The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur explores the heart and mystery of Big Sky Country in this evocative and atmospheric novel of family, home, love, and responsibility inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
After his father’s surprise death, Anthony Fry—son of cattle ranchers Dean and Sarah Fry—returns home to Billings, Montana, to run a small theater camp and to, ostensibly, help his mother with the ranch. When he arrives, he finds his uncle Neal helping out much more than he ever could. Anthony’s mother and his uncle then proceed to get married … a mere three months after Dean’s death.
The shock of his mother’s remarriage isn’t the only thing playing on Anthony’s mind. A mining company is insisting that he sign away his rights to the ranch so they can strip the ranch land for coal. The love of Anthony’s life—Hilary, who had a nervous breakdown just before he left for New York—is back in town. And teenagers are leaving him love poetry.
To top it all off, Anthony is having vivid dreams of his father’s death. One of his teenage theater campers tells him that she’s seen his dad’s ghost on the spot where he died. Dean Fry does not appear to be at rest, and the last person to see him alive was his brother Neal—who is now married to his widow. Between the dreams and his gut instinct, Anthony suspects there are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the Billings Police Department’s philosophy.
The Weight of an Infinite Sky is Carrie La Seur’s second novel. If the storyline seems vaguely familiar, it’s because the structural backbone of the book comes from none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. La Seur’s main character, Anthony, is a struggling actor who notices the parallel between his real life and Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the Danish prince. And Anthony is wondering if he’s going mad.
The central mystery of The Weight of an Infinite Sky isn’t really a whodunit—it’s more of a “did the guy we’re pretty sure did something wrong actually do something wrong?” You can make the argument (and plenty of people have) that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is mad, but it’s also pretty easy to buy that Claudius (here played by Uncle Neal) is a murdering scumbag. It’s a little more difficult to jump to the same conclusion in this novel.
And I think that’s because, well, it’s a novel. Not a play. Here, in Infinite Sky, I think we have a demonstration of the different effects novels have versus plays. As a reader, you still pretty much believe that Neal’s a scumbag—he’s cold and distant and not very nice. But we’re so tightly placed in Anthony’s head that we don’t have the narrative distance that is created by watching a play.
The first big example is when Anthony—who is under a lot of stress and drinking very heavily—thinks that his father’s death might not have been an accident. Does this epiphany come from a police investigation? A small clue no one else noticed? Some cryptic note found in his deceased father’s sock drawer?
Nope. Anthony first gets the notion that his father may have been murdered … from a dream.
Anthony’s own cry woke him in the gray predawn two days later. He was falling, and the smell of sage and sweaty horseflesh was like a mist he breathed, the first time he’d ever dreamed a scent. When he opened his eyes, he was sitting up in the sleeping bag on his futon and vertigo was strong on him. He braced a hand against the wall to soothe his inner ear. It might be the vodka, some of it, but this was unlike any other drunk dream he’d known. He’d been on Ponch, walking up a trail to the top of Croucher Coulee, nowhere else it could be with that long vie down the cut of the creek. Along the cliff face was a thick, gleaming vein of coal newly exposed, stretched out like a snake in the rock. Ponch startled and reared, and Anthony’s strangled shout brought him back to consciousness, sweaty and panicked, even as he tumbled down, endlessly down, the abyss in his gut.
What follows is Anthony’s struggle to find his place.
He doesn’t know if he belongs in Billings. His family’s ranch is under the greedy eye of a mining company, and Uncle Neal doesn’t seem to be putting up much of fight. Could this be another motivation for murder? Animals are being poisoned along the mine’s borders. Ranchers are being intimidated into signing away lands they’ve owned for generations.
“Rick’s threatening people,” Chance said. “Old folks. It’s coercion. It could void the leases if we can convince a judge. Some people say there’s worse. They say he’s making animals sick, to scare them into signing.”
“Brittany mentioned that. You think Rick knows the first thing about livestock?”
“He claims to be a farm kid.”
“That’s PR as far as I’m concerned. He probably grew up in a Dallas subdivision called Longhorn Farms or something. I don’t get the sense he’s a real stickler for precise terms. He likes his boots shiny.”
Anthony hatches a few different plans to get to the bottom of everything. Including a “play within a play” where he openly accuses his uncle—inspiration straight from the Bard himself.
Eventually, Anthony gets the answers he’s searching for, but the conclusions of The Weight of an Infinite Sky may not be what’s expected. Carrie La Seur has delivered a fascinating psychological exploration of a family struggling between tradition and dreams, staged in the wild Montana landscape. It’s an intimate peek into the heart of the West.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.
Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.