In literature, Sasquatch has always represented the unattainable wild, the animal experience of humanity that we bargained away in exchange for wi-fi and pants. And literary fiction has always handled bigfoot gingerly, as though the writers are embarrassed to be writing about such a far-out concept. Portland author Molly Gloss's Wild Life is maybe the most prominent example of Northwest bigfoot fiction, and it's a half-successful novel. Gloss cloaks her Sasquatch in florid descriptions of nature, never fully reveling in the tabloid allure of the subject matter. Bigfoot's literary life seemed destined to echo his life as a tall tale: He was doomed to a brief sighting in a Pynchon novel, a moment of glory as a metaphor in a skeptical Sherman Alexie poem (the first stanza of his "The Sasquatch Poems" reads "I believe in Sasquatch/just as much as I believe in God/which is not logical/since more people have seen Sasquatch/than have seen God"), and the embrace of dozens of nerds in fringy science-fiction novels.
Spokane author Sharma Shields's debut novel, The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac, changes all that. Shields is not ashamed of bigfoot—she drags him out of blurry photographs and into the spotlight in the very first chapter of the book. This Sasquatch arrives wearing "a filthy pin-striped suit" over his gigantic body, which reeks like "a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match." He can't really talk, but he's introduced as "Mr. Krantz," and he's eager to please his audience. A woman named Vanessa introduces Mr. Krantz to her son, Eli, and soon Mr. Krantz is trying to dance and play the piano to entertain the child. While dancing, his pants burst open and "the lopsided bulging serpent of Mr. Krantz's penis" flops about. The Sasquatch tries and fails, with "an embarrassed shrug," to protect his dignity. And then Vanessa runs off with Mr. Krantz, abandoning her child to be raised by his father as she becomes bigfoot's bride. "They hastened into the woods together," Shields writes, "extinguished by the trees."
It's a hell of an opening salvo in a hell of a book. Almanac is the newest entry in a tradition of Northwest magical realism made popular by Tom Robbins, in which the fantastic and the mundane circle each other until you're not sure who is the hunter and who is the prey. It's a novel of shifting perspectives that follows Eli's family from 1943 through 2006, focusing in brief moments on his daughters and wives and mother as they find their way in a world full of lake monsters and unicorns that lose massive amounts of silver blood when they're struck by cars and all sorts of supernatural threats. Almanac reads almost like a novel in stories—there's an early-2000s literary trend that deserved to die—but it turns out to be more of a mosaic, a narrative game of spin the bottle that accrues meaning by focusing on one perspective at a time.
In the 1950s, one chapter surveys Vanessa's life as Mr. Krantz's wife. She's sexually satisfied—bigfoot, it seems, is a horndog—but they sometimes encounter cultural differences. Mr. Krantz built an outhouse for Vanessa, but he doesn't want to use it:
He preferred to shit in the woods. He liked to share the smell with the forest and all of its creatures. It was a smell that said, I am here. I am here and, yes, smell how powerful I am! Only a thing as big and powerful as me would deposit such a smelly shit here! I am amazing!
When we meet Eli again, he's become a podiatrist—in that first meeting, he focused on Mr. Krantz's "wide, shoeless feet, two hairy sleds that moved noiselessly over the wooden floorboards as through a soft snow"—and an amateur bigfoot hunter. While sitting in on an elementary-school concert starring one of his children, he pouts, "Why did children always force themselves into the center of everyone's attention? Why did they demand the sum total of one's affections and abilities?"
As Eli obsesses over proving the existence of a monster nobody else believes in, the women in his life are forced to react to his choices in different ways. His ex-wife quietly loses her mind. One of his daughters rebels (rather than getting a tattoo or a risqué piercing, her rebellion comes in the form of grand theft auto), another tries to become an ideal suburban mom.
Someone reflects near the end of the book, "You did a number on us all, didn't you, Eli? Or did we all do it to ourselves?" Eli doesn't answer. He can't. He's too busy chasing monsters.