by Lisa Peet
The literary Western is an archeological dig of a genre. In the same way you can see thousands of years in the geological strata of a canyon wall, a well-stocked bookstore’s Western fiction section will hold the entire evolution of the genre: from Zane Grey and Owen Wister, writing when the West was still wild; to contemporary writers who flourished in the second half of the century—Charles Portis, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry; to an entirely different kind of book that has emerged in the last few years.
The stories in the dime novels of the late 1800s were, by necessity, starkly binary: cowboys and Indians, lawmen and outlaws, the farmer and the cowman. And while the original tales were of course highly revisionist themselves, with conflicts and resolutions painted in broad strokes designed to appeal to a readership of mixed sensibilities (and levels of literacy), for the past 50 years, the genre has been reframed over and again: by delving into the psychological makeup of the strong, silent cowboy and the gunslinger; examining the racial politics at play between whites, Native Americans, Latinos, and blacks; looking at sexual dynamics and the roles of women previously relegated to the fringes; and telling well-worn stories from the point of view of any number of marginalized characters. Given the success of these new approaches, it was only a matter of time before the alt-Western became a genre in need of subversion itself.
Which brings us to Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel, Painted Horses (Grove Atlantic, 2014). Brooks is not a Montana native—he grew up in Northern California, by way of New Jersey—but he has lived in the Missoula area for the past two decades and has a deep love for the country and its history. And, perhaps more important, he grew up reading the Westerns of the ’70s and ’80s: Lonesome Dove, A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall. Those writers, along with Cormac McCarthy and Thomas McGuane, to name a few, inspired Brooks to write and then abandon several manuscripts over the years.
But it wasn’t until he was in his 30s that Brooks found his own voice, and incorporated some of his wide-ranging interests—first inspired by an elderly acquaintance’s tales of riding in the last mounted cavalry to fight in World War II—into what would, ten years later, become Painted Horses. It’s a sweeping tale that spans from the Great Depression to the early 1960s, with cowboys and Indians and lawmen and outlaws, as well as a strong and inquisitive female protagonist (with a strong, stubborn teenage female sidekick), a herd of mustangs, and some heavy conflict between progress and tradition. Much of the action is set against the backdrop of the stunning Montana landscape. Yet Brooks’s book is neither traditional nor subversive. Take a cue from the title; Painted Horses is not alt-Western, but art-Western.
Catherine Lemay, Painted Horses’ heroine, is not an artist herself, but an archeologist. Or rather, she hopes to be one, having abandoned a good girl’s education as a concert pianist in favor of digging in the dirt. When the novel opens she is 23 years old and headed for her first real job. The year is 1955, and Catherine has been contracted by the Smithsonian Institute to scope out a vast Montana canyon that has been scheduled for flooding to make way for a hydroelectric dam. The contractor, Harris Power and Light, is ready to move ahead with its plans, and most of the area’s residents—including a sizeable native Crow population—are ready to be electrified. But along with the nation’s thrall to postwar progress is a growing awareness of a disappearing cultural currency; and so in order for the work to proceed, it must first be determined that the canyon holds nothing of cultural-heritage value.
Catherine may be an employee of the Smithsonian, but she’s the guest of Harris Power and Light, and the company’s owner does not mince words:
“By modern reckoning the canyon is a wasteland and I intend to drown it…. I expect you to go in after the Seven Cities, the Fountain of Youth. You will find neither, but you do need to try.”
Catherine, for all her spunk, is not the kind of new Western heroine who surprises the reader with fierce efficiency; she’s no Mattie Ross. Starry-eyed and determined to find something archeologically significant, she’s also a bit hapless. On her first day she ventures into the canyon alone in the company truck—a repurposed WWII ambulance—and promptly rolls it into a ditch while trying to change a tire. Tearful, dirty, and exhausted, she turns around and begins the long walk back.
Catherine still couldn’t understand how anything of substance could live out here. She could see an impossible distance yet nothing seemed to move. Even the plant life occurred in patches, clump here and sprig there. The supposition of millions of buffalo seemed the myth of a lost Eden. Every culture had one.
She may be determined, but Catherine—an upper-middle-class East Coast girl—is still daydreaming of the elegant Roman ruins she helped dig for in a Blitzed-out London cellar the year before. She knows nothing about this country, and can’t even begin to envision the Eden she hopes to find.
There are, of course, many things living in the canyon: sage, aspen, deer, and an elusive herd of wild horses descended from fine Spanish Barb stock, rather than the native blunt-nosed mustangs. It is also home to a man, John H, who spots Catherine, catches up to her, fixes her truck, and gets her back on the road in short order.
John H is given to few words. What he knows, primarily, is horses: not only the catching and gentling and riding of them, as any good cowboy must, but he has been painting and drawing them since he was a boy. At 11,
When he is not riding horses he sketches them, with an expert’s knowledge of horse anatomy and musculature, a prodigy’s sense of depth and perspective and shadow. Early on he works out a schematic, his profiles built around a line that looks in isolation like a pair of low curving hills.
By the time he’s 12 he is on his own, first in foster care and then, fleeing the confines of town life, he rides a series of freight trains out west; these are the days of the Great Depression, when young boys did such things. Eventually he teams up with a kindly Basque sheepherder, comes of age riding the range, and in his 20s ships out overseas, fired up with the ideals of the Spanish Civil War. In Italy he finds himself serving in the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry campaign, a disconcerting mixture of adventure and tedium:
At night they pack the horses’ feet in straw to fend off hoof rot, bivouac in clammy canvas tents. They are issued condoms with their kits and there are no women here anyway so they roll the condoms over the muzzles of their gun barrels, to keep rain from rusting in the bores.
Ultimately he escapes the army, going AWOL—on horseback, naturally.
