Téa Obreht Follows Up an Acclaimed Debut With a Visit to the Old West

The most expressive part of a camel, it’s been suggested, is its back end. In his memoir “Joseph Anton” — a vastly better book than it’s been given credit for — Salman Rushdie observed that when a camel is upset, its feces change from “dry innocuous pellets to a liquid spray that blasts out a considerable distance behind the aggrieved dromedary.” Like mules, they can really nail you from behind.

Camels play an outsize role in the Serbian-American writer Téa Obreht’s sentimental and meandering second novel, “Inland.” This is the follow-up to her best-selling and critically hailed debut, “The Tiger’s Wife,” which appeared in 2011 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Like the tigers in that previous book, the camels in “Inland” function as creatures of inflated myth and wonder more than they do as complicated mammals with earthly problems of their own. They do not, alas, employ their excretions as social commentary.

But then there’s little well-directed commentary about life, nature, art, ideas or anything much at all in “Inland.” Set in an Old West that feels like a film set, the novel is packed with whimsical “characters” and earnest séances and omens and dowsers and people who talk to the dead. This novel underscores the word “purple” in the patriotic song lyric about “purple mountain majesties.”

Let me pause to say: Obreht has real gifts as a storyteller. “The Tiger’s Wife,” set in the Balkans, was a page-turner that accrued gravitas because of the author’s understanding of that region’s culture and history. (Obreht was born in Belgrade in 1985, and moved to the United States in 1997.) With little like that history to cling to, “Inland” floats up and away, like a magic carpet bound for anywhere and nowhere.

“Inland” is set in the rowdy and arid lands of the Arizona Territory during the 1890s. There are two strands of plot in “Inland” that slowly begin to braid. In each, anyone might kill you for a glass of water. This is in no small part a novel about thirst.

At the start of “Inland,” we meet a man we come to know as Lurie. He’s a former grave-robber and wanted for murder. (The marshal on his tail is named John Berger, whom I kept imagining as the late novelist and art critic John Berger in a Stetson, with a Sam Elliott drawl.) Lurie’s father had Balkan origins.

Lurie delivers running monologues to his camel, which he’s named Burke. These monologues offer some bright moments. “Your fleas soon became my fleas,” Lurie says. He calls his camel “you bellyacher, you beautiful trickster.”

Lurie and his pack animal fall in with members of the United States Camel Corps, and many adventures are had. Lurie also explains to Burke that, wherever he turns, he sees dead people. Before long, we meet others with similar gifts.

The other narrative branch in “Inland” belongs largely to Nora, a frontierswoman whose husband, Emmett, has gone missing while searching for water. She has three sons, one of whom can’t tell waking from dreaming. Nora herself talks to her daughter, who died when young. This novel is a slow, static-filled turn around a psychic radio dial.

Nora’s household also includes Josie, an orphaned relative she and Emmett have taken in. “Churning around in Josie’s mind,” Obreht writes, “was an almanac of tincture remedies, Oriental magic, occult notions, absurd natural histories.” Josie believes in “the oracular power of birds.” Her special talent is for communion with the dead. She is insufferable.

Not long after Emmett vanishes, two of Nora’s sons disappear while looking for him. The novel’s story moves in many directions at once. A newspaper war develops. Nora finds her voice as a writer. A bad guy arrives and blackmails her. One central and awfully wonky bit of plot is about which of two towns will become the county seat. All the drama feels fake, as if someone is backstage shaking a thunder sheet.

Like Annie Proulx, Obreht is fond of offbeat nouns and verbs, especially when describing the natural world. (“The goblin barrens rose up on either side of the path ahead: bulbous gnomons; knotted terraces; wedge-headed hoodoos.”) This voice appears then vanishes for long sections until the author remembers to switch it on again, like a camera effect.

More common are observations and dialogue that are as softly didactic as refrigerator magnet slogans: “What we see with our hearts is often far truer than what we see with our eyes”; “Everybody keeps some part of themselves hid away”; “But ain’t that how we learn to be ourselves? Failing to impress them that matter most to us?” Everybody talks through their hats.

I realize I am being terribly hard on Obreht’s novel, but I felt lashed to its mast very early on and That Sinking Feeling never entirely went away.

The many readers who will enjoy “Inland” and put it on best-seller lists can send an old curse in my direction. You know the one: May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

Inland
By Téa Obreht
374 pages. Random House. $27.

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