‘Luck; Loops and Variations: A Review of Carys Davies' “West”’, by Laura Stortenbeker

Text Publishing

I have been thinking about the word luck and how it is an ugly word to speak. Maybe mostly the feeling is good, but the sound of it is heavy, maybe I feel this because I’ve said it too many times. I like how it looks written down, and of course, when it’s good luck, how it feels. Lucky is an easier and better word, the ‘y’ makes it so.

In a search of my recent digital conversations the word lucky is used, in each, 57, 38, 32, 27 times. Lucky is used with extensive frequency both from and to me, appearing in a deep yellow highlight when searched for: ‘lucky you didn’t drive’, ‘so lucky’, ‘stay lucky’, ‘I feel very lucky’, ‘that’s lucky’, ‘I feel lucky to have – ’, ‘I am v v lucky with – ’, ‘I’m lucky to have – ’, ‘lucky lucky lucky’, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’, ‘I’m lucky to know you’, ‘(I feel lucky)’, ‘(feeling lucky)’, ‘(feeling so lucky) x’.

In these conversations, the idea of luck is most often used as an expression of gratitude, or as an expression of wanting something for someone else, ‘wish me luck’, + ‘good luck’. I want to describe it as a non-religious blessing, good luck, good luck, good luck. In one message, a friend says, ‘sending all my luck to you’. This is an impossible transfer, but is tied into other lucky feelings.

When I think of lucky things, I think of Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Good Luck Orange, I think of a note on my friend’s wall that says ‘You are so lucky, do something with this luck’. I think of early August, when someone sends me a photograph of a series of pressed out four-leaf clovers and how that made me feel lucky, not just because of the symbolism of the clovers, the repetition of their flat forms on my phone screen, but at the gesture, that I am known enough to be thought of, texted, transferred thoughts of good luck. It’s the same feeling as ‘sending all my luck to you’; knowing someone cares for you enough to want to give their own luck away.

If we begin talking about bad luck this will quickly become exhausting, but of course there’s that too. Bad luck is as common as good, feeling unlucky is often followed by the feeling that you’ll never be lucky again: and then the luck loops. The scale of all luck can be huge, can be small, can be barely noticeable, can be a feeling that swallows you with joy, or a sour feeling you must swallow.

When good luck or bad luck happens it feels hot in the body, at least this is how it feels for me. This is only when it’s very good, revelatory, or very bad, crushing; only for significant things. More commonly, and I’m glad for this, most instances of luck are small, everyday intersections, insignificant instances of chance.

The first thing I heard about West, also before reading, was from a friend who said it had been described as being like Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, but funny. I started associating luck with the novel from this point because this conversation made me remember when I felt long-term unlucky earlier in the year I opened my copy of Train Dreams in the middle of the night and found a twenty-dollar note wedged in at the exact page I’d been wanting to reread.

By the time luck is actually mentioned by name in West, we already know that Cy Bellman is setting off to the American west: to find, to discover, to be awed by “mammoth creatures”, and that this is a task, an experience that will of course rely on luck. And of course, we can expect his luck to be both good and bad. We also know that Bellman is a beloved fool, whose actions are forgiven, or at least rationalised because of previous bad luck. His wife has died, well before the events of the book take place. We have luck as the explainer, some bad luck that Bellman couldn’t control and yeah, he’s doing something reckless, but at least everyone knows why. Luck allows reason to be applied to his actions.

Before luck, Davies writes of hope. Bellman tells his neighbour, Elmer Jackson, about the task he’s set himself, “in the hope that I can find my way to what I’m looking for” and then soon after, “but I’m hoping I won’t need to go that far. I’m hoping that if I don’t find what I’m after near the river then they’ll be here, before the mountains.”

If hope is a desire for something good to happen, maybe good luck fits best as getting something you desired but knew you weren’t guaranteed, as a positive when something was likely to be negative, or remaining remarkably well-off when it’s apparent it should have been otherwise.

Early in West, Bellman hires a Native American boy, Old Woman From A Distance, to lead him through the shifting seasons. This transaction is undeniably exploitative, but it is one that represents Bellman’s good luck, it’s obvious his luck would be much worse, much sooner without the guide, and the companionship. The two press on for most of the novel, with landscapes and time and seasons passing in sudden cuts. The beautiful, rapid way Davies writes is simple and grounded, everything sits where it should (I’d forgotten the thrill of what it’s like to see an ugly word perfectly placed in a beautiful sentence and remembering that felt lucky): “and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.”

There’s an incident that takes place in just over a page, where the bad luck of Old Woman From A Distance immediately becomes Bellman’s, and they think they’ve lost all of their supplies in a river. Bellman cannot control his anger, lashes out, shakes the boy. Then, “In the tranquil pool at the bottom of the falls, Bellman’s things floated or twinkled beneath the water. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I suppose we’ve been lucky this time.’”

Most of the time when I think of luck, I’m thinking of it personally, as something that solely belongs to me and doesn’t really affect anyone else. But luck does transfer in that way, or at least overlaps. In fictional worlds, the main character’s luck will influence the luck of almost all others, and the luck of others will transfer to others still. In West, Cy Bellman’s luck is the initial determiner. His bad luck is Elmer Jackson’s good, it’s Bess, Bellman’s daughter’s bad, it’s both for Old Woman From A Distance.

