Contents May Have Shifted

As any reader of the stories in her early-'90s collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, could tell you, Pam Houston was an early master of the art of rendering fiercely independent, brilliant women in love with the wrong men. Her protagonists share a lack of self-pity, a driving passion for adventure, and a love of dogs. It would never occur to any of them to ask for help.

That characterization holds true for Pam, the narrator of Houston's latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, which has 144 mini-chapters, 132 of which are named for their settings (Alaska, Turkey, and Texas, among others). The twelve remaining scenes take place on airplanes. Leading a comfortable and nomadic life, Pam (like Houston) teaches writing in Davis, California, owns a Colorado ranch, and answers only to herself and her dogs. After decades of cramming herself into undersized relationships, Pam has embraced freedom with her "arms swung open wide." Then she meets Rick, "a man who loves Don DeLillo and the NHL." Even with his complications, including a young daughter and a narcissistic ex-wife, Rick offers compelling reasons for Pam to tether her life to his, and to find at home what she'd been looking for all over the world.

Fractured into so many vignettes, the narrative can feel distractingly nonlinear, but on its own each tiny chapter shines. Houston's talent for needling out moments within moments, like nesting Russian dolls, testifies to the truth of Annie Dillard's proverbial notion: how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. Of real interest are details: flashes and exchanges with which Houston constructs a mosaic. The result is quietly funny, poetic, and authentic -- a thoroughly rewarding trip.

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