WHITEFISH - Literature, whether the writing of or the reading of, is most generally a solitary pursuit, a lonely and unrequited love affair with plot and character and the startling rhythm of words.
Unless you're Brian Schott, co-author of the Underwood Files.
A decade ago, the Whitefish ski bum shared a house with Ryan Friel, a bartender-gearhead-fly-fishing guide more often spotted in local ski shops than local bookstores.
But in their living room, front and center, sat an old, black Underwood typewriter. When the mood struck, Schott would pound out a paragraph in passing. Then Friel would hammer out some lines.
They took turns this way, telling the adventures of Mr. Underwood. It is a manuscript now, perhaps fortunately, long lost to time.
But the effort planted a seed, “and I came to have a real appreciation for collaborative projects,” Schott said.
Now fast forward a dozen years. Schott's been in and out of the public relations game, has a wife, a kid, is enrolled in a university writing program. Friel, well, he's still a bartender-gearhead-fly-fishing guide.
A year ago, they got to talking, to dreaming, to drinking beer. (Or coffee, depending on whether it was the beginning or the end of the ski day.)
The pair hatched a plan: They'd publish a literary journal, the Whitefish Review, a look at mountain culture through the lens of short story, art, photography, essay, interview and, surprisingly, football. (There are a lot of surprises here, and not a few nonsequiturs, as well.)
Then they roped in a couple more friends, Mike Powers and Tom Mull. Like Friel, they've both been known to tend bar, slopeside at the Bierstube.
“We have a pretty strong contingent from the 'Stube,” Schott admits.
That is not necessarily a good thing for a literary journal. But then, this wasn't going to be just any literary journal.
It helped that Schott blew out his knee early in the ski season, found himself desk-bound with an idea itching at him.
“I did some research,” Schott said. “Who's out there doing this sort of thing? What we found was that these kinds of publications are almost exclusively linked to a university press.”
Not to the 'Stube.
But literary journals are full of stories, and so is the Bierstube, and so are the people who live here, who choose what Schott calls “mountain culture” over high society.
“A literary journal can come off to some people as highbrow,” Schott said, “you know, a little too academic for the average Joe to pick up and read.”
So here's an idea. Let's call up retired NFL quarterback and sometimes Whitefish resident Drew Bledsoe and talk about the art of football. Then let's sandwich the interview between solid bookends - powerhouse Tim Cahill up front, Missoula's own William Kitteredge out back.
Crazy thing is, it worked. Bledsoe, it turns out, is surprisingly articulate on the art of football, the art of skiing, the art, finally, of living life.
“Can football be art?” Schott wonders. “Can skiing be art?”
Whatever. It's a good read.
“There are so many variables that come into play,” Bledsoe says, “that to try and qualify and analyze everything would be impossible.”
He's talking about football, about being a father, but really about life.
And that's what Cahill's talking about, too, about a life lived with Grace, about being accompanied by Grace, about seeing Grace in a slant of forest light, finding Grace in wild places. Grace, it seems, farts a lot, but always finds time to celebrate a life bravely lived, and always on the edge, because life's unseen limits, Cahill reminds, are forever near at hand.
“The boundaries of existence are madness,” Kittredge concludes, and Grace is there, too.
In between are a couple dozen others, writers and poets and artists and photographers, their narratives stringing together like some patchwork version of the Underwood Files. Schott's even in there, in the form of Jake, a hardscrabble character caught on the high mountain divide between hope and despair, between knowing and blissful ignorance.
Here you find wilderness shining from a Coke machine, love affairs with islands, Hunter S. Thompson trigger happy to the suicidal end. “Even he couldn't miss from that range,” writes contributor Jay Cowan, and if that seems cold, it is, but with a sort of love, or reverence, or confused dependence.
Some of these people have a pedigree. Most do not. And that still seems to surprise Schott, as if he hadn't considered it before. Thing is, Whitefish has been discovered by the urban elite, the folk for whom the fine arts are alive and thriving. The town - until quite recently a bare-knuckled blend of logging and skiing and railroading - has a professional playhouse these days, and a new auditorium.
But it's not the highbrow newcomers who fill the pages of the Whitefish Review. It's the lowbrow locals.
Schott knew Kerry Crittenden for most of a decade, knew him as a ski patroller, as inventor of the butt flap.
Then Crittenden ripped out “Waiting for the Test Results.”
In the afternoon we shell peas on the porch.
It is cooler there.
I wonder aloud if the party that we are planning for the Fall will be a celebration or a farewell.
You look away at the mountains for a long while, then you sigh and say, “I guess it makes no difference. We'll invite the same people either way.”
“I never would've guessed that Kerry liked to write poetry,” Schott said, “let alone good poetry. That's so cool.”
And that, finally, is the criteria by which Schott and his ski buddies judged the more than 100 submissions they received. Is it cool? Does it make you shiver? The way an early morning run on a big fat powder day makes you shiver?
Because if it does, it's art. Even a quarterback knows that.
“You can go anywhere you want,” Bledsoe says, “as fast as you want.”
He gets it, this sublime side to skiing, and he understands what the Whitefish Review has to offer - an individual celebration of shared mountain culture, a story bounded by summits, wrapped in rivers, written by committee.
“If I had tried to do this myself, it would've been too lonely,” Schott said. “It just wouldn't have been fun.”
And fun, after all, is what this town is all about. The Whitefish Review proves it also can be what art's all about.
“The photographs, art and words that appear on these pages will make you question, give you pause, and keep you searching,” Schott wrote.
The Whitefish Review ($12) is available in most Flathead Valley bookstores, and at a few select bars and flyfishing shops. In Missoula, find all 128 pages at Fact & Fiction. Or visit WhitefishReview.com
Submissions will be accepted for the winter edition through Sept. 15, with that issue hitting stores in early December.