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Lonesome Animals (Hardcover)
The PNW seems to be cultivating its own sub-specialty. I’m not sure what to call it, ‘Cascade Noir’ is a bit too expansive since that’d include Oregon (maybe they’ll get their own entrants) and not all of what is going on sticks to the mountain range, but there is something brewing. Okanagan Noir?
First, there was Urban Waite’s outstanding debut, The Terror of Living. Now there’s Bruce Holbert’s Lonesome Animals. The central figure is Russell Strawl, a retired lawman who is retained by a sheriff to hunt a serial killer in the early 1930s North Central Washington State. Strawl is one of the last of the old-time lawman, saddle-worn and sharp-eyed, his violent ways and his approach to life, like the world he’s inhabited, is surely vanishing, sped up by the influx of workers and techonology going into the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.
But Strawl is the man for the job, a hunt that will require determination and brutality because the killer is obviously determined and brutal, too. It’s the Depression and living is brutal and takes determination. “Rusting automobiles lined the road into the skeleton of the old town. Since the crash, few could afford gas or oil to move them. Most had resigned themselves to horses once more; they went slower, but on grass, which the bigwigs hadn’t devided a way to ration or commandeer.” Holbert has a clean, flowing style of writing. You can smell the wildflowers and dust and hear the birds and bees. “It took Stawl six days to close on the group enough to hear them and another two days for a sighting. They labored across a trail that led around Chesaw Mountain, bearing their belongings on backboards and a travois. Above and below, sheer granite cliffs sparkled like fresh water.” Strawl rides the trails, north to south, east to west, talking to folks in small towns and homesteads, whites and natives, the peaceful and the volital. But whatever the case, whatever the scene, Holbert writes with a talent that is both by the poet and for the common man. “Jacob filled his own cup and drank. His sigh was deep and certain as a dog’s going down for the night.” Every page is decorated by such fine sentences.
Strawl is an interesting character. He’s created a reputation for himself that is both a help and a hindrence. People, whether they know him or not, fear him. That could help him in his work but it has isolated him over the decades. “Strawl realized he had done his work too well and, in keeping alive, had managed to outlive any story that put him on the side of right, and he realized, too, that he had no inclination to change it.” He’s just too old, too set in his ways. He’s become the persona he cultivated, like it or not. There aren’t too many characters to love in his book. The reason to read it is the masterful writing put to use to tell you the story. It is somewhere between the visualization of Raymond Chandler and John Ford. “Justice was just a coincidence within the bedlam, a moment that when separated from the whirlwind turns simple enough to take on fairness’ guise. Prosecutors argue the malice in a thunderbolt; defense attrorneys the inevitable forces of the jet streams and barometric pressure and condensation and topography. Given the proper atmosphere, a tornado resided in each of us; only our cirumstances differed.” The real heart of the story is that Arthur Strawl is based a real man, Arthur Stahl - an Indian scout and one of the first white settlers in the Grand Coulee area – who was Bruce Holbert’s great-grandfather. Can’t wait to quiz him about that!— JB
In Lonesome Animals, Russell Strawl, a tormented former lawman, is called out of retirement to hunt a serial killer with a sense of the macabre who has been leaving elaborately carved bodies of Native Americans across three counties. As the pursuit ensues, Strawl’s own dark and violent history weaves itself into the hunt, shedding light on the remains of his broken family: one wife taken by the river, one by his own hand; an adopted Native American son who fancies himself a Catholic prophet; and a daughter, whose temerity and stoicism contrast against the romantic notions of how the west was won.
In the vein of True Grit and Blood Meridian, Lonesome Animals is a western novel reinvented, a detective story inverted for the west. It contemplates the nature of story and heroism in the face of a collapsing ethos not only of Native American culture, but also of the first wave of white men who, through the battle against the geography and its indigenous people, guaranteed their own destruction. But it is also about one man’s urgent, elegiac search for justice amidst the craven acts committed on the edges of civilization.
Praise for Lonesome Animals
"From the opening sentence of Holbert's remarkable debut, it is obvious that we are in the hands of a master storyteller . . . Holbert's prose is simultaneously roughly hewn and elegant, and recalls Cormac McCarthy at his best, as do his insights into the relationship between predator and prey. Call it literary fiction, classic western realism, or historical noir, Holbert is a writer of formidable skill and this auspicious debut should have considerable crossover appeal." Publishers Weekly (starred)
Holbert’s unsettling book demands a strong stomach At the end the reader will feel relief or satisfaction or some combination, and tip a sweat-stained hat to Holbert for raising the stakes of the Western genre Holbert’s sympathies seem to align with the quality of his prose: the land is rendered in loving, even exquisite detail, so too the crimes Holbert has gone all-in: This book is audacious.” Kirkus
"Lonesome Animals is an impure marvel. Ths cowboy noir is loaded with lyrical detail, black humor, and a kind of antic despair. At its center is the compromised lawman Russell Strawl, a pilgrim making slow progress through the blasted ruins of Western myth. He turns violence into a kind of brutal music and provides the weary, stubborn heart of this astonishing debut."
Max Phillips, Shamus-winning author of Fade to Blonde
"Lonesome Animals is dark, beautiful, compelling, strange, vivid; part Western, part detective story, altogether brilliant. With the authority of myth, it is a book obsessed with justice and history, and its two main charactersthe retired lawman Russell Strawl and his prophet son Elijahare as harrowing and moving a marriage as I have read in years. It’s an incredible book by an incredible author. It will break your heart and leave you gasping."Elizabeth McCracken, author of The Giant's House
"Lonesome Animals is exhilarating. The dialogue will blow your hair back, the description of land is prose poetry, and the violence is shocking for its intensity and sudden occurrence. This is a study of morality in a world that has lost its morals, a work that transcends its epic story of good versus evil. No character is spared and neither is the reader. Bruce Holbert’s fierce novel will enter the canon as a classic." Chris Offutt, author of Kentucky Straight
"A lyrical, almost poetic novel. Holbert vividly captures the essence of his characters and of the place that spawned them in Lonesome Animals." Mystery Maven Blog