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KNAU's Southwest Book Review: Pam Houston's, Contents May Have Shifted


It's hard to put a label on author Pam Houston's books. The prize-winning writer blends together fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Houston will be in Flagstaff this weekend headlining the Northern Arizona Book Festival. In KNAU's latest Southwest Book Review, writer Ann Cummins reviews Houston's latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, the true story of an imaginary character named Pam Houston.

I have a fail-safe method for judging books. I frequently have to drive from San Francisco to Flagstaff - about a 12-hour drive, just long enough to finish a good audio book. Barstow's the mid-way point. I figure if a book can get me through Barstow looking forward to the next 6 hours, it's a winner. A boring book means a very long trip.

For my last drive, I chose Pam Houston's new novel, Contents May Have Shifted. It not only got me through Barstow, but when it ended, somewhere between Kingman and Seligman, I was very sorry to let it go.

It's the perfect book for a road trip. It's about a writer named Pam hopscotching around the world - not just the physical world, but the emotional and spiritual world of a restless soul.

We sample a dizzying number of countries: Laos; the Kingdom of Bhutan;  Argentina; Spain. This writer boldly goes where few dare - like into the cargo compartment of a small engine plane headed to Fairbanks, where the dead caribou usually ride. She jumps off waterfalls; inner-tubes through caves in New Zealand. She rafts the San Juan Goosenecks in Utah, tours a house of death art in Nevada, digs through snowdrifts in Colorado. She doesn't stay anywhere long.

In her author notes, Houston quotes her agent's response to Contents May Have Shifted: "You haven't taken us anywhere and yet you have taken us eveywhere."

But Houston does take us deeply into the emotional country of her character. Pam might be clawing out of a mudslide in Alaska, but part of her is stuck in relationship-mud with the "bad boyfriend" who lives in her house but has, as they say, a girl in every port. She calls him, asks if he'd like her to come home early. He's brutal in response: "Absolutely not."

There's been a string of bad boys just out of reach. She keeps mistaking them for home. She grew up squaring off against an abusive father. Home was a battleground. When she was 4, she broke her femur. Maybe something fell on her; maybe somebody threw her against a wall. Memory's hazy. She remembers the full body cast, and the fun way her mother carried her: upside down, holding the metal bar between her legs, swinging her like a monkey.

Now, almost 50, she's a seasoned traveler. She's found the good life in small planes heading elsewhere. But she carries baggage that grounds her: the fearsome ghost of a father she can't shake; chronic back pain that constantly distracts. Baggage shifts; it never disappears.

You may wonder, as I did, why Houston calls this fiction and not memoir. After all, a character named Pam has a ranch above Creede, Colorado, just like Pam Houston. She teaches at UC Davis, just like Houston. In the author's notes, Houston explains that sometimes she lies, as writers do, to tell a deeper truth.

Myself? I don't care what she wants to call it. All I know is while gassing up in Barstow, I was eager to get back to Contents May Have Shifted. A well-told story that, on the first leg of my journey, captivated me. I don't ask for more.

Ann Cummins is a short story writer and novelist. She teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

Ann Cummins is Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. She has published stories in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Antioch Review, and elsewhere; her fiction has been anthologized in a variety of series including The Best American Short Stories, The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women’s Literature, and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. A 2002 recipient of a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, she is the author of the short story collection Red Ant House, (Houghton Mifflin, spring, 2003) and the novel Yellowcake (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).