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Pam Houston
Born: January 09, 1962? in New Jersey, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
American Short-Story Writers Since World War II: Fourth Series. Ed. Patrick Meanor and Joseph McNicholas. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 244. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Cowboys Are My Weakness (New York: Norton, 1992; London: Virago, 1993).
  • Waltzing the Cat (New York: Norton, 1998; London: Virago, 1999).
  • A Little More About Me (New York: Norton, 1999); republished as A Rough Guide to the Heart (London: Virago, 1999).

RECORDINGS

  • Cowboys Are My Weakness, read by Houston, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Publishing Mills / Media Books, 1992.
  • Waltzing the Cat, read by Houston, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Publishing Mills / Media Books, 1999.

OTHER

  • Harriet Fish Backus, Tomboy Bride: A Woman's Personal Account of Life in the Mining Camps of the West, introduction by Houston (Boulder, Colo.: Pruett, 1991).
  • "A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's 'Meneseteung,'" Kenyon Review, 14 (Fall 1992): 79-92.
  • Women on Hunting: Essays, Fiction, and Poetry, selected, with an introductory essay, by Houston (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco, 1995).
  • Men Before Ten A.M., photographs by Véronique Vial, text by Houston (Hillsboro, Ore.: Beyond Words, 1996).
  • B. M. Bower, Lonesome Land, introduction by Houston (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).

 
BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY:

Pam Houston attained critical and popular success with the 1992 publication of her first short-story collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness. The volume garnered its author not only impressive sales and reviews but also media attention in the form of magazine profiles, interviews, and several talk-show appearances, suggesting that her stories of adventurous women rafting through white-water rapids, guiding Dall sheep hunters in Alaska, and attempting to establish relationships with men of the American West tapped a little-explored but ripe territory in contemporary consciousness. Cowboys Are My Weakness was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1992, won the 1993 Western States Book Award, and was later translated into at least nine languages. A review in The New York Times (15 July 1992) stated, "Her collection of short stories is an odyssey of a young woman who develops a habit of bad love and uses adventure both to recover and carve a place for herself in the American West. . . . In the last six months, it has been critically acclaimed, climbed best-seller lists, garnered Hollywood offers, and turned its author--also a licensed river runner, hunting guide, horse trainer and ski instructor--into a cult figure."

Houston's second collection, Waltzing the Cat (1998), also a best-seller, received the Willa Cather Award for Contemporary Fiction. Houston has published fiction in a variety of magazines and journals, including Mademoiselle, Mirabella, The Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, Redbook, Vogue, Cimarron Review, and The Gettysburg Review, while her essays have appeared in equally wide-ranging outlets: Condé Nast Sports for Women, Outside, House and Garden, Travel and Leisure, Elle, Food and Wine, Ski, Mirabella, Mademoiselle, Allure, Los Angeles Magazine, and The New York Times. Her stories are becoming widely anthologized. "How to Talk to a Hunter" was collected in Best American Short Stories 1990, and "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" was collected in the 1999 edition of that same series. "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" was also the only story to be added to John Updike and Katrina Kenison's selections for The Best American Short Stories of the Century in its transition from hardback to paperback. Judith Freeman , reviewing Cowboys Are My Weakness for The Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 February 1992), encapsulated what many find so appealing in Houston's work. She called the volume a "brilliant first collection" in which "Houston claims for women the terrain staked out by male writers from Hemingway to Richard Ford " and ends up "revealing much about the complex state of relations between men and women."

Born Pamela Lynne Houston on 9 January 1962 in Trenton, New Jersey, to Catherine Louise (Hoff) Houston, an actress, and Beverly Ord Houston, an unsuccessful businessman, Houston grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She learned to read at two and a half under the guidance of a baby-sitter named Martha Washington (who, Houston reports, had a brother named George). In many essays and interviews Houston has described the atmosphere in her childhood home as one full of fear and insecurity, shaped by alcoholism and resentment. In "The Long Way to Safety," an essay appearing in her collection A Little More About Me (1999), she said, "By my sixteenth birthday I had walked away from sixteen serious automobile accidents. In more than half of them, a great deal of alcohol was involved. My mother drove a Plymouth Fury right through a 7-Eleven, my father rolled a Cadillac Seville nine times on Christmas Eve, my best high school girlfriend put us and her Ford station wagon under a semi, right at decapitation level."

Houston survived these dangers and completed a B.A. with honors at Denison University in 1983. After bicycling across Canada and south to Colorado, working such odd jobs as bartender and flag person on a highway crew, she entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Utah in 1986 but chose to leave it in 1992, five months before completing the program. While in graduate school, Houston moved to Park City, Utah, where she made her home for several years; she has described her experiences with the changes in the area from rugged Western town to resort-oriented tourist center in the essays "The Bad Dogs of Park City," "The Pit Bull and the Mountain Goat," and "Growing Apart: Leaving Park City" (all collected in A Little More About Me). Her reactions to the various incarnations of the area reveal much about how she sees herself. As she wrote "I know people who wind up leaving a place they've lived in a long time because they say they've outgrown it" in "The Pit Bull and the Mountain Goat," an essay collected in A Little More About Me. "But I'm leaving Park City because it's outgrown me. . . . We have espresso now, and sushi, and bars with bands that are actually worth paying money to see. . . . Park City is a world-class resort now; it's me who's still a little rough around the edges, and I'm bound to find someplace new that's at least as scruffy as I am."

