Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Painted HorsesIn a recent interview, Malcolm Brooks revealed that he learned to write by copying the style of literary giants whose work he admired: Jim Harrison, Larry McMurtry, Thomas McGuane and Michael Ondaatje. By his own admission, none of what he wrote turned out to be any good. But the overarching themes he played around with — progress versus conservation, man versus nature, East versus West — dug in and refused to let go. They’re now on full display in his debut novel.

Set in 1956, the world still smarting from the damage done during World War II, Painted Horses opens as 23-year-old Catherine Lemay journeys from glitzy New York and a chiseled Wall Street fiancé to desolate, sage-riddled cowboy-country Montana for the purpose of surveying a canyon “fifty miles long and deeper than Satan’s own appetites.” On the heels of an abandoned Fulbright to study piano at Cambridge in favor of getting her hands dirty at archaeological digs in post-Blitz London, she’s been hired by the Smithsonian in loose partnership with the area’s electric utility and the Army Corps of Engineers to assess whether anything of historical value would be lost if the canyon was flooded to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

As in the case of any real-world development venture in America involving land rights or potential environmental impact — wind turbines, fracking, fancy casinos, you name it — there are obstacles to surmount from the get-go. For starters, those who support the project’s implementation (Jobs! Power! Progress!) are embroiled in a deadlocked debate with others, like portions of the Crow Indian population, who argue vehemently for the land’s protection.

In what might be the book’s only major flaw, there’s also the pesky problem of Catherine’s unpreparedness for the job and irksome preoccupation with her status as a naive wallflower among burly men and a native Indian population she hadn’t given a thought to, “at least not beyond what you see in a cowboy movie.” Armed with a piddling camera and maybe a pickax, the dewy-eyed archaeologist bumbles through much of the book as the antithesis of the “hunter in a bygone age” chosen to hold history’s fate in her hands.

“What I’m actually supposed to do is marry an upwardly mobile man, deliver two or three perfectly spaced children, and throw a party or host a dinner every season. … I’m not supposed to stumble onto archaeology sites, and I’m certainly not supposed to become swept away when I do.” Sure, it’s the ’50s and most women are seen and not heard. But get over it. The Smithsonian knocks but once. Open the door.

Still, it feels a pity to stake Brooks’ reputation for character development on a heroine in need of gumption, especially since his leading men boast credibility (and feather-ruffling testosterone) in spades. Jack Allen, a puffed-up mustang wrangler and yes-man for Harris Power and Light who serves as Catherine’s guide to the canyon while keeping tabs on (i.e. sabotaging) her progress, is a perfect foil to John H., the soft-spoken, reclusive cowboy who steals not only Catherine’s heart but her body as well. (Cue headboard-thumping sex scene.)

Perhaps what really sets Brooks apart as a writer is his lush, breathtaking prose that expertly captures the raw essence of an American West known for its wide-open spaces and unbridled spirit. That and the book’s tangential asides. From John H’s leaving home at 12 and riding the rails westward with other vagrants to his apprenticeship with a Basque sheep herder during the era of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, and from his years in Italy as a member of the U.S. Army’s last mounted cavalry to his migration to France, Spain and finally Montana under a false name to live among wild horses, the chapters devoted to revealing the mystery of John H’s backstory piece by fascinating piece add depth and historic relevance to an already engrossing story.

And lest we forget the painted horses of the book’s title, Malcolm Brooks grew up in rural Northern California. He also spent a chunk of time on his grandparents’ farm in New Jersey. In his mid-20s, he moved to Montana. Throughout all of it, he rode horses. In page after page of descriptions of these majestic beasts and their mating rituals, his reverence for the animal — and his sadness at their domestication — shows.

By the end of Painted Horses, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled to the end of the Earth (or beginning of time) and back in a whirlwind of dust and words. And though the final chapters fall along the lines of what one might expect given the book’s (and history’s) trajectory, there are a few cinematic moments, as well as a pointed message or two, thrown in for the reader’s benefit. Brooks may have begun his writing career by playing the copycat. But this masterful book? This one’s all his own.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 22, 2014)

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