Bruce Holbert is like trying to quickly summarise the difference between eating a ha mburger and sitting down for French cuisine. His writing is an event to be savoured. It cannot be rushed. It cannot be devoured in one sitting without, at least, coming up for air and having a lengthy contemplation about the previous course. Lonesome Animals is not a book to take on a long-haul flight, with the expectation it will be finished by the time you land; anyone who says they did didn’t.
The storyline is set well into the twentieth century, as the old American West is breathing its last gasp. Often, the reader finds themselves drawn into world of cooking on flat rocks and skillets only to be suddenly yanked back into the modern world by the mention of a motor car. Yet, it is the main character, Russell Strawl, who exemplifies the transition between eras. A retired sheriff, cool as ice, but, by the same token too hot to handle, he is commandeered to return and perform one last task by the very people who found him difficult to stomach.
Strawl lives in the era of the Old West and, for some readers, he might be a little too base for modern sensibilities. Yet, as a main character for the book he is essential. He understands the world where lives and the people that inhabit it, better than do most. This is why Strawl is the ideal candidate to hunt down the savage serial killer of Native Americans. The story takes the reader through his investigations, introducing us to a range of characters that, although they may not be likeable, are drawn together by the author, Bruce Holbert, and made compelling.
It’s tempting to draw an analogy between this book and other authors. It is also tempting to focus on the violence which some might perceive as gratuitous. If we compare the book to film where maverick heroes are more readily accepted than on the page, it is probably more accurate to equate it with Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, having the added benefits of some wonderful dialogue and almost poetic scene setting.
There is a real world feel to Lonesome Animals, maybe not of today, but certainly of recent times past. It might not sit comfortably with many, particularly those who prefer clear definitions between good and bad characters, but Bruce Holbert has, quite possibly, provided us with a story which in more ways than one, defines the dying days of the old American West.
Click here to read the Grub Street conversation with Bruce Holbert.
Karen Thompson is a writer and editor living in Portugal. She also finds time to shepherd Shetland sheep.
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