Cover image for When we were wolves : stories
When we were wolves : stories
Billman, Jon.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

Physical Description:
239 pages ; 24 cm
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An anthology of original fiction captures the colorful inhabitants of the West, from rogues and tricksters and people trapped in unsuitable marriages and impossible situations to other rootless individuals who handle their lives according to their own unusual standards.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Billman writes of the West, specifically of rural Wyoming, where the only constants are the winds, the fires, and the Mormons. The best story in this collection is the first, "Indians," about a barnstorming, all-Indian baseball team trying to eke out a living during the Dust Bowl. Several of the stories are set in the small town of Hams Fork, Wyoming, a community with a full complement of eccentrics, despite the Mormon power structure's attempts to enforce conformity. In one Hams Forks story, an artist paints his current girlfriend nude on the town's water tower; in another, an upright citizen befriends a moderately reformed thief. In the title story, a prison hockey team, the Wolves, tries to garner favor with the parole board by feigning religious belief and skating skills. Billman's common themes are dashed dreams, tired people, and exhausted hopes, but he also recognizes the importance of nurturing differences as a way of opening up new possibilities. A former teacher and firefighter, Billman is a writer to watch.--George Needham

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Billman's distinctive and engaging debut collection of 13 stories, the swaggering, even aggressively masculine rituals of hunting, fishing, prison sports and utilizing big machines blend strangely with the vagaries of religious faith and the difficulties of life in small Mormon towns. The narrator of "Kerr's Fault" is a divorced school teacher in Hams Fork, Wyo., who is falling afoul of the narrow strictures of his school's Mormon-dominant administration. He and another non-Mormon, Wayne Kerr, a renegade painter of nudes and salable kitsch, have some suspicions about their inferior places in the community: "The UPS driver is a Mormon. Wayne and I are convinced our packages ride around town for a few extra days but what can you do?" Together the two friends manifest their outsider status by means of humorously irreverent vandalism, beautiful women and art. Kerr also figures in "Honeyville," a yarn about smuggling mead, of all things, into Utah. One of several stories set in the 1930s and '40s, "Atomic Bar" depicts the uneven partnership between 15-year-old David Hadsell, an orphan, and a wily conman named Mose Dogbane. Mose, in the aftermath of WWII, is trying to promote a uranium rush in Wyoming. The narrative becomes bittersweet as David learns that Mose's brummagem schemes have a harsh side. Billman has a keen sense of the disparate environments in which his protagonists sift through the small change of fate, whether that enterprise involves a Mormon family gleefully eating stolen beef or a hasty, $27 wedding in Reno. Like the early Tom McGuane, the author displays a clear-eyed empathy for people who are not interested in "making it" the American way, including such macho marginal types as firefighters ("Custer Complex") and prisoners (in the title story). He reminds readers that the classic American archetype of the rough-guy-in-tough-times still holds some real surprises. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Billman's debut collection is an example of contemporary Western writing at its best. The narration has a slow and casual sensibility that matches the Western psyche, taking the reader into worlds that would be foreign to most living east of the Mississippi: Native American minor-league baseball, small Wyoming towns dominated by Mormons, and the daily lives of smoke jumpers figure here. Billman's three stories about Wayne Kerr, a self-centered but magnetic artist who finds willing accomplices in his schemes to annoy the conservative residents of Hams Fork, WY, raise hopes that a novel about this character is in the works. An important new voice; highly recommended.√ĄChristine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Like all prolonged natural disasters, the Dakota dust bowl bred superstition. Real estate changed hands by the bushel. The government and railroad boosters had told dirt-poor eastern farmers that if they moved into the Great American Desert and plowed, the rains would come. But unlike the chinch bugs, rain had not followed the plow here. After the buffalo were gone, the cattle ate the buffalo grass down to nothing. Then came the barbed-wire fences that only wind and soil and grasshoppers could pass through. After a few good wet years the droughts came. Then more mice and rabbits and winds. Without asking, folks in the Dakotas got parts of Texas and Oklahoma, and Canada landed good Dakota bottomland for a whistle. Townships, counties, entire states began to hold collective days of prayer to try to coax God into ending the suffering. It was a form of spiritual cloud-seeding as well as a one-ring circus. Preachers wrung their hands, looked at their shoes, then at the sky. People's new hope was that beating the socks off an Indian ball team might change the medicine. We spent most of the Depression as barnstormers, living like the hoboes who packed the boxcars thick as blackbirds and playing other Indian League reservation teams, civic