The Park City years were interrupted by one spent in Ohio, where Houston taught creative writing at her alma mater, Denison University, during the 1991-1992 academic year. A licensed river guide, Houston has also worked as a hunting guide, horse trainer, ski instructor, and instructor in literature and creative writing, and has been a recurring guest on CBS-TV Sunday Morning with a segment titled "Postcards from Colorado." She has taught creative writing at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California, and at various workshops and festivals across the country. She now holds a permanent teaching position at the University of California, Davis, where she spends half the year.

Experiences of adventure, travel, wilderness, danger, of following men into and connecting with them in such situations, characterize--and drew the most attention to--Houston's early writing. In the essay "In the Company of Fishermen" Houston related her reaction to being asked to accompany a group of late-night fly fishermen to a Michigan lake site:

I have always said yes, and as a result the shape of my life has been a long series of man-inspired adventures, and I have gone tripping along behind those men, full of strength and will and only a half-baked kind of competence, my goal being not to excel, but to simply keep up with them, to not become a problem, to be a good sport. It is a childhood thing (I was my father's only son), and I laugh at all the places this particular insecurity has taken me: sheep hunting in Alaska, helicopter skiing in Montana, cliff diving in the Bahamas, ice climbing in the Yukon territory.

Yet, she described herself as not at all athletic:

For all the things I undertake--whitewater rafting, backpacking, rock climbing, skiing, scuba diving, tennis, kayaking, horseback riding, softball, sailing, etc.--I have not one ounce of natural ability. God gave me brains, a good ear for language, a face that most people think they can get along with, and my mother's strong legs. Grace, finesse, timing, and all the other things that make an athlete an athlete didn't come in my package.

She noted that therapists suggest that her penchant for dangerous, even life-threatening, situations stems from a determination to re-create the daily danger of her childhood in order to gain some retroactive feeling of control. While she accepts this interpretation and refers to it more than once in writing about her life, she also does not want the theory to "explain why I love a good adventure. I don't want it to explain why I love to be outdoors."

Whatever else is happening in a Houston story, love and appreciation for the outdoors and a seemingly innate sense of how it works are always present. The lead story in Cowboys Are My Weakness, "How to Talk to a Hunter," typifies the themes of many of the stories in the collection--a young woman negotiating the rugged weather and terrain of the American West while negotiating the equally rugged terrain of a relationship with an emotionally unavailable and unfaithful man. One of only two stories in the collection that does not feature a first-person narrator, "How to Talk to a Hunter" employs the unusual second person; this approach and its ironic tone have invited comparisons to Lorrie Moore 's Self-Help (1985) which Houston has admitted to trying to imitate. The protagonist of "How to Talk to a Hunter" works through her feelings about this relationship in a series of observations aimed as much at herself as at her listeners: "You will spend every night in this man's bed without asking yourself why he listens to top-forty country. Why he donated money to the Republican Party. Why he won't play back his messages while you are in the room." The story is set in December, in the time of the longest nights of the year just before Christmas, with thirteen straight days of snow and then temperatures at sixty degrees below zero. The narrator finds herself wrapped in the skins of animals her lover has killed, talking to a man who, although claiming to be always better at math and not so good with words, "will form the sentences so carefully it will be impossible to tell if you are included in these plans" he is making, and who "will manage to say eight things about his friend without using a gender- determining pronoun."

None of the lessons of college ("A man desires the satisfaction of his desire; a woman desires the condition of desiring"), of graduate school ("In every assumption is contained the possibility of its opposite"), or of the pop psychology books ("Love means letting go of fear"), nor the advice of "your best female friend" and "your best male friend," whose responses are scattered throughout the story, provide epiphanies or solutions. Yet, these remembered words and the act of talking herself through the hunter/lover's nights with the other woman, the "coyote woman," bring her by the end to a metaphor that suggests she will break away soon. The final paragraph centers on her dog, whose "long low howl" sounds in the night. Although the hunter is with her this night, she identifies with the situation of the animal: "chained and lonely and cold. You'll wonder if he knows enough to stay in his doghouse. You'll wonder if he knows the nights are getting shorter now."

It is an engaging narrative, with enough wry humor to banish any tone of self-pity. Yet, the narrator/ addressee seems immature throughout and a bit jarring against some of Houston's other heroines. She professes to love dogs, but she not only banishes her dog to the dangerously cold outdoors when the hunter comes over but also feeds her pet the chocolates that the hunter has sent. "How to Talk to a Hunter" was originally published in Quarterly West (1989) and was chosen by guest editor Richard Ford to be included in Best American Short Stories 1990.

While "How to Talk to a Hunter" gives no information as to how the protagonist came to be in the wintry West with her lover, "Selway," the second story in Cowboys Are My Weakness, makes plain that the protagonist is running the rapids of the Selway, one of the roughest rivers in North America, at its most extreme high water in several years, in order to be with Jack, her latest "wild" lover. Somewhat predictably, their boat turns over at one of the most dangerous points, and, as seems to be their half-unconscious purpose in making the trip, they face death. Both survive, and Jack contemplates taking on the tamer desert rivers from then on, while the narrator finds such a stillness in the mountains she can "imagine a peace without boredom." Although the plot does not surprise, the descriptions of the river--and of the physical exertions the people must produce in order to survive it--feel authentic and engaging.

