Monday, August 6, 2012

Bruce Holbert, Lonesome Animals

Review and interview
This novel is a blend of crime fiction and western novel. Set during the 1930s in Washington, it has a time frame that is both Old West and New West. The “new” is there in the massive reclamation project, the building of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The “old” is a lingering remnant of the frontier era, a time of savagery and lawlessness, where the most savage and lawless were as likely to be white as red.

Some readers might call the novel an anti-western, since it questions the mythology that preserves the memory of frontier lawmen. Getting inside the mind of Russell Strawl, the novel’s central character, we are privy to the thoughts of a former sheriff for whom law enforcement and criminality turn out to be indistinguishable.

Told in the first chapter that Strawl in fact killed his first wife in a sudden rage, we also learn that during his career as a lawman he has taken the lives of fourteen men. So when there’s a series of grisly murders on the reservation, we can’t be sure that Strawl himself isn’t the killer he’s being paid to hunt down.

Site of Grand Coulee Dam, 1933
Not that there aren’t other suspects. Strawl’s adopted son Elijah is a spooky, Bible-quoting Indian who seems to have sprung straight from the heart of darkness. Another is an incestuous giant of a man who, though congenial, strikes fear in those who know him.

The wilderness setting in north-central Washington is a sparsely populated land of austere beauty made hazardous by both man and beast. Traveling on horseback across it, Strawl may as well be living in a previous century.

It is a literary novel that may well have had Joseph Conrad on its mind. For much of the way, we seem to be on the trail of Kurtz. The novel’s reminders of how fact is transformed into myth find a parallel in the stories that elevate the mad Kurtz into a hero. What it has to say about human savagery may well evoke the word “horror.”

A particular pleasure in the novel is Holbert’s gift for writing dialogue. Conversations are layered in degrees of irony, frankness balanced against the evasive, responses made not always to what was just said but what was unspoken. It’s a matching of wits between people who have long used words as small-caliber ammunition.

Here is a sample from an exchange between Strawl and Elijah, who has taken his half of Strawl’s ranch and sold it instead of continuing to work it.

“You figure I squandered your money,” Elijah said.
“Nope,” Strawl told him. “You got more imagination than that.”
“Then why do you think I took it?”
“I have no idea,” Strawl said
“What if I told you?”
“Then I’d still have no idea,” Strawl said.

This is not a book you can zip through, though the plot is compelling enough to make you want to. Holbert wants you to see, feel, smell the rough country and reservation land where the story takes its characters. He will carefully describe the operation of a ferry that transports them across a river. Riveting, if you have the stomach for it, is the description of the mutilated remains of murder victims.

Lonesome Animals is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble, and for kindle and the nook. You can learn more about Bruce Holbert at his handsomely designed website.

Bruce Holbert
Bruce has generously agreed to spend some time at BITS today to talk about writing and the writing of Lonesome Animals. It’s a pleasure to have him here, and I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

The novel draws on readers’ knowledge of both the western and crime fiction. Who did you think of as your audience as you wrote?
I really don’t think in terms of audience, not because I have some private erudite vision, but because I don’t usually know what’s going to happen on the page until I write it. Often, as I’m putting things into words I am discovering what I think about this or that, where the edges of my characters are and what will happen next.

So I’m a long way from audience at that point. As the book begins to take shape, I suppose I focus on being understood completely, which requires a kind of clarity and precision with language that I think is one of the highest considerations one can have for his or her audience.

How would you define the “traditional western”?
I think the western is in constant transition. The Iliad was once a bunch of folk tales repeated around campfires by Greek herdsmen for hundreds of years before Homer wove them together into a masterpiece. They had time to ferment, gather subtleties and consistencies in vision until they wove the kind of complete tapestry the Iliad is.

The western is still in the early stages of that process. It grew from dime novels to adventure stories to morality tales with its own tragic element, but it is far too young a story to be traditional. In fact, the western seems to spend a lot of time responding against its own traditions.

Early John Wayne movies the Indians were the nemesis, by the 50’s they were victims and business tycoons wore the dark hats. I’d like to say this line of thinking is my own, but it is really fostered in a social commentary on the west and violence called Gunfighter Nation, which is the finest book of its kind that I have encountered concerning the West.

Do you think of any writers as having reinvented the western before you?
I’m not sure I have reinvented anything, though it’s nice of you to say so. I think I am responding to my own experience with the West, which has been a mixed blessing. My grandfather was murdered by my great grandfather in a manner that is similar to the end of Lonesome Animals.

My great grandfather was one of the first settlers of the wheat country in the coulee and served a time as a policeman on the reservation, all historic elements of the western ideal at one time. He also left my father without a father or grandfather to guide him through his youth, a loss that has been reflected in my life as well, because he had not model to follow. My father is as decent a man as I know, and was a good father, but he was an uneasy father, always doubting himself and that is part of the western legacy as well.

As I said earlier, I think the western is constantly being reinvented, the next western will respond to all those previous. It’s part of why it remains a vital mythology.

