At Liberty by Adam Sullivan

Iowa novelist goes west in 'Lone Wolf Canyon'

ADVANCE FOR THE WEEKEND EDITIONS, FEB. 2-3 --FILE--A wolf walks through the snow in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, in this undated file photo. Ranchers in Oregon believe it's only a matter of time before wolves stray into Oregon from the wilderness of central Idaho and Yellowstone, where they have flourished since the federal government reintroduced them in the mid-1990's. (AP Photo/Yellowstone National Park, File)
ADVANCE FOR THE WEEKEND EDITIONS, FEB. 2-3 --FILE--A wolf walks through the snow in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, in this undated file photo. Ranchers in Oregon believe it's only a matter of time before wolves stray into Oregon from the wilderness of central Idaho and Yellowstone, where they have flourished since the federal government reintroduced them in the mid-1990's. (AP Photo/Yellowstone National Park, File)

Underground terrorists in rural Idaho plotting to destroy Cowboys Stadium.

Sound far-fetched? It is.

That is the conspiracy uncovered in “Lone Wolf Canyon,” the fifth novel by Iowa author S.C. Sherman, who calls the book a modern-day western. The story follows a young military veteran on an excursion to the middle of nowhere after leaving the service.

Sherman’s prose is engaging and flows so easily that occasional editing oversights are forgivable. However, several elements of the story are so unbelievable they cross the line of adventure fiction and tread into the fantasy.

In a little more than a week, our hero travels to the remote wilderness, finds a lover and a father figure, survives a murder attempt, uncovers what would be the biggest terrorist plot in American history, and inherits a gold mine.

Still, Sherman manages to incorporate several intriguing themes in the book.

We meet the main character, nicknamed Ham, as he heads west to live out plans he made with a dying Army buddy. He struggles with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and a cowboy job in the remote wilderness seems like a good way to clear his mind.

Then there’s Clyde, an aging cowboy who is wrangling internal questions about his legacy and what becomes of his treasured land when he passes. He’s spent years watching his independent lifestyle slowly slip away as tourism and recreation opportunities moved in nearby.

The characters were almost endearing, until I learned they are raging Islamophobes. Even as a white guy and radical free speech advocate, I frequently cringed at the book’s racially insensitive language.

That makes the most redeeming character in the book the one who doesn’t openly deride Muslims at every opportunity — Betsy, the old cowboy’s loyal canine companion. I seldom found myself cheering for either side in story’s backcountry shootouts, except when Betsy was under attack.

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I felt Sherman relied too heavily on the edginess of racial slurs, instead of building up interesting characters and dialogue. The most compelling parts of the book are overshadowed in my mind by the Islamophobia.

“Lone Wolf Canyon” seems to trumpet political incorrectness for its own sake, not because it adds to the story in a meaningful way. One gets the same vibe from several other Post Hill Press titles, including “Confessions of an Islamophobe” and “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men Into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps.”

The bio on Sherman’s website says he has “a reputation for being willing to push the boundaries of political correctness by writing upon ‘edgy’ topics.”

Edgy can be powerful, but only when it’s done right. Pure shock value, by contrast, can be a lazy tactic for authors. It is the literary equivalent of flying a confederate flag in a black neighborhood, just because you know you can get a rise out of people. Sure, you’re allowed to do it, but it’s not clever of creative.

Sherman excels when he’s describing the natural beauty of the boondocks or the tactile joys of ranch work, which fans of the old west will enjoy. I hope he’ll stick to that in his next novel, instead of the unnecessary political eye-poking.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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