C J Box: remembering America with a touch of genius

In the last 13 weeks I have read 23 books by C J Box, an author I had previously never heard of. I have never, in my life, gorged so heavily and so quickly on one author.

He must, surely, be a great writer. Well, erm, no, although his writing certainly improves over the course of the 16 years he has been a published author. In that time, 28 of his books have been published. Prolific, then, but scarcely Pullitzer Prize material.

In which case, he must be a great story-teller. Well, yes and no. His Joe Pickett books are certainly all great stories, until the 16th in the series, where Box falls into the all-too-familiar trap of showing off his research skills and the plot takes a back seat until two-thirds of the way through.

But other books – the Cody Hoyt trilogy; and the Cassie Dewell quartet (one of which is also the last of the Cody Hoyt trio) – are less sure-footed, not to mention improbable in much of the plotting.

So what is it, then, that kept me reading, and reading, and reading?

It’s the sense of place, and the culture of that place, and Box’s people. The Joe Pickett books are set in Wyoming – where a population of barely 600,000 scatters across a state bigger than Great Britain. And in that state is Yellowstone Park, which also stretches into parts of Montana and Idaho. This is the America of geographical and geological wonder writ large. It’s where people are forced to live in harmony with their surroundings, and even then their surroundings might kill them at a moment’s notice.

The Trump factor

If you have any genuine interest in (rather than just wanting to rail against) the American people that time forgot – and thereby begat Trump – C J Box is your man. Not that he supports Trump (I wouldn’t have a clue) or is even a Republican (one of his most colourful characters is State Governor Spencer Rulon, a Democrat in a solidly red state).

But what he does, and with a touch of genius, is to sculpt his characters as hewn from their landscape, a landscape of small towns and massive wilderness. Hunting is a part of life, and Joe Pickett is a Game Warden. The old American pioneer spirit is alive and well and that there government in that there DC has no fucking idea.

Box’s characters look after their environment, but rail against environmentalists and the green lobby. They live in the modern world, but still use horses for transport (as well as SUVs and All-Terrain-Vehicles (ATVs). Imagine living somewhere where four-wheel drive just doesn’t cut it.

Above all, they don’t need no politician 2,000 miles away telling them what’s right and what’s wrong, goldarn it!

A natural disaster, overdue

Among the exquisite descriptions of the geography and geology, Box most notably brings Yellowstone Park alive. And it is, indeed, alive. With magma just 14 centimetres under parts of its surface, constantly pushing and stressing the fragile crust, a massive geological event is imminent. Indeed, it’s 60,000 years overdue according to some.

When it eventually comes, it is estimated two millions Americans could die. In one notable episode in Free Fire, (Joe Pickett 7) little holes (fumaroles) are punched through the earth and gas escapes, which can be lit to produce steady flames. Party time! But also a target for greedy energy providers whose lack of concern for the possible consequences of exploiting this wilderness rings only too true.

Box doesn’t romanticise his characters or their environment. Consequently he doesn’t romanticise America. But he does provide a portrait of the inhabitants of what Washington cynically calls ‘the flyover states’ that graphically explains the schism that produced Trump. These are real people, true lives, great characters, flaws and all.

The genre is crime fiction, certainly. But there’s so much icing on its cake you’ll get a sugar rush for sure, if you binge like I did. And now the slump, while I wait for Joe Pickett 18, sometime in 2018. God, I hate waiting.




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