In the course of "Selway" both main characters voice several opinions about the differences between men and women and the possibilities for relationships between them. In a line frequently quoted in reviews of Cowboys Are My Weakness, the narrator says, "I've been to four years of college and I should know better, but I love it when he calls me baby." Jack thinks of the narrator as naturally "life-protecting" because she is a woman; the narrator in turn believes the "old southern woman" who has told her "men can't really live unless they face death now and then." At first believing she has come along on the trip because she enjoys danger, she decides she is actually there to be with Jack:

And even though I knew in my head there's nothing a man can do that a woman can't, I also knew in my heart we can't help doing it for different reasons. And just like a man will never understand exactly how a woman feels when she has a baby, or an orgasm, . . . a woman can't know in what way a man satisfies himself, what questions he answers for himself, when he looks right at death.

These ideas echo those in a critical article Houston published in Kenyon Review (Fall 1992), written while she was still in the Ph.D. program at the University of Utah. "A Hopeful Sign: The Making of Metonymic Meaning in Munro's 'Meneseteung'" articulates some of Houston's key assumptions about gender. She describes a conversation with a class in which she suggested that there are masculine and feminine thought processes, with the masculine thinking in a straight line ("this strict limitation on the context and consequences of his actions, and the sharpness of his focus allows a man a certain freedom to act in ways that continually baffle women") and the feminine defined by circles, with every circle containing the next one and the one before ("Context is not just a small part of the system, it defines the system"). Houston continues her speculation by drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan and Jane Gallop in order to discuss the association of metaphor with the male sensibility and metonymy with the female, carefully describing these as matrices and sensibilities that may be taken on by a person of either gender. She ends her analysis of Alice Munro 's "Meneseteung" (collected in Friends of My Youth, 1990) with the argument that metonymy (and thus the female principle) is not one of dependence and lack, as Lacan would have it, but of "unlimited generative potential and creative possibility." Thus, the article provides some interesting insight into the way Houston thinks about fiction and about gender and also demonstrates why some feminist critics see stories such as "Selway" as too essentialist.

In the third story in Cowboys Are My Weakness, "Highwater," first published in The Gettysburg Review, two friends, Millie and Casey, both thirty years old, are dating men ten years older. The story opens with Casey telling Millie, the narrator, that she is pregnant. Her live-in boyfriend, Chuck, is a frequently stoned, happy-go-lucky musician, while Millie's Richard is a fastidious stockbroker who still regularly visits his old girlfriend halfway across the state. By the end of the story Millie marvels over how two men who seemed so different could have been so much alike--both have left, Chuck to avoid the responsibility of the baby and Richard for a weekend trip with the old girlfriend. Yet, visiting Casey in the hospital, Millie decides the thing truly worth marveling over is the new baby.

"For Bo," which first appeared in Cimarron Review, turns the focus from male/female relationships to a young woman negotiating her finicky mother's visit to her own somewhat scruffy household consisting of three dogs and a tattooed, guitar-playing husband. Humorous in tone, the story includes moments delineating the tensions that arise when children develop tastes and lifestyles different from those of their parents. "What Shock Heard" continues the theme of an emotionally damaged woman, Raye, trying to connect with Zeke, a cowboy. Zeke can calm animals with the touch of his hands and with the noises he makes in his throat, which implies that he would be equally capable of soothing Raye, who has experienced both her husband's suicide and a rape. Actually, she feels that her horse, Shock, better shares her sense of trauma over these events. When she tries to explain these things to Zeke, she realizes that her words only widen the gap between them.

"Dall" appears to be one of the most closely autobiographical stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness. In her introduction to the 1995 collection Women on Hunting: Essays, Fiction, and Poetry, Houston wrote:

When I was twenty-six years old, and just catching on to the fact that my life wasn't going to be something that came at me like opposing traffic, but something I actually had to take control of and shape, I fell in love with a man who was a hunting guide for a living. We didn't have what you would call the healthiest of relationships. He was selfish, evasive, and unfaithful. I was demanding, manipulative, and self-pitying. . . . Yet somehow we managed to stay together for three years of our lives, and to spend two solid months of each of those three years hunting for Dall sheep in Alaska.

The fictionalized version of this experience is one of the strongest stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness. The narrator experiences internal conflict over hunting (she describes herself as responsible for the death of five animals, through acting as a guide, but insists she has never killed an animal herself and will not); external conflict in her relationship with Boone, the hunting guide, which escalates into physical violence; and the wonder and fear of facing the northern lights and, immediately after her worst fight with her lover, facing a mother grizzly bear.

As assistant hunting guide the protagonist occupies an interesting position between Boone and the men they guide through the Alaskan wilderness; it provides her with insights into the relationship between hunters and nature, and between men and men. Early on she muses, "I thought how very much like soldiers we looked, how very much like war this all was, how very strange that the warlike element seemed to be so much the attraction." Later, after one of their clients has successfully killed a ram and is celebrating and posing for pictures with Boone and the carcass, she sees the activity in a larger context: "I understood that what we had accomplished was more for this moment than anything, this moment where two men were allowed to be happy together and touch." Houston puts into play a thought-provoking array of gender reflections in "Dall." Before turning away to leave with her cubs, the grizzly bear gestures at the narrator with a huge paw, who sees it as "both forbidding and inviting," perhaps the invitation from one female to another to be a different kind of participant in the natural world. The one time she sees the northern lights, they are:

a translucent green curtain . . . on the horizon. Then the curtain divided itself and became a wave and the wave divided itself and became a dragon, then a goddess, then a wave. Soon the whole night sky was full of spirits flying and rolling, weaving and braiding themselves across the sky. The colors were familiar, mostly shades of green, but the motion, the movement, was unearthly and somehow female; it was unlike anything I'd ever seen.

