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Wright Morris: Ceremony in Lone Tree

This novel is a follow-up to The Field of Vision, published four years earlier. It features many of the same characters, including the Scanlon family, the McKee family and Gordon Boyd. The focus on the book is Tom Scanlon’s ninetieth birthday celebration (the ceremony of the title), to which the whole family come, including some additional characters we did not meet in the previous book. As with the previous book, we follow the stories of the main characters separately.

Tom Scanlon continues to live in the hotel in Lone Tree. The town is run down, with most of the businesses closed. He has had a brief flirtation with fame, when a photo of him appeared on the front page of an Omaha paper wrapped up like a mummy, his cold feet in a colder oven, with the headline MAN WHO KNEW BUFFALO BILL SPENDS LONELY XMAS. His daughter, Lois, is not happy with this as she and her husband, Walter McKee, did spend some time with him over Christmas. However, the newspaper article led them to take him to Mexico, as recounted in The Field of Vision. But though he is nominally the hero of this book, as it is his birthday, he plays a very low key role, rarely speaking or, indeed, doing much at all.

Gordon Boyd has been invited to the birthday party but, at least initially, decides not to go and sets out driving (from Acapulco), he knows not where. He heads for Las Vegas where he thinks that he missed the chance to marry Lois Scanlon, who had married Walter McKee, nominally his best friend. He heads North and finds the motel full because of the atom bomb testing. Eventually, he meets a young woman in a bar and she comes with him. He calls her Daughter and she calls him Big Daddy. It is clear that they are heading for Lone Tree. Even when his car crashes, he just leaves the car in a ditch, motor running, and they take the train the rest of the way and turn up just in time. He is described as a completely self-unmade man. McKee always thought that he looked like that man in the insurance statistics who gets up one morning feeling a little queasy and is dead in an hour.

Two key events have been happening in the area, both involving murders. Maxine, Lois’ sister, is married to Bud. Bud is the somewhat odd postman. He repairs anything people want, scavenges and keeps all sorts of junk, his most recent find being a set of bow and arrows. He has adopted these and goes hunting with them though his success is limited to feral cats that invade the local hamster farm. As a result of his hunting, he has given up his design of a self-filling fountain pen. He seems to be happier with people other than his family. Living with them are their daughter, Etoile, and Bud’s nephew Lee Roy. Lee Roy is small, but very adept with cars. He is so small that he can stand upright in the pit. He had come to Lincoln, where Bud and Maxine live, in order to be able to take shop and physical education at school. He drives to school in a car he has refurbished himself. Because of his size, he is subject to bullying by some of the local boys. One day, he decides he has had enough and drives his car straight at them, killing them. As it was snowy, the police officer asked of he lost control. He was tired of being pushed around was his response. Fuck the bastards! he added.

The other set of murders involved a serial killer, with ten deaths. The locals were so worried that all the available guns sold out and people started taking potshots at anybody even vaguely suspicious, including Bud the postman. When the killer, Charlie Munger, was apprehended, he said he did it because he wanted to be somebody. There is even more crime, as some local girls kidnap a farmer.

Etoile is a young woman who is aware of her charms. She has been seeing Calvin, her cousin (the son of Lois and Walter McKee). She may have lost her virginity to him (she was unconscious at the time so is not sure). They may be getting married (though Calvin seems less than enthusiastic) not least, as Lois remarks, because all the men in the family seem to hate women. Calvin is something of a loner and prefers horses to people. He is very tall, stutters, keeps himself to himself and always wears spurs, even when walking. One day he meets a prospector and, without telling anyone, goes off with him. His family put an ad in the paper, looking for him, but he turns up six weeks later, looking decidedly the worse for wear.

This first part is to introduce us to the characters and where they are both geographically and mentally. In the latter case, it is not always a worthwhile place. In the second part, all of them converge on Lone Tree for Tom Scanlon’s ninetieth birthday party. The birthday boy himself takes little part, sleeping through the ceremony. There are a couple of extra people, including Mr. Jefferson, a man who makes his living writing stories about the West, both old and new. He had wanted to investigate the murders, not so much the serial murders of Charlie Munger but the, to him, more interesting murders of Lee Roy Momeyer. He also wants to interview Tom Scanlon and, as Tom is asleep when he arrives, he is invited to spend the night and join in the activities and he soon merges into the larger family. Maxine says to him I swear to God you must think you’re in a madhouse. She is almost certainly right.

There is no real plot at this point. Indeed, the whole event is somewhat chaotic. There are a few odd incidents, such as the monster child, young Gordon, getting hold of a loaded revolver and waving it around. However, much of it brings to the fore what we have learned from the first part, namely the odd, often unhappy lives of the main participants. The only thing Maxine had got out of marriage was a child that nobody thought was hers and legs that would hardly get her up and down the stairs. She is not the only one who is unhappy with her lot.

I thought this a much better book than The Field of Vision, as we have a richer range of characters and, seeing them (more or less) on their home turf, we get a better picture of their issues and concerns and why life is not going as well for them as they would like. Added to this is the threat from outside, two lots or murders and the atomic bomb, and Morris gives us an excellent depiction of lives not always well lived.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Atheneum