Improbable Fortunes- A Review by Mark Billingsley
Book Review of Improbable Fortunes, by Jeffrey Price
Reviewed by Mark Billingsley
Jeffrey Price was in town last week to launch his new book "Improbable Fortunes" and we had a great time at the bookstore talking to him about the writing process, his experiences as an award-winning screenwriter and what it like to be a reserve sheriff's deputy in Telluride. Jeffrey is most famous for his brilliant scripting of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", a classic for its innovative blending of live actors and animation, intriguing plot-line and, particularly, for its hilarious and provocative dialogue, an attribute that is lavishly bestowed upon this delightful picaresque novel.
Although we are constantly admonished to not "judge a book by its cover" it is not an easy dictum to follow when the cover is a rendering of Thomas Hart Benton's sumptuous and extravagant "Trail Riders" which resonates with the tone and atmosphere of the of the "Improbable Fortunes" perfectly.
"Improbable Fortunes" tells the tale of the fictional, and all too real, down-at-the-heels mining town of Vanadium, Colorado, vaguely located somewhere in Lame Horse county, between Telluride and Nucla. One might think that not much happens in these small one-road-in and no-roads-out forgotten little mining towns, but one would be incorrect. In fact Vanadium enjoys a storied and colorful past, times two. The first part relates to the difficult, narrow, and dangerous mountain road that leads up into the little town. If you were, say, Butch Cassidy or one of the Dalton boys, and you needed a quiet place to hole up for a few days or weeks that perilous road could be covered by one man with a .50 cal. Henry, or a few folks ready to roll a some boulders down, and you could sleep easy. If you were a Pinkerton, or any other lawman, then the "no-roads-out" rule would apply. This is Vanadium a place where a large part of the population are direct descendants of several of the leading lights of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang, with the requisite healthy dose of xenophobia and general cussedness, and proud of it.
The story of the second "past" relates more to geology than geography. Vanadium just happens to sit on a substrate rich in uranium. it was all over the place, something the US Government, and their proxy, the Atomic Mines Corp wanted desperately. Things were awesome for a while, the money was good and whiskey flowed like wine. Then there was that little dust-up at Three-mile Island, not to mention Reagan's damned START treaty. Suddenly they couldn't give the confounded uranium away, and Atomic Mines shuttered the facility. Vanadium slipped into a bitter senescence or as Jeffrey Price puts it, "One might say this community existed much like it's native bristlecone pine, which during long periods of drought, allowed itself to mostly die in order to keep alive a small, tiny ember of life until better circumstances presented themselves"
The better circumstances that presented themselves and fueled the current incarnation arose from the discovery of Vanadium by Marvin Mallomar, one of the world's richest men, infusing the tiny community with large amounts of life-giving cash. Marvin thought owning an authentic western mining town would be entertaining, so he planted his forty-thousand-square-foot Adirondack/Frank Lloyd Wright-style "cabin" of aged Montana ponderosa pine, glass, and steel on a large piece of property overlooking the town. He hired himself a cowboy ranch manager; the tall, skinny, Howdy-Doody visaged Buster McCaffrey and settled in. Everything went well until it rained heavily for seven days straight and the reservoir above the home burst and sent twenty acre-feet of mud and water crashing through the edifice like a drunk driver though a plate glass window.
Jeffrey price has written one of the most hilarious, ridiculous, and ultimately believable, books on life in the modern west as I've ever read. You may not be able to identify with any of the characters, but you know them, party with them, and avoid them whenever possible, whether it's Cookie Dominguez, leader of the Busy Bees motorcycle gang and successful purveyors of fine methamphetamine (based on the Mary Kay business model), Sheriff Shep Dudival, professional curmudgeon and cynic, just looking to keep the peace until he can sink into blissful retirement, or any number of this book's gallery of rogues, ne'er-do-wells, and outright villains. Read "Improbable Fortunes", it's a helluva ride.