Thus, the grizzly bear and the northern lights, both figures of awe, are markedly female, while Boone and the hunters are male. As they are packing to leave Alaska and go their separate ways, Boone notes that she "really hung in there" but goes on to add, "But it made you stop loving me." He believes it is the activity of hunting that has come between them, when in fact her connections with the grizzly bear and its wave, with the northern lights--"a goddess, a wave . . . unearthly and somehow female"--suggest instead that she has found a strength inside herself that will not allow her to stay with a man who is physically abusive. With "Dall," the stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness begin to feature more self-confident heroines.

The title story, "Cowboys Are My Weakness," finds its narrator (unnamed, born in New Jersey, now a resident of the West for ten years) on a ranch in Grass Range, Montana, accompanying her boyfriend, Homer, to observe whitetail-deer mating season. She has been in search of a real cowboy to fit in her picture of her ideal life on a tiny ranch, but as the story opens she has already begun to come to terms with the fact that "even though Homer looked like a cowboy, he was just a capitalist with a Texas accent who owned a horse." Enter Montrose T. Coty, known as Monte, described by his friends as the "real thing" because he was once spotted by a director in a laundromat and offered two thousand dollars to be in a Wrangler commercial. Monte invites the narrator to the Stockgrowers' Ball. During their night of dancing she decides she has finally gotten where she had set out to go; she could be a Montana ranch woman and Monte could be her man. When he takes her home early in the morning, he says, "I'd love to give you a great big kiss, but I've got a mouthful of chew." There is a third man present, David, the owner of the ranch, a poet and vegetarian, who undergrazes by almost 50 percent and is raising the "fattest, healthiest, most organic Black Angus cattle in North America," a "sensitive, thoughtful, and kind" man, the type "I always knew I should fall in love with, but never did."

As the narrator packs to leave the ranch earlier than planned, Homer tells her he has decided she is the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with "after all"; David offers compliment after compliment; and Monte rides after her to ask if she will write to him and come back for another date someday. As she drives toward Cody, Wyoming, listening to country music in which the women are all victims and the men "brutal or inexpressive and always sorry later," she reflects on stories, how people invent themselves through their fictions and how the stories "come to put walls around our lives." She decides, "there really isn't much truth in my saying cowboys are my weakness; maybe, after all this time, it's just something I've learned how to say." As Krista Comer noted in Landscapes of the New West (1999), halfway through the story the protagonist is on the verge of obtaining her deepest desire, the love of a "real cowboy," but "realizes she has allied herself with an incompatible script."

The story ends with the narrator declaring that the narratives offered by country music--and, by extension, those offered by Homer and Monte--are "not my happy ending. This is not my story." Earlier she has recognized her addiction for certain overly simplistic plots but has felt inevitably tied to them: "I've been to a lot of school and read a lot of thick books, but at my very core there's a made-for-TV movie mentality I don't think I'll ever shake." The ending offers hope that in fact she is ready to begin writing her own narrative. The humor and spare but descriptive language of this story, added to a cohesive and stronger ending than many of the others, show Houston at her best. "Cowboys Are My Weakness" has been anthologized in the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, edited by R. V. Cassill and Joyce Carol Oates .

"Jackson is Only One of My Dogs" is one of the most humorous stories in the collection. First appearing in Mirabella, it describes the narrator's two dogs: Jackson, constantly active, in trouble with dogcatchers and police, "athletic, graceful, obnoxious and filled with conceit," and "the other dog, the good dog," Hailey, who is "slow, a little fat, and gentle to her bones," and never in trouble. As with the men in her life, the narrator finds she has a better relationship with Jackson, "the charm machine," than with Hailey, "simply a low-maintenance dog." Yet, by the end she finds herself in a relationship with a kind, gentle, "low-maintenance" but "high density" man and discovers it offers complexities and "a kind of flying" beyond her imagination. Not all the metaphors in the story are convincing, but the writing is sprightly and humorous, animated by Houston's love for dogs.

In "A Blizzard Under Blue Sky" the narrator is told she is clinically depressed and rejects drugs in favor of a weekend of winter camping in high country at thirty-two degrees below zero. Accompanied only by her dogs (Jackson and Hailey of the previous story), she discovers at the end of a freezing fourteen-hour night that she has not spent any of it thinking about deadlines or bills or her unfaithful lover. "The morning sunshine was like a present from the gods . . . I remembered about joy." She admits it would be a movielike oversimplification to pretend a few nights in nature solved all of life's problems, but "On Sunday I had a glimpse outside of the house of mirrors, on Saturday I couldn't have seen my way out of a paper bag." One of the shortest pieces in Cowboys Are My Weakness, "A Blizzard Under Blue Sky" draws much of its power from the detailed descriptions of the necessities of winter camping and Houston's ability to communicate the physicality of the experience as a metaphor for her emotional needs. The story first appeared in Lodestar.

