Muir Woods Or Bust, by Ian Woollen: A Madcap Cross-Country Quest

muir_woodsMuir Woods Or Bust ($14.95, 216 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-597-0) is a work of literary fiction and social satire by Ian Woollen. In a near future plagued by global weather weirding, a psychologist is forced by a manic actor to travel from Bloomington, Indiana, to California for the sake of an audition.

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Muir Woods or Bust won a bronze in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards, Humor category.

Woollen’s most recent novel, Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb, was shortlisted for the Balcones Prize. His first novel, Stakeout on Millennium Drive, won the 2006 Best Book of Indiana Fiction Award. His short fiction has surfaced in a variety of journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Fiction Southeast, The Smokelong Quarterly, and The Mid-American Review, from which he received a Sherwood Anderson Prize.

Muir Woods deftly threads modern environmental anxieties and gaming sensibilities into a story inspired by nature advocate John Muir, and binds them together with humor, playfulness, and a great, great deal of heart. This is the third Ian Woollen novel I have read, and I never fail to be struck by the deep but messy love his characters have for each other, and how they always muddle through and come out on the other side imperfect, but redeemed. In a time in which the daily news tends to leave me overwhelmed with anxiety and cynicism, Muir Woods offered a fun, thoughtful and welcome reminder not only to have faith in, but to absolutely relish our shared, flawed humanity.” Read more….

—Books, Personally

“Part zany road (and air and rail) trip, part social commentary, part family drama, part ghost story (Gil talks to his late wife, an Earth Liberation Front operative), readers experience not a dull moment during Woollen’s jam-packed second novel. It’s really three books in one, as Chum’s video game plot and Gil’s Muir memoir feature in the narrative. And it’s ours, too, as Woollen invites us to take an inner journey with him and his cast. We won’t return the same.” Read more….

—Mari’s Book Reviews

“There’s never been a more welcoming time in America than now for irreverent social satire, such as embraced by Ian Woollen’s latest called Muir Woods Or Bust. It winks and grins slyly as you determine to pick it up, a premonition of what you’ll soon be engaged in doing. I certainly welcome Woollen’s earthy, ground-shaking wit on display in its pages and you likely will also. [….] Woollen’s novel upends the classic road trip with two farces of road trips, neither what you could ever expect, and that’s the beauty of it. I had no idea that all this zaniness would transform and snap-awake the mentally-stuck characters, somewhat like it could for the hapless environment stuck with a bad press, it seems to me. Muir Woods Or Bust, take the stage, please!” Read more….

—Jan Peregrine for

“An inventive, creative romp through the American psyche, starting in the Midwest, with Midwest heart. [….] It’s cli-fi (climate fiction) and a whole lot more too. [….] Woollen always cares about the characters as people and makes you care too. I’ve read all three of his novels. They share a delight with quirky people, odd plots, with writing that engages the reader. More, please.” Read more….

—Bob Morris, Politics in the Zeros

“Woollen weaves together contemporary anxieties with the early voices of America’s environmental movement to create a page-turner that is both universal and intimate. It’s an insightful and heartfelt adventure. Prescient, wry and wholly original, Muir Woods Or Bust is the novel we need right now.”

—Meg Little Reilly, former Obama staffer and author of the novel, We Are Unprepared

“Open this book and you’re entering the latest of Ian Woollen’s American novels, tales that spin outward from dear Indiana … and sort of get on everybody. Here many incarnations of the iconic John Muir roam our current geo-sphere along with fracking and Earth First and an old actor and the missing money. Two wild westward odysseys intertwine, including, of course, Las Vegas (and a video game) as quests for family, fortune, and the famous drive our multiple heroes. Mr. Woollen simply refuses to be contained. This is an exuberant book.”

—Ron Carlson, author of Return To Oakpine

“This tragicomic cli-fi novel about a pivotal episode in the life of environmentalist John Muir puts the American icon in a startling new light.”

—Dan Bloom, The Cli-Fi Report

“Ian Woollen is one of the outstanding writers to join the ranks of Indiana’s great tradition of novelists, from Lew Wallace to Booth Tarkington to Kurt Vonnegut.”

—Dan Wakefield, author of Going All The Way, and Under The Apple Tree

“Part eco-meditation, part romance, part video game, part Apocalyptic comedy, Woollen’s book shows how fear, grief and loss can be transformed into action. Muir Woods Or Bust provides a road map for enjoying the ride of facing our climate crisis by becoming our true selves. Entertaining and enlightening.”

—Jim Poyser, Executive Director, Earth Charter Indiana

“Ian Woollen prognosticates our mental and ecological health, which—who knew?—are linked. The bad news is that, no matter how clever we are, gaming ahead will be futile. The good news is that, as always, mankind’s decline will be full of comic relief. Woollen, as his fellow Hoosier Vonnegut did, sees ahead around all the kooky corners, and signals for us to come on anyway.”

—James Alexander Thom, author of Follow the River and Fire in the Water

“Bakhtin rightly described the novel as a voracious form—it embraces, ingests, and devours other genres. Ian Woollen through his osmotic and morphing novel, Muir Woods Or Bust, unleashes the novel’s formal omnivorous proclivities on the subject matter of post-industrial gluttony, avarice, and despair. He does so with a style steeped in lyric charm and graceful élan that masks but does not eliminate the entropic exhaustion seeping into everything everywhere. A speculative text about people and peoples unraveling, Muir Woods or Bust records gorgeously the (spoiler alert) spoil of our spoiling, simmering in the cacophony of our impending, irresistible, and iridescent demise.”

—Michael Martone, Author of Michael Martone and Four for a Quarter

“A compelling and quirky set of characters, an odyssey, a multi-faceted commentary on our relationships to the natural and virtual worlds and to our home landscapes, a multi-generational saga, and a fun and funny and serious story.”

