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The interwined lives of humans is at core of gracefully written ‘And West Is West’

Ron Childress’ extraordinary new novel, “And West is West,” is named for Rudyard Kipling’s “Ballad of East and West.”

Kipling wrote, “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet/ Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;/ But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

Childress’ novel, which has won PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction, explores numerous dichotomies and their vanishing points mainly through the lives of Ethan Winters, a hard-charging Wall Street financial coder, and Jessica Aldridge, an Air Force tech sergeant working as a drone pilot.

Ethan and Jessica don’t know each other and we don’t learn their connection until late in the book. The similarity between a coder and a drone pilot isn’t immediately obvious, but repeatedly and beautifully Childress draws and tightens connections between multifarious “Easts” and “Wests.”

Ethan’s family is good with numbers and “except for Ethan, his family uses their facility with numbers to good purpose.” He creates banking algorithms that reap hefty profits for investors when military airstrikes or other military actions unsettle a region.

Ethan feels twinges of guilt about this type of profiting, but is so removed from the violence that he thinks he can live with it. Then he loses his job, and everything else in his life, over a misplaced decimal.

Jessica, the tech sergeant, has a special talent for remembering spatial data and does well operating drones. Like Ethan’s talent with numbers, Jessica “had been proud of this ability until it had been misused.”

One day Jessica reluctantly executes the CIA’s order to fire her drone on a convoy that allegedly includes a terrorist. She kills two teenage girls instead. Like Ethan, until her mission went awry, she was so far from the action that the consequences of her button-pushing didn’t feel real.

Ethan’s reaction to losing his job is to sue his employer rather than accept the blame. Jessica immediately condemns herself for killing the girls and writes a letter to her father, who is an imprisoned murderer.

Unfortunately, the information about drone strikes is classified. The prison alerts the FBI to the content of her letters and she, too, loses her job.

Job loss invariably leads to soul-searching, which is what these two do for the majority of the story.

Rather than coming across as preachy, Childress demonstrates the heartache and complications of life through far-flung characters who are inextricably intertwined — and whether they know of their connections is irrelevant.

Through graceful and controlled writing, the novel shows that whether we’re operating by proxy or directly and tangibly affecting someone, we’re all not only responsible for one another, but absolutely must assume responsibility for ourselves.

Reach Anne Kniggendorf at akknigg@gmail.com.

“And West is West” by Ron Childress (320 pages; Algonquin Books; $26.95)

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