There is something soothing about a novel—the way that it can transport you from an often traumatizing, confusing world into one where boundaries, intentions, and the difference between right and wrong are more defined. There is comfort in recognizing the “bad guys” of the story, anticipating their next move, pondering how the protagonist will avoid their mischief and malice. On the other hand, Bruce Holbert’s new novel, Lonesome Animals offers none of that comfort and instead rips the rug from under you with a seemingly cold-blooded protagonist, a sidekick you’d never trust, and a supporting cast of characters you’re almost positive you detest–all adding up to a rollicking, disturbing and fascinating mystery novel.
Holbert sets the story at the foot of the Okanogan Mountains in Washington (where Holbert grew up), and bases the complex protagonist Russell Strawl on his own grandfather, a legend amidst the first settlers of the Grand Coulee area. The story is immediately discombobulating, and doesn’t seem rooted in any specific era or year, just in a general haze of the “Wild West”, where violence is rampant and loyalty is scarce, and a lawman like Strawl is just as dangerous as the most twisted of criminals. The unfolding narrative tiptoes around Strawl’s history, littered with brutality and loss, and then jumps into the present where the retired lawman is asked to hunt a savage serial killer who has started murdering local Native Americans, desecrating their bodies, and terrifying the townspeople.
Strawl is a mythic figure in this barren world, where local legends say that he can smell the guilt on a man, and can hear a footstep from a mile away. On his journey tracking the killer glimpses of Strawl’s world are slowly unraveled and revealed, though never enough to allow the reader understanding, or even a real affection for the man. But the reader is quickly lost in their travels inside Strawl’s world, instead becoming intoxicated by the painstakingly detailed descriptions of Strawl’s meals, his injuries, and the dead bodies he encounters along the way. The dialogue is haunting, unfamiliar and sparse, much like the unforgiving landscape the anti-hero traverses and the unconventional characters he encounters along the way, such as his adopted Native American son with intentions of being a Catholic prophet, an incestuous tree-dwelling criminal, a crooked Medicine Man.
With the commanding voice of a master storyteller, Holbert highlights the awkward collision of the Native American and White cultures, and the shocking violence that can erupt in an unstable environment at an unstable time. In Holbert’s carefully crafted world where most characters “don’t know a worthwhile man over fifty who hasn’t killed someone”, violence is always the answer; and for a lonesome animal like Russell Strawl, blood is always the final word.
Tonight at 7:00p.m. // Elliott Bay Books, 1521 10th Avenue // Free
Bruce Holbert will be reading tonight at Elliott Bay Book Co. at 7 p.m. FREE