Montana native Thomas Biel’s collection of short stories, all set in the fictional town of Riverside, are infused with the urgency and unpredictability of adolescence.
Matthew, the teenage narrator and son of a Presbyterian minister struggling with his faith, recounts coming of age in a town “that sits on the edge of the vast apron of badlands,” where he discovers that life “is lived between the smooth bones of death.”
But for Matthew, and his best friend, Idaho Wells, it’s life lived at full and often amoral throttle. They coax an unsuspecting classmate to drink urine, disguised as Mountain Dew; slaughter a baby rabbit with their first BB guns; stage a shocking resurrection on Easter Sunday; use the minister’s telescope to spy on a neighbor woman as she’s undressing; and try to bomb Gertie Blue’s garden with homemade firecracker grenades.
Gertie, the retired badlands librarian, becomes friend and mentor, extracting revenge for their garden raids by expanding the two boys’ reading repertoire. When diagnosed with cancer, she insists the two teenagers escort her and join her on an LSD-laced trip to Makoshika State Park – “the starkest, the most naked of land.”
Love, sex, religion and death – big questions, all – lurk beneath the surface of Biel’s playful and poignant tales of angst and shenanigans. His father is a kind man, questioning God; his brother avoids the draft by fleeing to Canada; his spurned admirer, Monica Rose, devours so many rose petals in the church choir loft that she has to have her stomach pumped; and his charismatic best friend, Idaho, is “half moth, half coyote.”
“I had a heart that could be as dry as the sun-baked hills,” Matthew says. “I did not know that to be a real Christian required a good heart and acts of kindness.”
“These stories stretch playfully like a rubber band, then unexpectedly snap with new understanding, emotions or consequences,” writes the U.S. Review of Books.
Biel was born in Sidney and graduated from Dawson County High School in Glendive, The University of Montana in Missoula and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He taught English at high schools in Whitehall and Libby, Costa Rica and Ecuador before landing in Milwaukee, where he teaches at a large public school. He’s also the author of four plays.
Helena artist Dale Beckman’s painting adorns the cover of Badlands.
– Kristi Niemeyer