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“When I lived in a little farming town called St. John, I used to sit around with the old guys and they would say stuff like, ‘We used to steal a school bus every year and drive it around town.’ And they thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and I thought it was pretty funny too.

“But 15 minutes later, they would castigate kids for doing something similar. They didn’t understand that by telling that story they were encouraging the kids to do what they were doing. And so you’ve got all these young boys growing up acting like this character that’s been created for them. Then it destroys them because the character doesn’t work anymore,” he says.

That illustration sounds almost tame compared to the narrative Holbert has crafted in Lonesome Animals, his first published novel, which will be released this month. The story follows a series of gruesome murders in and around Okanogan County in the post-Depression era. In true Western style, tinged with the noir stylings that are more familiar to the urban landscape, a maverick lawman sets out to find the killer and bring him to justice.

But just as Holbert maintains that the Western myth is flawed because it lacks a “moral center,” so too does the notion of justice that it embraces.

    -PROFILE: Western Gothic: In Lonesome Animals, his debut novel, local schoolteacher and writer Bruce Holbert exposes the destructive power of the Western myth. (E.J. Iannelli, 5/09/12, Pacific Northwest Inlander)

Okay, color me skeptical that the young are "destroyed" because we tell them not to do the irresponsible things we all did in our youth. Likewise, one suspects that the development and repetition of myths--repeated by just those sorts of old guys--is pretty instrumental in developing the moral code that those young men learn to live by as they grow up. Mr. Holbert, however, has a different type of myth that he wants to share with us. It's one where the cowboy lawman at the center of the story caves in his wife's skull with a frying pan because she's slow to hand him the pepper one morning. This lawman, Russell Strawl, is so senselessly brutal for so many years that many of the locals suspect he may be the perpetrator of a series of Lecteresque serial killings that he's brought out of retirement to solve in Eastern Washington in the 1930s. Get it? In Mr. Holbert's mythical West even the "good guys" are indistinguishable from Jack the Ripper. Seems like he might be over-correcting a bit, no?

Like an early Cormac McCarthy novel, this book combines extreme and random violence with an almost Biblical or, at least Shakespearian, authorial voice, giving an awkward juxtaposition of nihilism and self-importance. Exacerbating the problem is that rather than the stripped down dialogue that McCarthy employed, this author gives us characters who are moral and intellectual dullards on the one hand but speak and think in ornate prose on the other. The language does sometimes take flight and the descriptions of the environment are detailed and compelling, but when we step back for a second and reflect, we have to ask, to what end was that narrative used? With characters whose motives are impenetrable and a story that just moves from one violent incident to the next, it's not apparent that there is any purpose except to denigrate what Mr. Holbert perceives as the Western ethos.

But if you recall Henry Fonda's character in Fort Apache, John Wayne's in The Searchers, Glenn Ford's in The Fastest Gun Alive, the entire plot of High Noon, Jimmy Stewart's in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, etc., etc., etc. you'll have noted that the Western was always rather more nuanced than the critics give it credit for. Ethan Edwards was just as frightening in his own way as Russell Strawl, but the violence and hatred he was prone to served to instruct the viewer/reader. That's what's missing in this novel.

It wouldn't be at all surprising to see Mr. Holbert eventually put his impressive writing chops to better use, as Mr. McCarthy eventually did in The Road.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Bruce Holbert Links:

    -GOOGLE BOOKS: Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert
    -ESSAY: The Writing Process – Get To Know Your Own (Bruce Holbert, 6/30/12, Portland BookReview)
    -PROFILE: Western Gothic: In Lonesome Animals, his debut novel, local schoolteacher and writer Bruce Holbert exposes the destructive power of the Western myth. (E.J. Iannelli, 5/09/12, Pacific Northwest Inlander)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Suspense Radio (Inside Edition, June 16th, 2012)
    -REVIEW: of Lonesome Animals (Adam Woog, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Lonesome Animals (Steve Duin, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW: of Lonesome Animals (Kirkus Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of Lonesome Animals (Publishers' Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Lonesome Animals (House of Crime and Mystery)

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