The only story aside from "How to Talk to a Hunter" to employ second-person narration, "Sometimes You Talk About Idaho," takes the narrator, a writer, to Manhattan, where she has a blind date with a soap-opera star, set up by the man she calls her "good father." The story explores the blurred line between performance and lies and performance based on true feelings, finding no satisfactory resolution. It was first published in Mirabella.

"Symphony" is a four-page recitation of the narrator's lovers. Here, Houston indulges a concentration on sensuality that tends to appear only briefly in the other stories, making this piece the most lyrical she has produced. Aware of the danger of how she might be labeled for admitting to having more than one lover ("I'm afraid of what you might be thinking. That I am a certain kind of person"), she balances the tightrope she admits to creating by interspersing dreams that reveal her needs and by an almost chastening tone: "I could love any one of them, in an instant and with every piece of my heart, but none of them nor the world will allow it, and so I move between them, on snowy highways and crowded airplanes." The voice created in this story is intimate and personal, almost uncannily drawing the reader into its sensuality: "I was in New York this morning. I woke up in Phillip's bed. Come here, he's in my hair. You can smell him."

The final story of Cowboys Are My Weakness, "In My Next Life," centers on the relationship between two women, one of whom sounds much like the other narrators in the collection. The opening line informs readers, "This is a love story," going on to explain that, while the narrator and Abby were never lovers, it "would have been possible." Abby, a horse trainer with strong New Age tendencies, develops breast cancer and dies. As Comer argued in Landscapes of the New West, it is not an unhappy ending, however, for "female solidarity and companionship has infused the protagonist with a new sense of self-worth. . . . This is a curious ending for a book that tantalizes readers because of its appeal to an ostensibly widely shared cultural experience: attraction to the rugged American cowboys." While Comer is not entirely accurate in claiming there are "no men" in this final story (both women have had troubled relationships with men), she astutely notes that with this ending and in the volume as a whole, "Desire, finally, is variable, open-ended, adventuring, without conclusion."

The essay "Breaking the Ice" (in A Little More About Me) reveals that "In My Next Life" developed from Houston's relationship with a friend named Sally Quinters, who died of breast cancer. Houston revisits this relationship in more than one essay and again in fictional form in "Like Goodness Under Your Feet," collected in Waltzing the Cat.

A best-seller (an unusual accomplishment for a short-story collection), Cowboys Are My Weakness drew favorable reviews from most major publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and mixed reviews from The New Yorker and the Women's Review of Books. The paperback edition of Cowboys Are My Weakness appeared in February 1993 under the Washington Square Press imprint.

In 1992 Houston married Michael Elkington, a safari guide from South Africa; they later divorced. In the essay "Pregnancy and Other Natural Disasters" (originally in Condé Nast Sports for Women, reprinted in A Little More About Me), she writes of finding herself pregnant and becoming deeply depressed over the prospect of having to give up her adventurous, often dangerous lifestyle, as well as her anxiety over weight gain and lack of control over her body inherent to pregnancy. She recalls her mother's saying, "'A fat girl is nothing but a fat girl,' . . . as she squeezed herself into her girdle every morning, 'no matter what else she accomplishes in her life.'" Houston adds, "Of all the misguided rules for living that my mother handed down to me, that is the one I think about most often, every time a bite of food leaves the fork and enters my mouth." She also discusses having had an abortion many years earlier, at her mother's urging. The pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, and Houston ends the essay remaining unsure whether she wishes to have children, aware that this position is still viewed with some suspicion by many in the contemporary United States. The issues of a woman's control over her body, and the national--and her personal--obsession with thinness and traditional notions of beauty, appear in many of Houston's nonfiction pieces, such as "Out of Habit I Start Apologizing," "The Morality of Fat," and "In Pursuit of What I Don't Do Well" (all collected in A Little More About Me). These topics frequently occupy her fictional protagonists as well.

In 1995 Houston edited and provided an introduction for the collection Women on Hunting: Essays, Fiction, and Poetry. It includes forty-seven new and previously published stories, poems, and essays by writers such as Joyce Carol Oates , Margaret Atwood , Louise Erdrich , Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, Tess Gallagher , Francine Prose , Jane Smiley , Alice Hoffman, and Ann Beattie , as well as pieces by several lesser-known authors. Houston contributed "Dall," from Cowboys Are My Weakness. The dust jacket suggests the purpose of the collection is to awaken readers to the "notion that the chase and the kill reflect many of our archetypal human experiences--that our relationships are almost always based on elements of the hunt, the constant interplay of power, desire, and need." Houston chose to include selections that present the perspective of women who are fervent and enthusiastic hunters, women who detest the practice, and those who are--as she describes herself--somewhere in the middle.

In her introduction Houston writes that hunting "in this anthology, is neither a sport, nor a philosophical dilemma, as much as it is a metaphorical framework from which to tell a tale." J. Z. Grover, reviewing the volume for the Women's Review of Books (February 1996), noted that Women on Hunting "collects some terrific material" but seems to have "no central focus," given the different ways in which the stories, poems, and essays incorporate hunting--from delight to disgust with the activity, as metaphorical or formal structure, with anger and polemicism, humor and angst. While praising Houston as a writer and for the quality of her choices, Grover does take issue with what she perceives as Houston's belief that women and men experience the world differently, citing Houston's assertion in the introduction that, "While a man tends to be linear about achieving a goal, a woman can be circular and spatial. She can move in many directions at once, she can be many things at once, she can see an object from all sides, and, when it is required, she is able to wait." For Grover this statement is the "primitive backcountry of essentialism," though Houston was writing in terms of tendencies rather than absolutes.