all-stars, semi-pro teams, barnstorming colored squads, CCC teams, Rotarians, and prison teams for whatever beans, chickens, Grain Belt beer, and gasoline we could get. We drove around the Dakotas with the windows open, our mouths shut against the dirt that would settle on our teeth. Sometimes the dust would be so bad we had to keep wet handkerchiefs over our faces to breathe. When we were playing well and did have the money, we weren't allowed in most hotels or motor lodges. We stayed in the colored motels, but those were rare in the plains. Usually we stopped the car and slept with fleas and chiggers on wool blankets under the stars. Never rained anyway. Our pitcher, Job Looks Twice, could tell the weather in his sleeve. "Hot today," he'd say in the relative cool of the morning when we set out in the old Model T for another town. Waves of heat would rise from the hood of the car. Dust rolled in the open windows and stuck to our faces. "Very hot." It was in the last of the wet years that Job, drunk as nine Indians, had fallen asleep on the tracks in downtown Sioux City, giving his right arm to a loaded eastbound grain train. They could not reattach his arm because they never found it. For a time, just after the accident, Job cursed God and prayed that he might die. But the stump healed without infection, and unlike the rest of the country, Job's personal depression was short-lived. He cropped his hair, bought a new black traveling suit and straw fedora, and--good thing he pitched from the port side--went on to keep us well above 500. This in 1931, when it wouldn't rain any real amount on the plains for another ten years. Ever since the accident, Job could forecast the weather in his sleeve, from some feeling, or nonfeeling, where his arm used to be. We knew it wouldn't rain, for Job's barometric arm told us so. Dust was a part of our lives. Job was a second-generation product of the missionaries and, after the accident, became obsessed with repentance. The loss of the limb had thrown the big lefty off-balance just enough to make his curve ball dance and his slider tail slick and hard. With the stump, which began just above where his elbow had been before Sioux City, he cradled his left-handed, three-fingered glove against his chest. He released the ball, followed through with his good arm, and capped the glove onto his good hand before the pitch reached the strike zone. Job could field bunts as well as shots rifled at the mound, but he didn't need to have much range as a fielder: the other Indians--Asa Red Owl, Carp Whitehorse, Baptist Thundergrass, Walter and Jacob Elk, Jeremiah "Big Chief" Montgomery, Otis Downwind, and myself--covered the field like a trade blanket. At the plate Job learned to bunt one-handed and usually beat the throw to first. In those days farmers and bankers would search the dawn sky for signs of rain, but the only clouds were clouds of dust, the only storms the soil-and-wind rollers that blew out of the south and west. "We cannot expect to understand the mysteries of God's weather," Job would say. He believed everything happened for a reason, God's reason. And unlike the rest of the team, Job never tried to question the logic behind it. Besides his beloved spitball, Job was partial to another illegal gem he called his needleball. At any general store you could buy 78-rpm phonograph needles fifty for a dime. Job kept a few of the needles stuck in the seams of his trousers and a dozen or so more behind the mound under his rosin bag. With a motion that looked like he was simply wiping his only hand, he would unquiver a needle and finger it into the threads of the ball. The weight of the needle put rising zip onto his fastball and a ten-inch break in his nickel curve. Umpires would examine the ball but never find anything because the impact with the mitt or bat knocked the needle from the seams and into the dirt. Before his accident Job's needleball had nearly killed a white man over to Woonsocket. The guy had used his spikes on Baptist Thundergrass at second base in the first inning, and Job had been brushing him back all afternoon with a salvo of knockdowns at the chest. Job would get the batter nervous and deep in the box, then paint the outside corner for strikes. A fastball in the eighth got away and he caught the batter in the temple. The man appeared dead, but as it turned out, Job only blinded him. The Woonsocket players, too stunned to charge the mound, hovered around their downed comrade, fanning dust away from his nostrils. A minister climbed out of the stands and stood over the body, saying a prayer for his soul. Big Chief Montgomery walked out of a dirt devil in right field and started the car while the newly blind man held everyone's attention. The Indians lit out of town under cover of a dust storm. Blind man couldn't do more than snap beans for a living. Ever after the Indians steered clear of Woonsocket. When Job lost his arm to the grain train he had thought it was retribution for the blinding. Arm for an eye. Job believed that if he lived a good life his de-railed arm would be waiting for him when he died. "Sometimes," he said, "I'll reach for something with the arm that's not there. A tin cup. A baseball. I can feel the thing but can't pick it up. Then I'm aware that it will not be raining anytime soon." Job was sure weather came from heaven. "If my good outweighs the not-good and I make it there, I'll get my arm back. And the blind man from Woonsocket will get his eyes." Excerpted from When We Were Wolves: Stories by Jon Billman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.