For those who see the cover image's silhouette of a cowboy atop his horse and think the book is just another collection of "oaters," the opening story will set you straight in your saddle.
Titled "What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?," Sherman Alexie's tale is about a middle-aged American Indian who used to be a star basketball player, but life's pain has reduced him to a sliver of his former self, as he succumbs to self-medication and risky behavior. When his father dies of a heart attack, Frank visits a personal trainer and says, "I want to be good again."
Alexie's characters are heartbreakingly real, a benefit that also informs Pete Fromm's "Snow Cave." This suspense-filled number finds a father and his young son facing death, trapped in a handmade cave after a hunting outing is interrupted by a record snowstorm. If the ending doesn't yank on your aorta, you're heartless.
Ditto for "Dillinger in Hollywood," from perhaps the book's most unlikely of contributors: indie-film maverick John Sayles. Here, he demonstrates an informed grasp of emotion on the printed page as well as he does on film, with a look at an old man in a Hollywood nursing home who thinks he is John Dillinger. The piece reaches a humbling, highly emotional conclusion.
Elmore Leonard and Elmer Kelton are among other writers featured in this surprising, moving literary collection, which rides the range from crime to humor to poetry to, yes, the occasional cactus-strewn milieu.