How much research went into the writing of the novel?
Well, a lot in some regards. What I know of the country, what I love and despair over concerning its people, that’s a life’s worth of informal research, I suppose. I did have to spend a lot of time studying the dam’s construction, though it was helpful my father and maternal grandfather both spent much of their working lives on the project.

I also needed to get comfortable with the Thirties so I read a number of local histories. I read Mourning Dove’s coyote stories, which were an essential part in learning more about the native culture in that country.

Are readers to assume that the central character in the novel is closely similar to your great-grandfather?
Readers can assume so, if it pleases them. The fact is that there are very few details available about my great grandfather’s life. He became a sort of skeleton in the family closet and the details I do have, my father has only revealed to me in the last dozen years or so.

He was a policeman on the reservation; he killed his daughter’s husband in a cloudy conflict that may have been over the land they co-farmed; he died in Monroe State Prison several months later. He lost a son when my grandmother was young when the boy fell from a cliff while playing. The rest of the events in the book and the character that evolved were the result of my trying to put together how such a thing might have happened.

Did anything about the story or the characters surprise you as you were writing?
Most everything surprised me, but that is my process. I didn’t even know who the killer was until he practically admitted it on the page, though it seemed natural enough when I looked back.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
The idea of making it a manhunt arrived pretty quickly, but the hunt itself unfolded every day I sat down to write. I don’t do well with anything more formal as far as a plan. Others use outlines and charts and I envy them; I just can’t do it.

What of your experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop contributed most to you as a novelist?
For me personally, it was the respect of peers there that I recognized as brilliant and talented. I was a rube that lived in a town of 500 people before I headed to the workshop, where I was surrounded with folks whose sheepskins and resumes were much more impressive than my own.

That the people I admired most discovered my work and admired it was a huge confidence boost. Also, the energy of writer and teacher Allan Gurganus shaped my passions tremendously. He was a compelling, positive presence in my time at Iowa and I think almost all of us in his classes found him so.

Your novel seems to say that storytelling has had a particular kind of impact on what we think of as the West. Could you talk more about that?
I think stories can be a trap and the western has been that at times for me. It has created some pretty rigid ideas of what’s acceptable for manhood and what is not and it often employs violence as a tool of expression more primary than even language. For me, that was often unsettling.

I also as an adult, find it dysfunctional. Penitentiaries are full of men who are shaped by that myth and don’t know how to get out. My brother is an example. He spent five years in a penitentiary for a lifetime of living like Clint Eastwood characters.

How did you settle on the title for the book?
I’m horrible with titles. I usually name things in a very dull way. This book was called “Strawl” for much of its existence. I found wanting a little more out a title, though and thumbed through some literary quotations until I came upon the one Steinbeck that I settled on. The original take was Lonesome Animal but Dan Smetanka, my editor, convinced me to go with Lonesome Animals, which I think was the correct call.

Is the published version of the novel closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
In most ways, yes, though my editor pushed me to clarify plot and emotional lines that I think really benefited the book. He pressed me to move away from my own western stoicism enough to raise the temperature in the places that required it.

What have been the most interesting reactions to the novel so far?
Someone called it True Grit on acid. I thought that was pretty funny. Also the people who have liked the book have compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s work (extremely flattering) but so have the people who haven’t liked the book. So at least there is something consistent there.

Who, if anyone, would you trust to make a movie of the novel?
Oh my. I guess I see novels as very different forms of narrative than film. I say this as a huge fan of movies, by the way, but for me the best writing is a lot about the sound of words and rhythms created in my head. Aside from dialogue and narration and the musical score, film strikes me as ultimately visual.

As a result it seems making a movie from a book and sticking too much to the author’s arrangement of things is a little impractical as the tools each uses are different. I would love to see someone make a movie of the book, but I would be interested in seeing their vision of the story rather than a reproduction of my own.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Tim Egan’s history, Big Burn, and read recently Ann Patchett’s memoir, Truth and Beauty, and am now re-reading William Gass’ short story collection, In the Heart of the Country.

Your bio says you are a teacher. What have you learned from your students?
I learn from my students every day. I find them far more interesting than most adults I know. They are more vital, more honest and more passionate. They keep me asking the right questions of myself.

What writers of the West, living or dead, do you consider undeservedly unknown?
Owen Wister, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Bud Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Gretel Ehrlich, Pam Houston, John Keeble, Mourning Dove, R.G Vliet, I know I am leaving some out. Stegner is a common name but not as common as it should be.

What can your readers expect from you next?
I’m finishing a draft of a novel that covers 70 some years from 1912 to 1980 and takes place in several places in Washington State. It deals with some of the same themes and contains its share of violence, but the characters perhaps handle those forces more nobly. At least some of them do.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Just want to thank you again for your time and effort on behalf of the book.

Thanks, Bruce. Lonesome Animals tells a remarkable story that deserves to find many readers.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Tim Holt, Dude Cowboy (1941)


  1. This sounds magnificent. Mr. Holbert has plainly written a fresh, inventive, and penetrating novel wrought from life's realities. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  2. You need to stop telling me about books like this. My house and kindle are toppling over.