Prairie Lights: Novel, website plumb Montana nostalgia

You probably have already noticed the main problem with this book.

I’m no prude, but I found myself hesitating to read it in public. On a recent flight out of state, when I was still reading the book, I was careful to extract it from my carry-on bag without flashing the cover in front of any other passengers.

It’s a touchy world. I didn’t want to be reported to the pilot, or to find TSA agents waiting for me at the next airport.

But just so you know: “Pecker Tracks,” by R.S. Dees, isn’t soft-core porn, despite the title and the pink bikini on the cover. It is, as Dees informed me in an email, introducing himself and his book, “a humorous coming-of-age tale set in Fort Peck in the seventies.”

I found that intriguing, and I was even more intrigued when I went to his website, www.rsdees.com. That’s where I saw his biographical blurb. There’s an art to writing these, and his was pretty damned good:

“Rick is a teacher, long-time reader, and first-time novelist. A self-proclaimed expert in fishing and fantasy football, he has also written an interactive textbook he uses in class. He knows six guitar chords and can play the opening riff to ‘Smoke on the Water.’ He lives with his wife in Montana.”

More on that website in a minute. As for the book, it comes off as intensely nostalgic, as if written by a man who might have been happy to have been 15 forever, fishing with his buddies on the Missouri River, Fort Peck Lake and the Dredge Cuts, bodies of water formed by dredging during the construction of the earthen Fort Peck Dam.

Dees

R.S. Dees

Even this non-angler thought that some of the fishing scenes — interludes of pure description that didn’t really advance the plot much — were among the best in the book. Early on, the narrator, Ronny, hooks onto what will be a state-record bigmouth buffalo fish, then wrestles it to shore even as a much-feared deputy comes roaring up in his Chevy Blazer to bust the boys for illegally fishing from a bridge.

I also enjoyed the boys’ discovery and reuse of an old, underwater box spring festooned with lost lures. After harvesting a few dozen lures, some of them quite pricey, they drag the box spring a little closer to shore, in a good position to snag even more lures. It might be a little unfair, but it’s far from the worst crime ever committed in the name of unbridled capitalism.

And then, of course, there’s that pink bikini. It is worn by Mary Ellen — at 16 a year older than Ronny and his pals — a fetching Texan who is spending the summer in Fort Peck with her aunt and uncle and with whom (spoiler alert) Ronny falls madly in love.

The progression of their romance is handled quite tenderly and believably, and Ronny’s awkward lack of confidence is described in subtle detail. Unfortunately, few other details are handled with as much delicacy.

Granted, your average 15-year-old boy, in the late 1970s and in most other epochs, is infatuated with bodily functions, crude banter and all matters pertaining to sex. But there are ways of conveying these juvenile infatuations without sounding, well, juvenile. I find that a few vulgarities go a long way, and there are a lot more than a few of them in “Pecker Tracks.”

Even some of the chapter headings were a bit much, as in “Wet Crotch,” “Chubby Dick’s and Pickles” and “Screwed.” There is also the whole thing with “Peckers.” It may be that residents of that town have sometimes referred to themselves jokingly as “Peckers,” but in this book the term is in general use and is even the name of the high school team, allowing Dees to regale us with these sports headlines:

“Coach To Play With Small Peckers This Season,” “Peckers Look Stiff as Play Begins,” “Pecker QB Drills the Cougars” and “Peckers Break Through Beaver Defense to Claim Crown.” These might be worth airing around a campfire on a fishing trip, but probably don’t deserve to be immortalized in the pages of a book.

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OK. Enough criticism. I don’t think Dees is looking for literary immortality. I think he wanted to write a novel that would capture the world as he remembered it as a 15-year-old, in a particular time and place.

That’s why I was so intrigued with his website. If there’s any doubt that Dees is in love with that time and place, his website will dispel it. He includes a gallery of still photos and videos of settings that appear in the book, as well as a map showing the exact location of various scenes.

The website also has a link to a document titled “Pecker Tracks — The Rest of the Story,” 26 pages of explanatory text and more photos, aimed mostly at tipping off readers to pop culture references from the 1970s and 1980s that are scattered throughout the book. We learn, for example, that a line from the prologue, “rocks hit the water like broken glass,” is taken from a Tom Petty song of that era, “Even the Losers,” complete with a link to a YouTube video of Petty performing the song.

We also learn that a character named Bobby Shaw, the man who held the record for the biggest bigmouth buffalo before it was broken by Ronny, was named for Robert Shaw, who played Quint in “Jaws,” “the greatest fishing show ever,” and who was thus “the greatest fisherman in cinema history.”

Dees also has a screen capture of “Pong,” the earliest video game, and a photo of an old TV antenna, lest youngsters doubt that anyone ever relied on such primitive technology.

He includes a photo of the justly famous poster of Farrah Fawcett and asks, “What teenage boy didn’t have this poster on his bedroom wall?” Another pair of photos shows a bottle of Annie Green Springs “wine” and a vintage can of Olympia Beer.

Dees may be onto something here. As with the newspaper biz, people are desperately trying to figure out how to navigate the brave new world of book publishing. If you’re going to self-publish, as Dees did, why not offer a menu of extras like those served up on his website?

Besides testifying to the strength of his nostalgic yearnings, the online extras deepen the value of the book as a cultural artifact, and give readers already interested in the place and time a good many more memories to share.

It’s hard not to like Dees the author and Dees as he appears on his website. He even has a link to a Facebook page full of his first-rate outdoor photography, and this generous statement: “These photos are not for sale but are free for the asking. Send me a message and I’ll get you the high resolution file ready for print.”

All in all, he’s a pretty decent Pecker.

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