Malcolm Brooks’s debut Painted Horses walks the steady line of genre archetypes without veering into stereotype. It’s an old-fashioned novel, sweeping in scope and probing of character, without leaning on showy language and post-modern literary gimmicks. Sure, you have a somewhat rote plot and a slightly under-written female lead, but the author recreates his Montana of the 1950’s with subtle strokes and warm reverence. This is a love letter to an American West that has all but disappeared.
Also, I hope you like horses, because there are a lot of horses.
You’ve probably already read or seen this paint-by-numbers storyline: the naïve outsider sent by authorities to the frontier to deal with stubborn natives. Once acclimated, usually with an intimate tryst with one of the locals, they see things as they really are and face a sticky moral dilemma: tradition versus progress. Examples include Dances With Wolves, Avatar, etc. It’s not quite Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, but in this novel the fairly “classic” tale is set in an engrossing world so rich with detail that it functions as a character on its own.
On behalf of the Smithsonian and the Army Corps of Engineers, River Basin Surveys has picked Catherine Lemay, a young archaeologist, to scout the land and look for signs of Crow Indian habitation before a hydroelectric dam can be built. In a pushy letter to the wide-eyed and overeducated Catherine, the utility head insists that the land is as unpopulated as it is inhospitable. “By modern reckoning the canyon is a wasteland and I intend to drown it, for the benefit of everyone including the Crow, whose schools and services and general opportunities to advance only stand to gain.”
She meets horse-master John H (no last name, no initial or explanation). He is the sensitive cowboy type, with a significant backstory so generous that it makes her music student-turned-archaeology background feel somewhat piddling. That might be because of the interesting choice the author has made in telling this story. The first half of the book focuses on the paths that led them to teaming up. Her fish-out-of-water storyline is mostly set in the present with anecdotal flashbacks, a comedy-of-manners until she gets set straight. John H’s arc is mostly set in the past, reaching from his Baltimore childhood to a teenage years mastering horses and on to World War II and his time as an artist living in Paris. He is roughhewn, wind-chapped, suffering without complaint while waxing rhapsodic on horse lore and Basque heritage. She is putty in his hands.
It’s a Western whose romance and abstraction-free writing style has more in common with the works of Larry McMurtry or Annie Proulx than the overly dense allusions and verbiage of Cormac McCarthy. Brooks doesn’t dwell on the inner emotional life of these characters; preciousness like that wouldn’t be in line with the type of people who inhabit this corner of the hardscrabble West. But that doesn’t mean the author doesn’t indulge in a bit of the cowboy fetishizing that McCarthy built his career on:
John H scans the stock of stiff new display saddles with their tall pommels and almond-colored fenders. Minor variations in cantle design and horn shape and tooling. A single black parade saddle, heavily bedizened with latigo and silver pendants. John H ignores this and walks over to a simple working outfit with a deep seat and a double-cinch, a small steel horn perched atop the pommel like the arching neck of a swan. He runs his fingers across a star stamped into the leather of the seat.
The pearl-clutching Catherine is an agent without agency until her Marlboro Man shows her what she should really be fighting for. Will she follow her ambition and fulfill her professional duty OR respect her findings and fight the powers that be? You might be able to guess the ending but that doesn’t mean this one is worth skipping. Sturdy books with “timeless” storylines feel rare, so I hope Brooks’s novel finds the audience that it so clearly deserves.
Publisher: Grove Press
Pub date: August 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel