LONESOME ANIMALS by Bruce Holbert. This is the Best Literary Western of the Year–so far. I read it a second time and see more in it now. Hey, that's a good sign.
Nice blurry dustjacket picture of a lone rider at the top of a ridge, back and white. The inside front dustjacket flap notes say “in the vein of TRUE GRIT and BLOOD MERIDIAN.” The rear dustjacket flap identifies the author as a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The three blurbs on the back are from Christ Offutt, Elizabeth McCracken, and Max Phillips:
“prose poetry and violence…a study of morality in a world that has lost its morals…dark and beautiful….part Western, part detective story, altogether brilliant. With the authority of myth, it is a book obsessed with justice and history…”
“We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story.” –John Steinbeck
“Strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” –Joseph Conrad.
This is the best western I’ve read this year so far, on a par with Coal Black Horse or The Shootist, say. In the vein of True Grit and Blood Meridian? It falls far short of that hyperbole, but it is a gothic western, more on a par with Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster. In fact, it is a parable beyond any single comparison, much to its credit. It seems very roughly historical/autobiographical, and parts of it are very nicely written indeed.
If gothic westerns are your cup of java, you’ll find this one refreshingly bleak, no oxymoron intended. There is dark humor here, too, and gothic mindless violence, just because that's the way of things.
I like the title, Lonesome Animals, which is from the Steinbeck epigraph. I wish the author had included the whole quotation, which is:
A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—
“Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.”
Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death. These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
The second epigraph, the Joseph Conrad quote, is from Heart of Darkness. Holbert, now a teacher himself, says that he was first turned on to literature by the gifts of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Fine horses to ride in on.
The first two lines of Lonesome Animals are: “There was, even in Russell Strawl’s time, the myth of the strong silent man of the west. The reverse was closer to the mark.”
Holbert writes obliquely here. What’s the opposite of the strong silent man? The man who is silent, not out of stoic self-control, but because of his brooding guilt for what he has done, for what he is.
“His facility to stash heart and soul in a saddlebag and his man’s inability to do the same separated him from his prey; there was little human in it. Yet Strawl believed the state of every mind was thus and saw it as the central truth around which each man orbited, not considering the possibility that the star that held him in its gravity may not be a star at all, but a black planet and he a trivial moon, circling it.”
Strawl becomes famous for the Box Canyon Massacre:
"The Box Canyon Massacre took place neither in a Box Canyon, nor was it a massacre. A family of Methow with no reputation for trouble left the reservation to pick huckleberries in the Okanogan foothills. A cattle rancher named Doering accosted the spindly group as they crossed his rangeland. The Indians quickly agreed to divert along a county road. The rancher, though, being German, possessed a bit of the Hun, and he shot the old grandfather who spoke for them in the shoulder. Horses reared and riders fell and, in the melees, the rancher broke his neck against a tree stump, and his straw boss’s thigh took a bullet–likely from Doering’s rifle, facts would later determine. The Doering widow, however, insisted it was murder, and the superintendent of police summoned Strawl to clear it up.”
Strawl sets out to bring them in peaceably, but of course he winds up destroying them all, hence the massacre. Killing that which you either love or are trying to save is a recurrent theme in this novel. After Strawl’s wife gives him what he takes to be a word of sass, Strawl brains her with a skillet full of eggs. The murder is covered up because the Government needs Strawl’s services as a manhunter, so you see why Strawl’s silence is full of guilt.
Merle Haggard could do the movie soundtrack. Clint Black could have, back when his songs were full of narcissism, before he found out how to love.
What comes to mind is the Spike Jones’ parody of that Mills Brothers tune, “You Always Hurt The One You Love,” using "love" in the selfish possessive sense. Maybe sung by Roger Miller. The code of the west but with a gothic egocentric naturalism. Men will be men, heroic in their anti-heroism, and women will be gone, or at least Antigone. Strawl’s sidekick is his adopted Native American mystic son, Elijah, but here the last word in lonesome is "me."
The author reveals in an on-line interview that he killed a friend of his when young, much to his regret, and that there was another homicide in the family. The rear dustjacket flap says that he “grew up at the foot of the Okanogan Mountains” and that his great-grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee.
So perhaps the brooding parables are home-grown.
Gothic westerns are few and far between and, as I say, this is the best western novel I’ve read this year so far. Not a great novel as we’re always expecting when one is compared to Blood Meridian, but still likely a Spur Award contender, if there's any justice in this world.
Strawl would have his doubts.