic Crime and Punishment dilemma. We don't want to take responsibility for what we've done, and in this society, we don't want our children to take responsibility for the things they've done. I wrestle with this uncertainty in my work. Should we understand, or should there be moral outrage?"

The answer to that question depends on exactly how you like your evil. Ty Bonte is forgiven by Agee because he's been swept into trouble by a more psychologically damaged friend, who is not forgiven for his actions. It is a writer's privilege to weigh her characters consciences, and a writer's prerogative to decide who is essentially good (but prone to making mistakes) and who evil (despite his miserable childhood). The dividing act in this novel is the brutal killing of a horse.

"Every time I had to work on that part, I'd be so exhausted I just had to go to sleep afterwards, to kind of wash it through me," Agee remembers, fiddling worriedly with a small metal crow sculpture she keeps next to her couch. "But it was important to write that scene, because I had to show what true darkness was. To me, that was true darkness, to take something helpless and destroy it for money. People have remarked on that, and it angers some people. But the fact is, that is a true story, those things have happened, they have happened in the Twin Cities, and they continue to happen. I wanted the world to know what this looks like. This isn't just putting a dog down; this is violent, cruel, and sick.

"It's hard to read, but I would much rather my reader have that experience with horror than in, say, Silence of the Lambs, where a guy is butchering young women and making clothes out of them. To me, that was horror on a level that was incredibly irresponsible. I threw that book away, and I don't treat books that way.

"I think the imagination is so powerful, you have to be careful of what you imagine. Years ago, I wrote a story about a woman who accidentally locks her dog in the garage and goes away for the weekend, and the dog tries to tear his way out and eventually bursts through the window. Then a week or so later I went out to my garage, and everything I'd described, including the broken window, had come true. Some animal had been locked in. So I learned that if I write something too bad, it could come true. That's my superstition."

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