Author: Bruce Holbert
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / Pacific Northwest / Rural West / Americana / Crime / Murder Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Counterpoint (4/17/2012)
Source: Author's publicist.
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A retired lawman with a violent past faces a gruesome crime in 1930s Oregon.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z, Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I love the cover: it's gauzy, dusty, cloaked with mystery, evocative and yet, silent.
I'm reminded of...: Keith Donohue
First line: There was, even in Russell Strawl's time, the myth of the strong silent man of the West.
Did... my wife take this book from me while I was reading it because she was so intrigued?: YES. We split reading it -- her during the day, me in the evening -- because we were both so eager!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy!
Why did I get this book?: I'm kind of hot for westerns right now!
Review: This is a book that I accepted for review without fully understanding what it was about, and I'm glad I did; I think if I had read the blurb I might have passed. Set in Oregon in the 1930s, the story follows Russell Strawl, a frontier lawman with a violent past, who is called out of retirement to investigate the savage murders of Native Americans in the area.
In the vein of No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and The Sisters Brothers, this is a violent, gritty, unapologetic and unromantic look at life in the American west, straddling legal and criminal, violence and peace, romance and lust. There's a heavily noir element in the feel to the characters -- no one is good, and everyone is bad -- and even our hero is a questionable figure. This is a book that made me deeply uncomfortable in the best ways. The story is a bit of a straight up serial killer murder mystery combined with a literary painting of the west coast of the US in the 1930s. As with Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, I was surprised to see how rural life was for folks out west -- and that juxtaposition of 'modern' and 'historic' provided wonderful flavor.
I think I hit Chapter Two when I started gushing about this book to my wife, who really loves dark stuff; she was so intrigued she took the book from me to read, and we ended up having to split it, neither of us wanting to wait to read more. She took it during the day and I read at night, and it was a great experience because we chatted about this book nonstop. I loved Holbert's writing style; the text was literally a character, rich with allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible as Strawl meditated on his life, the romance of the west, the violence he's witnessed. My wife preferred Holbert's dialogue -- it raced, it conveyed character and story, and it had the pragmatic, solid heft one expects from these hard characters. The balance of literary-ness and grounded grimness was really well done -- it satisfied both myself and my wife (even if, at times, the violence was a bit much for me.)
Trying to label this read is challenging: it's literary, and noir, and a Western; it's pretty and gross at the same time. The characters are so unlikable and yet, absolutely compelling, and despite myself, I cared. Oh, I didn't want to -- I wanted to keep everyone at an arm's length -- but they got under my skin. If you're iffy on violence, you might be inclined to skip this one but if you'd ever consider giving a gruesome book a try, let it be Lonesome Animals. You will be grossed out but the tale spun is mesmerising. And finally, if you're on the West Coast (especially Oregon), pick this up: the locale is so unlike what I envision the Pacific Northwest so I loved seeing Oregon in this light. The landscape as offered by Holbert is captivating, and I confess, I'd love this to be a film because I can only imagine how staggering the cinematography would be.
*** *** ***
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