You Won’t Forget ‘Nazareth, North Dakota,’ Any Time Soon

A pitch-perfect Badlands tale

(Nazareth, North Dakota, by Tommy Zurhellen, Atticus Books, paperback, 212pp, release date April 15, 2011; ISBN 0984510567)

The cover of Nazareth, North Dakota, brilliantly designed by Jamie Keenan, is an orange elephant with its trunk raised and its eye rolling. It’s the elephant that early in the book runs away from the carnival after overdosing on cotton candy and is never seen alive again. The body of this cover elephant is a map centered on the Badlands and the Red River Valley and Nazareth, the Galilee County seat, with higher elevations in brown. The place names include Cupcake Corral, Super Valu, Gas ‘n Sip, Chocolate Whip Deluxe, Bucket of Beer, and Motel de Love No. 3, a fleabag where Roxy and Dill fetch up in the winter of 1983 in the From Here to Eternity suite. Dill hopes the getaway will “make things work” so they can “get back where they used to be” after two years in a bad marriage and three weeks of fighting after Dill’s release from prison up at James River. Most of the hard-case men the alcoholic Roxy has known in her thirteen years of dating are James River alums. And Dill is about as bad at telling the truth as Roxy is at wanting to hear it, because he is on the run from yet another criminal deal gone bad.

The couple next door, on the way to audition with a band in Grand Forks, has a six-month-old baby and another on the way. The drummer’s voice is “ruined by cigarettes.” His teen wife Mae, still young enough to call Roxy ma’am, has a million-dollar smile that guarantees she’s a recent winner of all the local Sugar Beet and Sorghum Queen pageants. Roxy asks the baby’s name and Mae “looks nervous” and says they haven’t named him yet. She says her husband is not the father.

So Dill does a belly flop in the heated pool and comes up screaming and holding his eyes. The 18-year-old night manager has misread the directions for chlorinating the pool and dumped in about eight months worth of chlorine. The emergency room doctor chuckles and says a few days rest in the dark will fix up Dill’s eyes. Roxy has lost her driver’s license thanks to multiple DUI’s so they can’t go anywhere. They return to the motel and Dill zonks out on sedatives.

Then they hear a baby crying outside the motel room door. It’s Mae’s baby, cold and angry, left outside in a North Dakota winter. Mae’s husband comes to the door and demands the baby. Dill sticks a huge gun in the guy’s face and tells him to get lost. He comes back with two friends and a gun and Dill shoots him. Roxy takes the baby and the van and flees, ending up in southern Illinois, out of money and hitchhiking to get away from the police, who are examining the stolen plates on the van. She and baby Sam are picked up by kindly Joe Davidson, an itinerant carpenter with two young children, and find a home with him.

Now who can resist a beginning like that? It’s as strange and riveting and pitch-perfect as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine and similar in structure, a collection of short stories that all tie together in the end. I ignored the allegorical chapter headings-The Annunciation, Song of Mary, The Flight into Egypt, The Death of John the Baptist. The book works fine without the allegory. But if you like New Testament allegory, there it is. If you grew up in North Carolina avoiding country preachers and longing to escape the Bible Belt, like me, you will resolutely ignore the allegory and revel in the dialogue and characterizations and Badlands culture. I have to admire Zurhellen for sticking his neck out with a New Testament theme, however irrelevant to my interests. He will take some heat for it but who cares, it’s a stunningly well done book. I look forward to the sequel, Apostle Islands, due out in summer 2012.