Houston collaborated with French photographer Véronique Vial on a volume of photographs titled Men Before Ten A.M. In the introduction Houston described a telephone call from Vial, proposing the project: "I have an idea that men put their masks on by ten o'clock in the morning, that if you want to capture what is inside a man, you have to catch him when he first wakes up. . . . I always go alone, without an assistant. I shoot for ten or fifteen minutes. I use only available light. It is very intense, very intimate." The volume features photographs of ninety-nine different men from several countries and professions. In addition to the introduction, three essays by Houston are interspersed through the work: "The Things That Men Do in the Morning," "Why We Still Love Men," and "The Man I Love in the Morning."

In 1997 Houston provided an introduction for a reprint edition of B. M. Bower's 1912 novel Lonesome Land. Bertha Muzzy Bower was a prolific author in the first decades of the twentieth century, writing Westerns under her initials only; thus her (often male) fans believed her to be a male cowboy. Many of her protagonists were, however, women of action in the West.

In 1993 Houston moved to Oakland, California. Out of her time there she produced an essay that details being mugged and meditates on the differing dangers of cities and wilderness areas. Her experiences in Oakland are also reflected in the opening story in Waltzing the Cat , "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had." Also like the protagonist in Waltzing the Cat, Houston settled on a one-hundred-and-twenty-acre ranch in southwestern Colorado, where she makes her home--as she describes it--nine thousand feet above sea level, near the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

Waltzing the Cat is much more of a short-story cycle than is Cowboys Are My Weakness. The stories in this second collection feature the same protagonist throughout, Lucy O'Rourke, a photographer, and the volume ends with a piece titled "Epilogue." It also works as a cycle thematically, with each story a progressive episode in the life and emotional development of Lucy. The ties between author and protagonist are unmistakable, especially when one turns to A Little More About Me, the essay collection published a year later, in 1999. Just as Houston has a good friend named Henry and a not-quite-lover named Carter, similar figures named Henry and Carter appear as friend and not-quite-lover of Lucy in Waltzing the Cat. Houston and Lucy both make their living in large part through work for magazines and travel a great deal as a result of that work. Yet, it would most likely be a mistake to read the fictions--or the essays--as literal renderings of Houston's experiences. "Stories always change in their telling. Does anybody ever tell something exactly as it happened?" Houston noted in an October 1996 profile in Writer's Digest titled "The Emotional Truth." The author of that piece, Julie Fanselow, wrote that Houston claimed she attempts to write the truth, "not necessarily the truth as it happened, but the emotional truth, the truth of the world as I see it."

Yahlin Chang, reviewing Waltzing the Cat for Newsweek (19 October 1998), called Lucy "more mature, more honest, and more afraid" than the heroines of Houston's first collection: "Lucy sees her death-defying adventures for what they are: compulsive acts of self-destruction. And she realizes she's pathetic about love--but that she'll grow out of it." In "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" Lucy describes life and friends in Oakland, where "all the people you know--without exception--have their hearts all wrapped around someone who won't ever love them back." Houston proved herself as adept at rendering the dangers and emotional atmosphere of the cityscape--muggings, boyfriends who turn into stalkers, the homeless man who baptizes her with urine, a jumper who changes his mind about leaping from the bridge when he discovers he would be the undistinguished number 251 of the year--as she is at depicting the challenges and emotional realizations found in wilderness landscapes and adventures. Much of the story takes place in a series of dialogues between Lucy and her various male and female friends. Interspersed are memories of a troubled childhood: being thrown into the New Jersey surf at the age of two by her father, having been in sixteen serious car accidents by the age of fifteen, fantasizing about being hospitalized after one experience there led to visits from her parents who showed up, for once, sober and "happy to see me." Thus, "The Best Girlfriend You Never Had" is individually the story of a young woman negotiating internal and external emotional obstacles in order to find the courage to look for something "that will last." As the opening story in the cycle, it establishes the current emotional challenges of the protagonist by showing scenes from her oppressive childhood and scenes delineating how she copes as an adult.

In many respects the second story, "Cataract," revisits the territory of much of Cowboys Are My Weakness. Lucy runs the hazardous rapids of Cataract Canyon in the Colorado River with her boyfriend, Josh, one female friend, and two other males. Lucy struggles as much with gendered behaviors as with the challenges posed by the river, as she tells readers, "It had been three years since Josh had come into my life wanting to know how to run rivers, two years since I taught him to row, six months since he decided he knew more about the river than I did, two weeks since he stopped speaking, since he started forgetting indispensable pieces of gear." While the connection between Lucy and her friend Thea is strong enough that Thea reads her mind "a couple of times daily," the men have conversations about how things will never be right in the world until women give up some of their rights and privileges. Following Josh's instructions, Thea and Lucy end up falling over a seven-story rock into the worst of the rapids. As the men later exult over Josh's skill and the "perfect day" he has given them, Lucy says to Thea, "What I wanted one of them to say is tell me what it felt like under there." Gender differences are highlighted again at the end of the story as, on the way home, Thea and Lucy sleep together in a womb-like space in the back of the truck while Josh recklessly passes semi-trucks, goaded on by the other men. While suggesting that men and women often value different goals, Houston avoids despair by maintaining a wry tone and a focus on the physical challenges both genders assay.