Everyone is lucky until they’re not, and then depending on which character you look at, the luck loops again through good and bad. For some in the space of West, this is endless, for others, there’s an endpoint, which is obviously tied to death. In a fictional world these overlaps of luck propel narrative and allow us to apply levels of empathy to characters, did they deserve this good/bad/ugly/kind outcome, even while knowing that luck is senseless (part of the appeal of believing in something completely out of your own control).

But what about controlling luck? — can you? And — does it still count as luck if you’re attempting to influence it?

I want to talk about Bess, who is ten, eleven, twelve, who stays at home as her father moves farther and farther west. Bess the devoted and precocious child who borders on understanding everything, but who still believes her father is brave and right, who hopes, no, knows he’ll come home. Ultimately Bess is lucky, although like all luck, hers wavers between good, bad, tragic, small, vast.

While awaiting Bellman’s return, Bess looks for signs in nature and the people around her to determine whether her father is safe, well, heading home. If a flower blooms early, if her aunt’s mood in the morning is a particular way:

She did this all the time now — daily, sometimes hourly, and always last thing at night before she went to sleep, marking time by accumulating signs of good luck in her father’s favor.

It’s simple enough to say that to believe in luck is to relinquish control, but what about the ways in which we influence luck, or at least feel like we have small powers over it.

Even as a child, Bess knows that her luck can be manipulated:

On balance, of course, things tended to come out on his side, because Bess always weighted the odds in his favor by setting outcomes she had some power to influence, or at least knew were likely.

She cycles through repetitive thought to control both her own perception of luck and her father’s. The narrator goes on to say, that despite Bess’ awareness of the falsity of this luck, “Still, it was comfort.”

As I move through West I start thinking about how assigning ‘back luck’ to something becomes a cover for horrible things, makes it neat don’t you think, bad luck as the easy explanation. I cared the most about the luck of Bess and the things that happened, and almost happened, to her and again began turning a common thought; is it bad luck or basic fact that predatory men will always align themselves with young people like Bess, and then is it a matter of luck as to whether such insidious advances will land. I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about myself in this because I feel I’ve been relatively ‘lucky’, in that the things that have happened to me, as have happened to many of us, still feel manageable, could have been worse, my luck could have been worse. So, in that sense, luck is just a matter of framing, of limits, of fulfilling a certain capacity between your experiences and what they could have been, what they reached and what they were close to, your own perception of good/bad luck. I like the idea of being able to control the perception post-event, so if luck is indeterminable and unpredictable, at least you can align it differently after. But is that framing a different kind of pressure, one forced upon us after such luck, to take comfort in the possibility that there is always something, someone unluckier, you could be unluckier. Is it good or bad luck to be able to imagine worse things, know that your good luck is someone else’s bad? More loops of good and bad luck. See, that’s the transfer again, I can’t explain it much more.

There is a scene in West where Old Woman From A Distance speaks to the horse he’s walking with, “sometimes, to encourage himself, he laid his mouth against its soft, leaflike ears and whispered, ‘Remember, there are no gods. We have ourselves and nothing else.’”

I often urge myself to remember bad luck during good moods. I think this is to protect myself from feeling too joyful or too out of control.

I remember a phone call last year with someone close to me, them telling me they didn’t believe in luck. I extended the call thirty minutes longer than I’d planned, paced outside the front of my house, knotted my free hand in my hair, had to call someone else after to ask the same question, “but do you really believe in luck?” Asked myself the same thing all night.

There is always bad luck, we’re all lucky until we’re not, then lucky again. Acknowledging luck must come with parameters, decisions, choices, control. Again, it’s a looping thought, whether I believe in it fully or not, me who thinks that if I wear all blue (including my underwear) my day will be a good and lucky one (and like Bess, knowing that’s a controlled luck, knowing that blue doesn’t protect from bad luck). And still even if I believe in this created and controlled form of luck, I don’t dress like that every day; feel like I’d be pushing something, wearing out the trick. But it isn’t just me, I know the rituals of my friends, know the lucky objects they keep close, who keeps something in their pocket or in their car or pressed loosely to their skin.

Throughout West, Davis describes the ways Old Woman From A Distance has tied various items he’s collected, won, earned, throughout the distance travelled, in his hair. Although this could be read as an aesthetic act, his deliberateness, and the protective way he holds on to these items makes me think they symbolise good luck. A man he meets asks him to remove the items so they can create a makeshift map, and before he understands the intention, Old Woman From A Distance is hesitant to give up these objects, the ribbon, the inkwell behind his ear that he sees as a flower, a signifier of good luck.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is, needing to believe in luck, or performing the rituals close to it, is inherently personal. Even while knowing luck truly can’t be influenced or predetermined, even if the belief, the rituals, are only tricks. That loop, wanting to know you’ll have good luck between the bad, is important, regardless of it being based in collected clovers and plastic childhood figurines and pulling at your necklace at the right moment. The repetitions in conversations, good luck, good luck, the overlap, me in my all-blue clothes, “Still, it was comfort”, right?

Laura Stortenbeker is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and Overland.