If Warren’s book can be said to have a central character, it is Lee Torgeson, a man in his twenties who recently inherited the family farm from his adoptive parents. He is just as alone as the others—if not more so—for he lives by himself in the country, and over the course of the book he goes on a long journey, a hundred-mile ride on a stray Arab horse, tracing the route that two legendary cowboys took in a hundred-mile race decades ago. During his journey, Lee visits his adoptive parents’ graves and thinks over what he knows of his life—beginning with being left as an infant on the Torgesons’ doorstep—and the distance he has always felt between himself and his well-meaning but laconic caretakers. Left with fragments of their advice—get yourself a good map, use the silver tea service—he still wonders about his origins. After his arduous ride, he returns home to discover a new source of information about his past; though his transformation over the course of the book is not profound, we can see the subtle shift in his perceptions of who he is and where he finds himself in the world.
Another storyline focuses on Blaine and Vicki Dolson, who are on the verge of bankruptcy, about to lose the family farm. While Blaine is doing road work to keep financially afloat, Vicki takes her six children into town on unnecessary errands in order to avoid the drudgery of the task that awaits her at home—processing the beans from the garden. While browsing in Robinson’s store, Vicki spots Marian Shoenfeld. She quickly appraises Marian’s behavior: “She sees Marian take a mint-green outfit off the rack and hold it up to herself in front of a mirror. It looks like a pantsuit of some kind, slacks and a vest. Curious that Marian is buying a new outfit. Maybe she’s going to a special event, a wedding or a graduation. She doesn’t think Marian is the kind of person who would buy new clothes without a reason.” And then Vicki turns her attention back to her own affairs—looking for caning supplies and watching after her children (though she is not nearly vigilant enough—later, her daughter breaks an arm and floods the hardware store with red paint).
We as readers are attuned to Marian’s presence in the store because hers is another of the story strands that we are following. Marian and Willard Shoenfeld run the town’s drive-in movie theater. Bound together in unexpressed love and profound misunderstanding, they have continued to live together since the death of Ed, Willard’s brother and Marian’s husband. Though nine years have passed since Ed’s death, Willard, a lifelong bachelor, is still convinced that Marian is on the verge of leaving. Each time she makes an overture to speak to him, he is certain that she’ll be announcing her departure. Even when she stands outside his bedroom door in her nightgown in the middle of the night, Willard cannot read her true motive.
Willard is so undemonstrative, so out of touch with his own feelings, that “he just couldn’t stand it—the idea that some pretty little girl might actually like him, and that he’d never be able to live up to whatever idea she had in her head about who he was, but it had to be a wrong idea, because if it were right she’d like someone else and not him.” When Willard finds Marian “sitting on the couch in an outfit he’s never seen before” (presumably the pantsuit from Robinson’s) with two cocktails waiting, he can only assume that Marian must be expecting someone else. He tries to flee, but she invites him to have a drink before dinner. Perplexed, he spends time shaving and changing his shirt several times. After drinking his cocktail, he abruptly loses his nerve. “I’ve just remembered . . .” he says and leaves, heading for the local diner.
Late that night, Marian comes to his room, and in a beautifully understated scene, the two make love without speaking a word, after which Marian quietly returns to her own room. Later still, when the two are awakened by teenagers setting fire to the movie screen, Marian tries to go for water, “but Willard holds her back and says, ‘Too late. Let it go.’ Then, ‘Don’t go, Marian. Don’t leave me. I love you.’ Surprising the absolute hell out of himself.” This man who had such a damper on his own feelings and was so terrified that the woman he loved would leave didn’t even know until this night that he loves her. And their story concludes: “Marian stands in the open doorway as though she’s on fire with the flames behind her, watching him, and she says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, Willard. Where in the world did you get that idea?’”
Warren’s is a subdued book about the inner life, about the subtle shifts of our internal landscapes that are echoed in the shifting of the dunes surrounding the town, ceaselessly burying and uncovering missing objects from the past. At the very end of the book, Lee pitches a tent among the dunes and lets the wind rip pages out of his boyhood desert scrapbook, sending a map of the Sahara and a marketplace in Cairo flying out into the sand. The whole scrapbook skids is eventually lost. As the wind rages all night, “He imagines things blowing around outside—clumps of tumbleweed, empty cigarette packs, plastic water bottles. The wind exposing objects from the past. A deerskin pouch, perhaps. The dipper from a water pail. A worn leather boot cracked and missing the lace, a coffee can blown from the windowsill of a one-room shack.” And Warren has retrieved this one day in Juliet from the shifting sand, these dozen lives, and has held them up to the light to reveal their elaborate contours in this beautiful book.