There's plenty of horseback riding and bucolic prose in Mark Spragg's novel Bone Fire (Knopf, $26), but there's nothing sentimental about his story of northern Wyoming, set in the fictional town of Ishawooa. This is New West all the waya place to escape from, not to. Those who populate the modest ranches include an art-school dropout caring for her grandfather, a ten-year-old growing up quick in the absence of his mother (who's off selling New Age enlightenment at the behest of her "Guides"), and Crane Carlson, a sheriff suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Early on, a murdered teen is discovered in a meth lab, and Carlson's plodding investigation forms the backbone of Spragg's narrative. But it's the author's endearingly biting characters, not the slowly unpacking whodunit, that drives the book. You root for these people no matter how much dysfunction they leave in their wake, mostly because they're always saying things you'd never have the guts to utter out loud. "You want me to talk with [your manager] about this attitude you've got going on?" a woman asks a motel clerk who's just implied that he knows she's there for a tryst. "No, ma'am," he replies. "Then try not being such a smutty little shithead." Spragg, who lives in Wyoming, understands how people endure the state's harsh lifestyle: Hard times go down easier when you've got a bitter sense of humor.
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