Book Review: The Staked Plains by Stefan Kiesbye
Is this real, or just performance? That’s one question at the center of Stefan Kiesbye’s latest novel, The Staked Plains. It’s the question Jenny, the clairvoyant protagonist, has to keep asking herself. She screams, she yells, she throws dirt on her own face. Yet even she remains unsure: Are her cathartic moments catalyzed by some uncontrollable, magical force? Or is she really just putting it on, acting out what others expect from a psychic?
Those who’ve read Kiesbye’s previous acclaimed novel, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, will recognize the dark, mythic tone, the strange magic, the small town gossip and violence in The Staked Plains. This story opens just as Jenny and her husband, Carl, move to drought-stricken Querosa, New Mexico. There, Jenny opens up a psychic shop and attracts a motley clientele: a hopeful man diagnosed with terminal cancer, a gay son pinned under his rich father’s thumb, a woman dangerously desperate for a new well. All of them are convinced Jenny has powers beyond fortune-telling. “Is she gonna do it?” they ask each other, then ask her, “You are the rainmaker?” Later, customers make bolder demands: “I want you to do your thing.”
Quickly, Jenny becomes a part of the strange status quo of the tight-knit community: clandestine land sales, right wing politics, happy-ending massage parlors. Though the days are slow and the town small, much trouble brews. Carl adopts a dog Jenny dislikes; Jenny unofficially adopts a feral child that runs around like a dog. She starts an affair with a wealthy developer; he starts coming home smelling like ginger and lemon oil.
The subplots don’t end there. Gangs of men start hanging around with guns. Old bones are found at a construction site. So much happens that the connections between the events become blurred and confused. A dog is killed. A young man gets paralyzed. A white peacock suddenly shows up, preening its tail.
Do all the details get pulled together in the end? No. But do the butt-ends of our days and ways ever really get neatly wrapped up? By the finish of the novel, Jenny has learned much, though she still gets shocked with new discoveries. Her stolid husband betrays her, her lover jilts her, her one client-friend corrals her into a violent confrontation. But this time, Jenny is able to remain calm. “I won’t run,” Jenny says, in the closing chapter. In the end, The Staked Plains investigates the liminal space between hope and faith, magic and strange truths, to poke at the gap between what we choose to ignore and what we strive to believe.
Siel Ju’s stories and poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), ZYZZYVA, The Los Angeles Review, LIT, and other places. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Feelings Are Chemicals in Transit from Dancing Girl Press and Might Club from Horse Less Press. She edits the literary zine Flash Flash Click. More of her work can be found at sielju.com.