Early in “Inland,” Téa Obreht’s new novel, we find the frontierswoman Nora Lark in the drought-stricken Arizona Territory, managing the fears of her seven-year-old son, Toby, who has discovered strange disturbances in the scrubland surrounding their homestead. The year is 1893. Toby has convinced himself that the tracks he’s found belong to some large fantastical beast, while Nora is certain the whole business is simply a product of her son’s overactive imagination. Soon Toby even claims to have seen the beast: huge and skeletal, with a ratty mane, folded wings on its back, and a pungent stink.
“Inland” itself cuts an odd figure in the Western landscape, and is a surprising follow-up to Obreht’s début novel, “The Tiger’s Wife” (2011), which garnered broad critical acclaim and sold more than a million copies worldwide. Obreht, born in the former Yugoslavia in 1985, set “The Tiger’s Wife” in an unnamed Balkan country emerging from war. As her protagonist recounted the stories and legends told by her recently deceased grandfather, the novel’s sense of place took on an air of universality. The stories, like the myths and folktales they invoked, transcended the specifics of time, location, and history.
Obreht’s actual grandfather, a central influence on “The Tiger’s Wife,” also provides the seed of inspiration for her second novel: obsessed with Westerns, he imparted his fascination with the American frontier to his young granddaughter. Obreht grew up imagining America as “a vast, unpeopled, almost supernaturally beautiful wilderness,” a place that, she has said, “seemed impossible to me, a landscape of the imagination more than anything else, a painted backdrop, the mirage of another age.” After spending her youth in the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, and Egypt, Obreht first came to the United States at the age of twelve, settling with her family in the American South before later moving to Northern California. When she finally laid eyes on the West, she was captivated, and found herself “overwhelmingly bound to a place where I had no connection, no roots, no family, no cultural touchstone whatsoever.”
With “Inland,” Obreht makes a renewed case for the sustained, international appeal of the American West, based on a set of myths that have been continually shaped and refracted through outside lenses—from Karl May’s adventure novels to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns or, more recently, Chloé Zhao’s film “The Rider.” The fictional outpost of Amargo, where Nora and her family have carved out their home, is rendered by Obreht with instantly recognizable, almost cinematic clarity. The town teeters between the prospects of boom and bust, and Nora’s household finds itself on a similar precipice; after her husband goes missing on a trip to find water, her two elder sons take off following a heated argument about his fate, leaving her to look after Toby and attend to the family’s affairs on her own.
The West of Obreht’s grandfather—grounded in seductive stories of adventure rather than in the grim particulars of history—has been as potent to children in her native Europe as it has been to young Americans growing up in the conquered landscapes where its events actually played out. I realized, while reading “Inland,” that Obreht had imagined Amargo to be situated not far from the town where I was raised. Born the same year as Obreht, I, too, imagined the landscape as a backdrop for adventure—my friends and I played cowboys and Indians in our high-desert back yards with thoughtless abandon, and we participated gleefully in our town’s Frontier Days celebrations and its “World’s Oldest Rodeo.” But, even for those without roots in the American West, the setting of “Inland” is immediately familiar, part of a near-universal inheritance.
“Inland” interweaves the story of Nora and her homestead with the adventures of a young immigrant known as Lurie, an Anglicized version of his original surname, Djurić. In the book’s opening pages, he recounts to an unidentified interlocutor how he left the Ottoman Empire as a boy with his father, a Bosnian Muslim, who sought a new life in America. Not long after they arrive in an Eastern port, his father dies, leaving Lurie with only scattered memories of him. The ensuing details of Lurie’s story bear out any number of genre clichés—he falls in with a group of outlaws, kills a man, goes on the lam, and moves farther and farther west—but there are also hints that Obreht has something different in mind for him. Lurie sees ghosts and carries with him the desires of those who touched him in death—among them a child pickpocket with whom he once shared an attic room near the Missouri River. The boy dies of typhoid, but his spectre and his lust for petty larceny remain with Lurie.
After thieving his way along the Gulf Coast of Texas, Lurie is caught by a group of Levantine sailors in the act of stealing a nazar, a blue amulet like one that he remembers his father carrying as protection against the evil eye. It is here that we are introduced to a cadre of characters unfamiliar to the Western genre—Greek, Turkish, and Arab camel drivers from the Eastern Mediterranean who have arrived in America with a boatload of dromedaries, which are the first of their kind to set foot on the continent since their progenitors died out in the last Ice Age.