"Waltzing the Cat," the title story, takes the adult Lucy home after the unexpected death of her mother. The household is ruled by a fat phobia and an inability to express love, resulting in Lucy's parents lavishing emotions and food on the family cat, so much so that it has reached an astonishing twenty-nine pounds. With a mother who is both her harshest critic and her biggest fan, and a father who is by turns bullying and needy, both alcoholics, Lucy's family's only originality in contemporary fiction may be in their extreme terror that their daughter will grow up overweight. Yet, Houston's delineation of the communication (and lack thereof) among the O'Rourkes is so concrete, understated, and exquisitely nuanced as to create a heartrending psychological portrait. Carolyn See, reviewing for the Washington Post Book World (6 December 1998), declared that the "title story deserves to be anthologized into eternity." Earlier versions of "Waltzing the Cat" appeared in The Mississippi Review and Redbook and in the anthology These Are the Stories We Tell.

A reviewer for Booklist (1 September 1998) argued that "Lucy acquired machismo both to prove her worth and to protect herself, but she's realizing that while she's learned to be strong, she doesn't know how to be happy." Coming off the emotional turmoil of "Waltzing the Cat," Lucy heads for a machismo adventure in "Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology." She travels to Ecuador for New Year's and the week before her thirty-third birthday, attracted by the notion of balance, of twelve hours of darkness and twelve hours of light. She explores the highest point on earth along the equator, nineteen thousand feet above sea level, visits the north coast to see the ruins of the ancient culture of Agua Blanca, and sojourns to the Isla de la Plata and the cloud forests near Mindo--all necessary, her guide tells her, to be ready for the experience of the Amazon Basin. A series of horrible dates after she returns to the United States are then understood through the metaphors offered by the phenomena she observed in Ecuador. "Three Lessons in Amazonian Biology" appeared in the Fall 1998 issue of Ploughshares, guest-edited by Lorrie Moore .

"The Moon Is a Woman's First Husband" is also an adventure story. Lucy finds herself on a boat heading for Bimini with friends Henry and Carter, caught up in Hurricane Gordon. Storytelling plays a significant thematic and literal role in this piece, as the men talk about their engagements and the three trade stories from cultures around the globe, revealing through their choices their differing beliefs about love and relationships.

The terrain being explored moves from the physical and the emotional into the spiritual and mystical in "Moving from One Body of Water to Another." After missing a plane at LAX, Lucy runs into Carlos Castaneda, who tells her she should "spend at least an hour a day in the sight of open water" and move to a house with hardwood floors. He announces that her life is about to open up in ways she could never imagine and that she will meet a man who thinks with precision, whom she would do well to love. As Lucy has grown increasingly homesick for the Rocky Mountains and found her attempts to nest with "world class pots and pans" in Oakland to be futile, a series of uncanny events culminates in the news that her grandmother has died and left her a ranch near Hope, Colorado, by the Rio Grande. Despite warnings about back taxes and the dilapidated state of the property, as well as her fears of going to live in a place where she knows no one, Lucy finds the strength to give up on the unsatisfactory "virtual love" of Carter, to make the move to the ranch and be alone for a while, after which, she is convinced, "I'd be way too smart . . . to settle for anybody's virtual love."

"Like Goodness Under Your Feet" takes the traditional Western settlement story and preserves the trope of the lone figure setting out to carve a new life in a new place but changes the typical gender of that protagonist. Lucy finds the ranch "is not a house that sits on the land as much as one that sits in it," raising another trope of the West, of the land as pristine and still in charge. While appreciating the naturalness of the landscape and the prairie grasses and flowers, Houston also acknowledges the history that has taken place there; there is a family graveyard and a town history she learns from B. J., a friend of her grandmother's. Lucy discovers connections to that past; she uncannily resembles the grandmother who left her the ranch, a woman she has not seen for thirty years thanks to a fight between the grandmother and Lucy's parents. Yet, Houston diverges from the Western settlement story: rather than working to tame the local animals, Lucy adopts and makes friends with a dog that may have more than a little coyote blood. Instead of conquering the land in order to "civilize" it, Lucy finds it a fertile place for getting in touch with the elemental: "People are supposed to accumulate, I thought, as they get older, but I seem to be sloughing off, like a person wrapped in a hundred layers of cellophane, tearing one layer off at a time, trying to get down to me." It also proves a fertile place for making new friends--B. J. and the dog, named Ellie--as well as land to which she can finally relinquish the ashes of her best friend, Ellie, who had died of breast cancer five years before. As an individual story "Like Goodness Under Your Feet" provides a fascinating revision of the independent loner striking out to build a new life in the West. A key moment in the short-story cycle, it brings Lucy to a place where she has "written myself a full-time prescription" for being alone, something "necessary" and she hopes "temporary," a place from which she can both move forward emotionally and "hold our ground."

Yet, the next two stories find Lucy involved with one unsuitable man after another. In "Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast" Lucy finally breaks off her relationship with the sexually and emotionally unavailable Carter and begins living with Eric, an alcoholic who likes to shoot bowling balls from a cannon. He quits drinking and redoes the foundation of her house, eliminating the risk that it will slide into the river. Yet, in "The Kind of People You Trust with Your Life," Eric has started drinking again, and Lucy, aware from her childhood of the repercussions of living with an alcoholic, sends him away. Most of the story takes place with Lucy in a glider plane, remembering moments of fear and experiencing the exhilaration of feeling fear and then letting go of it as the glider swoops and dives through the mountains. "Then You Get Up and Have Breakfast" previously appeared in Elle and in Fish Stories.

