Eminent Domain

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Much of the power in these stories comes from Dan O’Brien’s vivid descriptions of the natural settings his characters inhabit. The climbers in “Weightless” feel an almost inexpressible sense of joy as they listen for the heartbeat of the earth while dangling from a huge mountain. “Seals” explores the sea and landscapes that attract adventurous young men to what may be the last American frontier, Alaska. O’Brien’s symbolic geography clearly favors rough nature over modern civilization--a mill in Massachusetts is no proper home for a Nebraska youth (“Cowboy on the Concord”), and California in particular seems to be a dead end for anyone who has known a better place (“The Inheritance,” “Final Touches”). Nature, however, is far from simply picturesque and peaceful: It is the site of struggle, often to the death. In “Winter Cat,” for example, a young boy is nurtured and educated in the sub-zero chill of a Minnesota winter and in the presence of a mysterious cat that kills the birds that the boy is unable to protect.

O’Brien presents an unlikely crew of heroes. Willy Herbeck, for example, in “Eminent Doman,” is “bullheaded, and ugly.” His determination to keep his collection of junked cars intact seems crazy to the administrators of civilization who want to claim his property, but admirable to anyone who cares for personal integrity and self-reliance. Other key characters are not even human but are no less admirable and intriguing: “The Georgia Breeze” is the last of a breed of fine hunting dogs, sacrificed by its aging trainer to keep it from falling into the hands of someone impervious to natural beauty and dignity; and “The Wild Geese” turn out to be far more noble than the thoughtlessly cruel humans over whom they fly.

O’Brien experiments with a variety of narrative techniques: “Seals” and “The Inheritance” shift between past and present, “Eminent Domain” jumps quickly from one narrator to another, and “The Wild Geese” is told from the point of view of the geese themselves. It is his vision and voice that are most impressive, though, and the stories in EMINENT DOMAIN do not merely echo but also add to the tradition of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, whose stories have done so much to make readers contemplate their relationship with a vanishing world of natural splendor, knowledge, and courage.