Once Lurie joins the cameleers, his story departs from its seemingly prefigured trajectory. This portion of the novel draws from an obscure chapter in history, involving the United States Camel Corps, a project of the U.S. Army that deployed camels as pack animals to support military operations in the arid Southwest. Obreht preserves many true details in her rendering of this short-lived experiment: the names and biographical details of the drovers and their military overseers, the route travelled by the caravan from Texas to California, the locations of their encampments, and the bizarre challenges presented by the animals along the way—their intense musk, for example, repels the other pack animals meant to labor alongside them.
Much like Obreht herself, these characters and creatures from foreign lands are drawn to enact the grand dramas of a new culture soon after their arrival in the West. But as “Inland” progresses we begin to recognize the subtle ways that Obreht has been poking fun at various long-recycled stereotypes—Lurie’s unseen interlocutor, we learn, is actually one of the camels that he will later steal away from the Army unit, a nod toward the clichéd love often shared in Westerns between a boy and his horse. The real “cowboys” of the story, we come to find, are the Muslim camel drivers. And Nora, initially painted as the archetypal “woman in distress” awaiting the return of the men in her life, comes neither to need nor to accept any help as she works to hold together her fracturing household.
Discovering the particular genre conventions that Obreht has chosen to transfigure or to uphold soon becomes central to the novel’s propulsive appeal. Which stock character, we wonder—the town doctor, the dogged lawman, the wise old settler, the conniving cattle baron—will break the mold? Which familiar scene—the Indian massacre, the fated meeting between lawman and bandit, the gritty frontierswoman’s display of dogged perseverance—has been designed to collapse under its own weight, making way for some unexpected insight?
“Yes, it was originally a bouncy castle, but in this market I say take off your shoes and make an offer!”Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby
Still, reimagining the oft-imagined is inevitably a fraught endeavor: it may be that one can’t upend a genre without being bound, in some way, to its age-old shortcomings. In “Inland,” as in so many Westerns, Native Americans and Mexicans are often invoked by the immigrants and settlers who have come to replace them, but they are rarely developed into complex characters in their own right. The ubiquity of ghosts and spirits throughout the novel appears to signal, at first, a contemplation of the genocidal toll of Western expansion. “We saw them, it seemed, in every tree, in the streets of every little pueblo, dotting the horizon in their loneliness, the unburied dead of battle upon battle,” Lurie recounts. Passages like this call to mind Juan Rulfo’s classic “Pedro Páramo,” in which a man searching for his father arrives in the Mexican countryside to find a town populated only by spectres. In Rulfo’s novel, the ghosts come to symbolize a rural Mexico emptied out by urbanization and local despotism in the aftermath of the country’s bloody revolution and ensuing Cristero War. But in “Inland” the presence of the supernatural never satisfyingly coalesces around a larger meaning—Obreht reminds us that the supposed vacant landscapes of the early West were haunted like any other, but her rendering lacks the specificity that helped make Rulfo’s metaphor so compelling.
Similarly, the novel’s few instances of violence—hallmark moments in any Western—often feel predictably casual, with few enduring consequences. When a former lawman confronts Lurie about the death of the young man he killed, Lurie maintains his innocence. The lawman, attempting to stir his humanity, describes how his victim “took fever and soiled himself and screamed for weeks in his sleep” before finally succumbing to his injuries, but Lurie remains unshaken. “Whether for spite or cowardice,” he says of this exchange, “I could not bring myself to give him peace.” For someone afflicted by visions of the dead, he is remarkably ambivalent about the human life he has extinguished, proving himself to be as stoic as nearly anyone in the West’s deep pantheon of cowboys and outlaws. Yet even as Lurie approaches archetype we are reminded that, as an immigrant, he has been made to murder pieces of his original self ever since his arrival in America.
