Michael Bishop,
Unicorn Mountain
(Bantam, 1989)

The year is 1986. The place is Snowy Falls, Colorado, too small to show up on most maps. Libby Quarrels owns a ranch just out of town, the Tipsy Q, part of the settlement when she divorced her husband, Gary. Sam Coldpony, a Ute who left the reservation, is her hired man, and he hasn't seen his wife or daughter for more than 14 years. Paisley Coldpony is Sam's daughter, now a young Ute woman who lives on the reservation and is sorting through the legacy of Sam's desertion, her mother's anger and a paternalistic government that still has little sympathy for the Indians' traditional ways. Beaumont Gavin is Gary's cousin, an ad man who fled Colorado for Atlanta because he is gay and is now dying of AIDS.

Michael Bishop's Unicorn Mountain begins with a confrontation between Libby and Gary, a philandering rodeo rider who is under court order to keep his distance from his ex-wife. His cousin Bo is dying and has been spurned by his family. Gary is a manipulative s.o.b. who knows just which buttons to push: Libby flies to Atlanta and brings Bo back to the Tipsy Q, for reasons that aren't clear even to her. Bo soon learns the secret that Libby and Sam are keeping: there are unicorns on the Tipsy Q; they appear in the late winter and disappear in the late summer -- and they are dying.

The story of Unicorn Mountain is thoroughly contemporary, not only in the events it relates and the context that surrounds them, but in its treatment. The overall tale is three-fold: the attempt to save the unicorns, Bo's decline and impending death, and Paisley's coming to terms with life and her future. Bishop has built the novel from the details, the small events that come together to tell the story, because it does resolve itself into one story, so that even when something happens, it seems as though nothing is happening -- it's just so normal.

The characters are strongly and definitively drawn: they are not particularly nice people, nor are they particularly bad, and they do things from impulses that they don't always understand, just like most of us. The characters, major and minor, display the prejudices and ignorance that one would expect; there are racial and gay slurs, there is the fear of a killer disease that no one understands, there are crossed signals and underhanded dealings -- that Libby and Sam, because of a misperception, grab their guns to defend themselves and Bo when the townsfolk, sparked by drunken generosity on the part of some local cowhands, march up to the ranch to wish Bo well is only one example. Bo is by turns sober, manic and bitchy. Sam has managed to screw up his life completely, and Paisley's anger toward him is fully justified, even if it is not very attractive. Libby sometimes wishes Bo would just go ahead and die.

Bishop's prose is straightforward and perfectly appropriate to the novel, even when he is describing the crotchety old Bendix black-and-white television that suddenly starts pulling in color broadcasts from an alternate reality or the emotional impact of a herd of unicorns -- the kar'tajan -- in full stampede in the mountain twilight.

Bishop makes full use of traditional Ute beliefs as an aspect of character and as part of the context. That he sets this otherworldly aspect of the novel in the blunt reality of a ranch in the Rockies only adds to its force; this is, after all, the world in which those beliefs developed. The universe of the kar'tajan is also very normal; one of the programs on the old Bendix is the alternate-reality version of Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins, which devotes several episodes to the kar'tajan's plight. Bishop deliberately and quite blatantly undercuts the traditional Western folklore of the unicorn, from his name for them -- "kar'tajan," supposedly a word from the Sanskrit that means "Lord of the Desert," also shows up as a Ute word -- to their vulnerability to a plague that can be investigated by modern veterinary medicine.

This novel is quite remarkable. The people are just normal, not overtly heroic and neither particularly nice nor particularly mean-spirited, the events are often unpleasant and the overall story could have been depressing. There is no big climax in which all is forgiven and everyone lives happily ever after, there are no miracle cures and evil is not defeated in a cataclysmic confrontation, but people learn and they use what they've got to do what they can. They change. They become better people, if only by small increments. Bishop portrays a dark world, but brings it from a kind of gritty realism to a beautiful, magical story, with moments of emotional truth that are genuine and deeply compelling.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 24 January 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.