Inland by Téa Obreht

There’s a distinguished lineage of novelists who have wanted the American West to mean something. The trouble is that it means so much: writers set up their encampments in that vast, parched, sunstroke landscape, only to fall victim, like the frontiersmen they portray, to their attempts to tame it. What does the West mean? It means hope, violence, and gold, it means loneliness, it means struggle, it means escape and yearning, it means nature. It means death. It’s irreducible.

This is the challenge Téa Obreht faces in her muddled, poorly paced, yet intermittently sublime new novel, Inland. Set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, it’s largely the tale of Nora, a mother of three—or four, or five, depending how you tally parenthood—whose husband, a newspaperman, has been absent from home an uncomfortably long while. More immediately, she has two problems on her hands: a lack of water, and a “beast” that her youngest son, Toby, is unshakably convinced lurks nearby.

Stitched crossways through this, meanwhile, are briefer scenes in which an outlaw named Lurie Mattie recounts his picaresque travels across the Atlantic and into the West, variously a thief, a soldier, and an explorer. Eventually, of course, the two stories overlap.

The West means hope, violence, and gold, it means escape and yearning.

Inland is a success probably only to the degree that Obreht is incapable of failure. She is an unusually gifted writer. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, excerpted in The New Yorker while she was still in her mid-20s, was justly a phenomenon; set in an ambiguous version of the Balkans, it read like a nimbler Salman Rushdie, using unlikely fables to mirror and refract unlikely but very real political terrors.

A cowgirl tends to her cattle, 1915.

Inland has enough improbabilities—Lurie Mattie can see and converse with the dead, and camels (though this actually occurred!) bestride the Great Plains—to be categorized as magical realism. But in its decisive moments, it’s more akin to traditional realist fiction. Nora, 37, sees herself in despair as a “tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing,” her youth mortgaged to the “blue wastes of the Sonoran night.” Years that she might have passed somewhere less demanding have been given over to a cruel land. But someone had to make America, Obreht seems to be suggesting, and most often—whatever Cormac McCarthy has had to say about it—it was a woman.

For all its shrewd scrutiny, though, Inland never quite coheres. The primary reason is that its high thematic emotions and its involved plotlines seem continually in conflict. Nora’s pursuit of water, for instance, is sometimes the most urgent matter in the novel, then for long stretches goes entirely forgotten. Obreht rushes vital new characters onstage late in the book, as if they were actors who’d been delayed to a curtain. The book’s secondary characters (a local doctor, for instance, older but “pinstraight” with “the irrepressible energy of a daddy-longlegs”) feel more alive in cameos than many of the main characters ever do.

Someone had to make America, and most often—whatever Cormac McCarthy has had to say about it—it was a woman.

Most crucially, Inland would be a better novel if it were simply Nora’s story. Lurie Mattie seems not so much a human as a vivified symbol, a questing, ill-starred, surrealistic figure in whom all the peculiar blended meanings of the West are meant to converge—the character in whom Obreht seems to be most transparently urging the setting of her story to match her skill as a writer.

And to be fair, this skill is overwhelming, overawing. In both of her novels, Obreht has shown herself to be superb at finding the little chinks of banality that are normal in prose and caulking them with stolen flashes of observation. A horse and rider lift “velvet purls of dust,” she writes, while later a girl walking in the twilight becomes, “for a fleeting instant, just the angular silhouette of herself.” Two horses are “stole-looking,” a boy’s room is “musk and misrule.” This dexterity extends to Obreht’s mastery of the language of her characters and their time, which suffuse Inland with authenticity. “Hullo?” Nora calls while holding a gun on a possible intruder. “Come out slow, you’re stood down.”

Here’s a theory: the best novels of the West (True Grit, by Charles Portis, My Ántonia, by Willa Cather) tell very focused stories, an emphasis that allows their meaning to radiate outward for itself. Only somewhere provincial—New York, say—can handle the huge ambition of a novelist bent on defining a place. Obreht will write many great novels—if Inland isn’t one of them, the fault is only partially hers, and partially the power of all the ideas that have inhered in the West, all that we need it to be, its magnificent heedless mortal expansive range.

Inland very nearly gets there in its sweeping, stirring last pages. But not quite. “All this,” as Nora thinks in one weary moment, “was what came of naming fragile things.”

Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mystery series.