As does the final story of Cowboys Are My Weakness, the final full story of Waltzing the Cat, "The Whole Weight of Me," turns its attention to female friendship. In Provincetown to teach a workshop, Lucy has dinner with one of her students, Marilyn, and they discover they both grew up in families obsessed with the fear of being overweight. In perhaps the most emotionally resonant passages in the story, as they share memories they have never told before, Marilyn says, "We had very complicated rules when we went out to dinner. . . . No appetizers or dessert ever, and if you wanted extra credit you could order. . . ." The sentence is finished by Lucy, "An appetizer instead of dinner. And no bread." She goes on, "I always think, if I never spent another minute feeling bad about the shape of my body, what would I do with all that space in my brain." Lucy quickly becomes involved with a man she meets in Provincetown, in spite of Marilyn's warnings. When he turns out to be married-but-soon-to-be-divorced, Lucy turns back to Provincetown to spend more time with Marilyn instead of going to visit her emotionally abusive father as planned. Again, the story is one of a protagonist on the verge of shedding old habits and becoming a new person: "I would go back to my ranch and see if another round of seasons would make me any smarter, and wait there by the river for the new Lucy to come home."

"Epilogue" continues the spiritual/mystical tone introduced halfway through the volume as Lucy, out walking with her dog on the ranch, meets up with a seven-year-old girl who shows her photographs from her own past. As she finds the courage to face the memories of the abuse she lived through, Lucy--and Houston-- reflect on the nature of stories and lives, how they repeat themselves and how to make them move forward.

Waltzing the Cat was greeted with largely favorable reviews in most major publications, with a few objecting to the thread of mysticism as New Age and unconvincing. Sybil S. Steinberg, reviewer for Publishers Weekly (13 July 1998), believed "Houston describes Lucy's sporting adventures with cinematic detail, conveying both her technical prowess and the exhilaration of physical daring." In The Spectator of 20 February 1999, Jessica de Rothschild tempered her positive review with "If Waltzing the Cat lacks anything it is pace. Waiting for Lucy's moment of reckoning is rather like waiting for a night bus in the rain in a dodgy part of town. It takes forever. However, just as Houston's softly, softly approach becomes irritating, she redeems herself with unexpected insight and a strong sense of humor." One of the most enthusiastic reviews came from Mary Loudon in The London Times (30 January 1999): calling Houston a "stunning, stunning writer," Loudon wrote that "Waltzing the Cat is bold, energetic and exhilarating; its laconic tone and meandering structure perfectly reflect the contradictions of the life contained therein. . . . Her feel for landscapes both actual and metaphorical is so accurate and acute that you feel you could reach out and touch every part of her stories."

Just a year after Waltzing the Cat, Houston published A Little More About Me, a collection of twenty-four essays, all but six of which were previously published. The essays cover approximately five years of her life, during which she visited forty-three countries and five continents. In addition to pieces on traveling through the Teton Range, Botswana, France, the Andes, and Bhutan, Houston writes on various sports, body image, notions of success, and, perhaps most charmingly, her relationships with her dogs and horses. While reviewers have praised Houston's writing in A Little More About Me, it has been less well received than have the short-story collections, with reviewers such as Elizabeth Gilbert in The New York Times Book Review (12 September 1999) finding parts of it too self-absorbed. Many essays relate events that correspond to occurrences in the fictions, thus making them a useful source for those wishing to trace autobiographical connections.

Certainly a key element in Houston's fiction is the woman who follows the man she is attracted to into wild and rugged territory. Yet, easily as important, and increasingly present as her career has progressed, are the women in Houston's fiction who test themselves in and against the wilderness, the support they offer one another as friends and confidantes, women and men as friends and confidantes, relationships between parents and children (in particular, the outcomes of having had alcoholic and neglectful or abusive parents), and women and their relationships with animals--especially horses and dogs. Houston is praised for bringing a female perspective to the story of the loner facing down nature and the outdoors, a perspective that engages the wilderness as much as it challenges it. In a description of a short-fiction workshop Houston offered in 1999 at the University of California, Davis, she stated what she believes to be the "real artistry of fiction": "the translation of the emotional stakes of the story onto its physical landscape." In this statement she articulated her own best achievement.

 
FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Interview:

  • Randall Osborne, "Kissing the Cowboys Goodbye: Pam Houston Talks about Dangerous Love and the Unnavigable Gap Between Men and Women," Salon.com (8 January 1999), http://www.salon.com/ books/int/1999/01/08int.html.

References:

  • Krista Comer, Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women's Writing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
  • Julie Fanselow, "The Emotional Truth," Writer's Digest, 76 (October 1996): 6-7.

 
Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
West, Kathryn. "Pam Houston." American Short-Story Writers Since World War II: Fourth Series, edited by Patrick Meanor and Joseph McNicholas, Gale, 2001. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 244. Literature Resource Center, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FH1200010297%2FLitRC%3Fu%3D22396_largo%26sid%3DLitRC%26xid%3D9708aa39. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200010297