—Kathie Fiveash, award-winning author of The Island Naturalist

“The book ends in California, my adopted home, and while the state’s portrayal is an exaggeration like everything else in this story, I recognized it as a place of reckoning, where environmental beauty and human creativity come together in a crazy but wonderful mix. It surprised me how much I had come to care about and even like these characters. And when it was over, like Gil, I felt hopeful that ‘we’ll find a way,’ as a species, to deal with whatever gets thrown at us. After all, what choice do we have?” Read more….

—A Thousand Finds

As the 21st century lurches forward, weather weirdness abounds, begetting the rise of a new psychiatric syndrome: Eco-Mood Disorders. Or so psychologist Gil Moss believes. Of course, Gil is also hallucinating visits from his recently deceased wife, an Earth Liberation Front activist. And from 19th-century environmentalist John Muir.

Abducted at gunpoint by Doyle Wentworth, an elderly client who played John Muir in a satirical, anti-environmental FAUX-TV miniseries, Gil journeys westward via freight train, private jet, and stolen automobile, aided and pursued by colorful figures from Gil’s and Doyle’s pasts. Destination: Muir Woods and the auditions for the revival of Yosemite Yahoos. Soon after Gil leaves Bloomington, Indiana, his reclusive son Chum is also dragged west by Gil’s former student Amanda to pitch his video game Phantom Vampire to Amanda’s billionaire ex.

A vision quest for the ages. Gil wants to tell you all about it, including the story of his great-great-aunt healing young John Muir from a grisly blinding in an industrial accident in 1867. But computer problems and selective amnesia have stymied Gil’s attempts. Until this unexpected cross-country spree leads him, and his fellow travelers, to their true callings.

Says Woollen, “Part of our family lore is the story of how an ancestor nursed environmentalist John Muir back to health after an accident. Musing over this and other John Muir tales I’ve heard over the years, I slowly hatched a scheme for a tragicomic novel that recasts Muir’s saga as the quixotic, cross-country journey of a contemporary Everyperson. Until recent current events began overtaking the climate-fiction side of the novel at an alarming rate.”

Ian Woollen was born and raised in Indianapolis and now lives nearby in Bloomington, Indiana, where he works as a psychotherapist. He has a BA from Yale University and an MA from Christian Theological Seminary. Click here to find Ian online.

Keep reading for an excerpt:

A bearded old man in a cowboy hat stood in the dim hall, picking at his teeth with a sheath knife. He was accompanied by a nursing-home aide, who glared down at her wristwatch. She sported a traditional, big-hair coiffure that Mama Moss referred to as a “Nazarene Hooker.”

The nursing aide extracted a knitting needle from the recesses of her hair and waved it at Gil. “We’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

“Good morning. I’m Gil Moss.”

A new client usually meant Gil could enjoy one or two sessions of clean-slate listening. Maybe not with this grizzled fellow, scheduled in last week by the social worker at the HappyGlen Home.

The guy slowly sheathed his knife. The nursing-aide said, “I go by Miss Gaul and this here is Doyle Wentworth.”

Gil unlocked the office door, flicked on the waiting room lights and the radio. He primed the coffee machine. “Pour yourself a cup when it’s brewed. I’ll just take a few minutes to open up shop.”

“I don’t drink coffee,” Doyle Wentworth said, “hardens your arteries.”

“There’s tea, if you’d prefer.”

“Tea is for sissies,” Doyle said, “and by the way, why does every waiting room in every therapist’s office have a Georgia O’Keeffe poster on the wall?”

Gil contemplated the colorful print of shells and mountains given to him by Melody as a tenth-anniversary present. He said, “It’s a conspiracy of the Goddess Worshippers.”

That silenced the old cowboy.

Gil stepped into the consulting room. Checked phone messages. Watered his plants. No major alarm bells yet. People often acted brusque and nervous before a first session. Gil reminded himself to start with the most basic of therapeutic skills: “Be a non-anxious presence,” his first supervisor, Sig Savage, advised.

As a graduate student in the heyday of psychodynamics, Gil often heard Sig predict that the universe would send him the clients he deserved. This would include his own special “client from hell,” who would activate all his buried vulnerabilities. Years went by without such an apparition. Gil imagined this creature would probably take the form of his long-absent father, Captain Roscoe Moss. AWOL from his family and his post at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. A wounded fucking warrior, if there ever was one. He disappeared when Gil was eight. Grown-up Gil occasionally fantasized Captain Roscoe showing up in his office to ask for help with his retroactively obvious PTSD from the Korean Conflict.

Frankly, after Melody’s death, his father’s abandonment felt less important. Or did, until Doyle Wentworth plopped down on the couch and said, “Don’t you recognize me?”

Gil’s body tensed in a way that is not supposed to happen to regular yoga practitioners. The musculature of the psyche cramped. Gil attempted to hide his anxiety using a secret method to maintain the appearance of calm in front of clients. Clenched toes. Inside his shoes, hidden from view, his toes locked tight.

Gil coughed and squinted at Doyle, trying to see underneath the beard to a time-lapse facial reconstruction of his father’s ruddy, imperious mug.

Doyle Wentworth turned in profile and squeezed his lips and scrunched his brow into a comically ghoulish frown. No, this wasn’t Gil’s father. This was worse. This was Sig Savage’s prediction come true.

“Sure, I recognize you,” Gil said, “the TV actor—”

“Eighty-ninth on the list of the Greatest Bad Guys of All Time,” Doyle boasted.

“You’re Number One on my list,” Gil blurted out. Ouch. A crack in the neutrality frame. Professionalism swamped by indignation.

“Well, thank you.” Doyle smiled, revealing a set of villainous teeth. “You were part of the faithful millions who watched Yosemite Yahoos.”

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