After traveling along the Mediterranean coast and then inland, John H stops for a while in Basque Country, where it seems as though he might settle down. The culture is agreeable to him after his years spent with the sheepherder, and he takes up with a woman, Elixabete. He begins to paint again, landscapes and city scenes and—always—horses flowing like a line of hills.
On a wall of his apartment opposite the bed hangs an unframed canvas five feet long depicting a rush of horses, some spotted, some with stripes flashing from the withers, horses overlapping and milling and in their collective trajectory directing the eye to one predominant horse with its flank tinted red, which bleeds into tan, which bleeds yet again into slim black stockings, a horse with a wild gleam for an eye…
One day he return to find Elixabete has pulled the painting from the wall and packed a suitcase; they are taking a trip, though she won’t say where. The two end up in a small town in central France, where two men at the mouth of a scaffolded cavern greet her as an old friend.
This place, “the odors of honeysuckle and wild thyme heavy in the still-damp air,” could not be geographically or culturally farther from John H’s Western home. And yet when Elixabete shows the men his painting and they agree to take him down into the cave, he finds his history—not the history of himself as a man, or a cowboy, but as an artist.
He lifts his eyes and the cavern’s ceiling rolls at him like a mushroom cloud, a billowing catastrophe locked in a crust of white stone, and his eye fixates so completely on the glitter of its surface in the bobbing light of the torch that his brain cannot quite accept the massive head of the bull on the wall.
His eye jumps and he sees his horses, sees his horses, moving down the corridor. He goes weak not only in the bad knee but in the good one as well. A pale red stallion fully the size of life lopes along not five feet in front of him, its muscles rippling across the texture of the wall.
A second red horse with a slower gait moves out ahead and skirts the horns of the oncoming bull, and the man sees he is not in the path of a stampede but square in the eye of it.
These are ancient cave paintings, perhaps based on those in the Grotte de Font de Gaume in the Dordogne Valley, or the more famous paintings at Lascaux. They are, the old priest tells John H, ten thousand years old.
They see yellow horses, upside-down horses, horses wrapped around pillars of stone. Horses scratched into the stone but not painted, horses weaving through great mixed herds of other beasts.
The priest tells him, “Ça commence et finit par les chevaux, n’est-ce-pas? Autrefois tout comme aujourd’hui.” Elixabete translates: “It begins and ends with horses, now and in history.”
John H’s history, however, continues. Ten years later he is back in Montana, painting his own horses on the canyon walls there and eventually rescuing Catherine.
But Catherine turns out not to need much more rescuing. As she begins to explore the canyon, with the help of Jack Allen, the guide provided by Harris Power and Light, the realization that has been clear to the reader from the start dawns on her in time: the Smithsonian may have mandated the investigation, but the contractor doesn’t want her to find anything. Neither is Allen on her side. So Catherine enlists allies: Max Caldwell, a former River Basin Survey worker who now runs the local filling station, and Miriam, a cocky 17-year-old Crow girl from the nearby town of Agency, who may not know quite enough to be a true helpmeet but nonetheless makes for a satisfying foil for Catherine’s east coast tentativeness.
John H continues to be Catherine’s compadre as well, and eventually her lover. As her tenure working for the River Basin Survey winds down, Catherine steps up her search for some kind of meaningful artifact in the canyon as Harris Power and Light steps up its efforts to impede her. What she eventually discovers sets off a chain of tense events that, more than anything, attests to the sheer power that art, whatever its form, can wield: cultural power, political power, and the ever-present power of beauty. Art can delight and awe, but it can impede the progress of modernization. And it can put one young woman who believes in its authority in a very dangerous place indeed. John H’s horses are only one chapter in a complex story that turns out to be as old as mankind—or at least as old as mankind’s desire to make a mark on a wall.
What, in the end, does the Western have to do with art?
One might answer with another question: what is a Western today if not its iconography? At least in the 21st century, it is not a set cast of characters; it is not the ethos of hard men against the elements, or even life prevailing over death and violence (although one could argue that fiction in its entirety boils down to this). We have exhausted the old conflicts of cowboys against Indians, or townspeople clashing with range riders. There are no longer fixed points in the genre except perhaps for this: a Western is the light, the landscape, the beasts that run through it.
A riotous clutch of birds erupted from the stillness like an act of nature, a freak storm or the jet of a geyser, rising in a roar of wings and throaty chuck-chuck-chucks nearly from beneath her feet. Catherine’s heart jumped. A tardy straggler got up afterward to follow the core of the flock. Catherine watched them wing down the canyon, several dozen at least, the white of their underbellies visible for a very long time.
Malcolm Brooks, a carpenter by trade as well as an author, has obviously done some thinking about the ways mankind has commemorated the beauty of that landscape over time.
His John H may be a singular character, but he is not necessarily an outlier; surely there have always been artists among cowboys and Indians alike. Painting on a wall, scratching on a rock: these are fine ways to celebrate a genre that takes its name from a compass direction. And as the author of Painted Horses knows, writing a novel is another.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Lisa Peet’s previous features: What We Do Is Tell Each Other Stories: Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves Tim Horvath’s Understories: Asking the Questions First, April Wilder’s Beautiful Bleed, Hesh Kestin: Deadlines, Word Counts, and Magnificent Lies, Jules et Jim et Henri-Pierre et François, Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown, Experience Required: The Middle of the Road, Thomas Van Essen: The Ekphrasis of Ecstasy, Experience Required: Back to School, Jon Clinch: Telling Stories on His Own Terms, Kate Chopin’s Artistic Awakenings, Deborah Eisenberg: Small-World Stories, The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone, Isak Dinesen: Her Own Heroine, Walker Percy: The Original Moviegoer