The Wild, Wild West: Painted Horses (review)

Painted Horses (NetGalley DRC)
by Malcolm Brooks
Grove Press
release date: August 13, 2014

Standing by the side of the road the first time I drove through North Dakota and into Montana, the Earth’s curve domed overhead. I recognized it at once–that wide expanse of sky so often described by McCarthy and McMurtry and Cather. Breathtaking. (I also caught a shiver, suddenly understanding why so many women fell to prairie madness.)  Malcolm Brooks’ new novel Painted Horses is in just that tradition–the West with a capital W, brutal and beautiful, stark and lush at the same time.

Brooks follows the story of Catherine Lamay, a young archeologist riding the high of a dig in post-war London, now sent by the Smithsonian to find and document any relics that might influence the outcome of a dam project proposed by Harris Power and Light. It’s the early fifties and, only twenty-three, Catherine isn’t necessarily buying the prevailing attitude that women (even educated ones) should center their lives around house and home. She’s had a taste of independence and felt the adrenaline rush of fame and it’s that heady mix that fuels her decision to leave her fiance of three weeks at home to work in Montana for the summer.

John H. rescues Catherine on her first day in the canyon–a mysterious man of few words, he literally rides off into the sunset. His life has been as bleak as the landscape that called him: orphan, run-away, soldier, fugitive. In a story that relies on archetypes, John H. is the Outcast, the almost-Hero. Their two stories intersect, of course, and while John H. could have saved the day I found myself hoping they wouldn’t succumb to cliche, the cowboy and his lass.

Brooks language is rich, his description spot-on. As sometimes is the case with me, I did get impatient with the bent grass and the canyon strata and rutted paths and glyphs and … you get the idea. (When I confessed my quick thumbing through those passages to a friend today, I also told her I was just then slowing down for the sex–so there goes my credibility as a Discerning Reader!) I’m also not a fan of horses, truth be told. They’re too big for my taste in animals. I’m suspect of any animal whose head is a large as a small child–and there are a lot of horses in this novel (it is Painted Horses, after all). But I was drawn in by the publisher’s blurb and the novel’s advance praise. And I’m glad I was.

Read Painted Horses as American Myth. Read it to savor the beauty of the West. Read it to remember a time when our lives were more bound by convention–but also, perhaps, more easily transformed by a country still wild and untamed.

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