Every once in a while I get a yearning to read a graphically violent western novel that explores the indescribable nature of men who build their livesEvery once in a while I get a yearning to read a graphically violent western novel that explores the indescribable nature of men who build their lives in the solitude of the vast American frontier. In general, this leads me to a Cormac McCarthy novel. Imagine my surprise when I came upon Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert, and felt my McCarthy-esque yearning somewhat quenched.
Lonesome Animals tells the story of Russell Strawl, an aging law(less) man who is called out of retirement to investigate some gruesome murders in the area. This setup has somewhat of a CSI feel to it, and honestly didn’t hook me right away. I’m not a big fan of whodunnits or procedural dramas, or mystery novels in general, and while this is the initial plot setup for the story, it doesn’t read all the way through as a simple mystery. Even on the first page, Holbert begins laying the groundwork for his larger investigation of men living in the remote world. “Their minds combat the silence and isolation inherent in such spaces by supplying their own narrative.” He is actively working with the idea of self-imposed narratives shaping the lives of the people who tell them, and how those narratives can lead people to very different end results. Holbert refers to this world (early-ish 1900s timeframe) as “days of righteousness and ignorance,” which feels very accurate. Numerous instances occur where laws have been viciously broken, justice needs to be upheld, and judgment on the guilty precedes any sort of formal accusation or trial. Strawl himself is a man who believes he is the law, an enforcer of laws in ways that could not legally be enforced. He has killed numerous times in his career, and thinks nothing of firing first and asking questions never after. In short, he belongs in this time, and could not belong in another.
While Strawl’s character is compelling, Holbert does overstep narrative bounds at times by heavy-handedly trying to build up Strawl’s mythical persona through downright inhuman farce: “He could recognize a footstep two miles off, and likely what made it, and he could do it in a rainstorm.” And later, “Even the preacher had cited [Strawl’s] mettle in a sermon." Strawl is also presented as a man who knows his Shakespeare and Mallory, who knows the distinctions between various symphonies, and yet a man who cannot quote the Bible, though nearly everyone else around him can. It reads as a stretch for a man who has grown up in the rural reaches of the nation, with no higher education mentioned. In truth, Strawl performs enough pseudo-incredible acts to build his elevated persona on his own, without Holbert stepping in through exposition to reinforce it in a way that eventually undermines it. As the novel progresses, however, you can see Holbert getting out of the way of the story more and more, and the characters taking over. I’m pleased to say the story ends further in the realm of artistic endeavor than I had anticipated after the first fifty pages.
Of course, the first fifty pages have their own sort of draw. It’s hard to look away from the gruesome murders with which Strawl is presented, mutilations of biblical proportions, men turned into otherworldly abominations, and Strawl being the hardened lawmen can get right in there and grab their severed heads and look them in their lifeless eyes and not retch. And least not in the beginning. The draw in the beginning of the novel has very little to do with Strawl himself. To everyone in the area, Strawl is recognized as “a mean dog with nothing to guard, until, of course, another mean dog showed up.” This line led me to wonder about Strawl’s motivation as a catalyst for his actions in the novel. If he truly has “nothing to guard” then why bother coming out of retirement to track down a killer who has no impact on Strawl’s life? This plays out to some satisfaction by the end of the novel, but in the beginning it leaves Strawl looking like a pawn for Holbert to push around his sadistic chessboard of murder after murder.
Holbert’s world in this novel, however, is a truly beautiful realm, one worth the entirety of the novel in itself. This is country Holbert knows well, and one that comes alive in every scene. This novel happens because of the country, and not the other way around, as is the case in so much lesser fiction. The influence of McCarthy is particularly noticeable here.
McCarthly is also present in Strawl’s trajectory as a character, one that takes him from the lawman who knows everything, to the resigned-to-the-fate-of-the-world man who gives up killing near the end in favor of maiming, letting those that pursue him live at the least, even if their lives will be forever changed by the barrel of his gun. It’s not No Country for Old Men, but maybe something closer to No Country to Mess Around in When the Right Old Men Are Still Around. This novel moves on a lot of different levels, and is one that asks those subtextual questions that cannot be answered, and does the right thing by leaving them unanswered at the end. There is no riding off into the sunset. There is simply an acknowledgment that the sunset will happen whether you want it to or not....more
This book makes me laugh every time I read it. The hilarious illustrations and the spareness of the writing work wonderfully together. I mean, how canThis book makes me laugh every time I read it. The hilarious illustrations and the spareness of the writing work wonderfully together. I mean, how can you not laugh just looking at the cover of this book? Give me a break, right?