Obreht does not engage in the usual task of the revisionist Western, seeking to correct heroic fairy tales with infusions of compromised morality and violent grit. Her contribution is often playful in tone; we are far from Cormac McCarthy. But “Inland” still examines with great seriousness the line between reinvention and erasure. When Lurie arrives at the frontier, we first imagine that an immigrant with little memory of his past has been provided with a quintessential blank slate. But once he falls in with the camel drivers he is given a window into how they are being absorbed into the dominant cultural order that they and their camels are helping to usher forth. The notion of assimilation, Obreht seems to suggest, was one of the first American ideas to arrive on the frontier, subsuming immigrant culture at the same time that it sought to rid the land of its original inhabitants.
The most charismatic of the cameleers is known to the Army officers (and to American history) as Hi Jolly, an Anglicized pronunciation of his Arabic name, Hadji Ali. A Syrian Turk born Filip Tedro in the city of Izmir, he assumed the name Hadji Ali only after completing the sacred Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that entitles one to return home bearing the honorific hadji. In the American West, however, the pilgrim becomes a pioneer. Perhaps as a small act of reclamation, Ali quietly sets about helping Lurie recognize his own obscured origins. The name of Lurie’s father, he reveals, carried an adaptation of the same title borne by Ali: known as Hadziosman in Bosnia, he would, elsewhere in the Muslim world, have been known as Hadji Osman. “Are you a Turk, after all?” Ali asks. It is a question Lurie never answers.
Nora, for her part, discovers that the frontier she is helping to “bring order” to is invested in her womanly independence only to the extent that it helps clear the way for a fuller implementation of settler society—a society that promises to reëstablish the same expectations of submission she left behind when she came West. Nora fully grasps the undesirability of the more autonomous, “masculine” qualities she has developed on the frontier while listening to her husband, Emmett, tell their two elder sons that he wants them to cultivate the affection of “ladies” rather than “hard women.” Reflecting on her husband’s kitchen musing, Nora comes to a realization:
Emmett had managed to bypass her wholesale. He not only failed to see her as a lady—he wouldn’t even trouble himself with the comparison. She was a tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing, and the sum total of her life’s work was her husband of twenty years enumerating what he desired for his sons—which did not include a companion with her qualities, but did include moving to a more favorable clime to secure the affections of a person with not one-half of Nora’s merits.
In one of the book’s most riveting passages, Nora remembers how, recently arrived in Arizona, she fled her home in panic at the menacing sight of a shadowy rider on the horizon. Alone with her infant daughter, she became convinced that the figure was an Apache scout leading a raid to ravage her household. “She thought Apache,” Obreht writes, “because the word had been growing in her like an illness all her life.”
Nora hides in the long grass near their home, splayed out in the full glare of the sun, her baby overheating beneath her body. The next day, with the rider long gone, her daughter dies in the care of the town doctor. To everyone who asks, Nora forever blames the tragedy on an unseen band of marauding Indians, even after she realizes that the dark figure on horseback had been her Mexican neighbor, coming to share a loaf of bread. The violent prospect of an Indian raid, “a death foretold to her every day,” was a narrative more easily imagined by both her and the scattered settlers who made up her community.
The fraught inheritance of story provides for an unresolved tension at the center of “Inland” that lingers even after the novel ends. The legacy of myth and history, after all, is still written with confounding glory and ruin all across America’s long-settled frontier. The Arizona town where I come from—perhaps a future likeness of Obreht’s Amargo—still clings to its bygone cowboy identity. Growing up there, I, too, was encouraged to define myself solely by those terms. Often, my name served as the only outward reminder of my remote Mexicanness—but, like Lurie, I barely grasped the significance of names. In middle school, I even developed a strange rivalry with a boy named Jesus. One day, goaded by my white friends, we fought each other at recess. As we were pulled apart, he spat on me. In return, I called him a dirty Mexican, almost without thinking. It was the first insult that bubbled up in me. It had, after all, been growing in me like an illness all my life.
Who belongs in the West? With “Inland,” Obreht reminds us that the future resonance of the Western is rooted in a continuing revision of its terms, and in an expanding notion of who might occupy its center. Propelled by her vision of self-authorship and mythmaking, the novel probes the limits of the American Western, even as it sometimes displays them. The writer’s task, Obreht knows, is to untether oneself from predetermined notions and stand like young Toby before old disturbances, imagining that something wholly unfamiliar might still be encountered in the distance. ♦