Nearly 10 years ago, at the 2001 Festival of the Book, Nicholas Evans stood on stage at the Wilma Theater in downtown Missoula. He candidly (and somewhat sheepishly) addressed the audience, admitting that, despite being the "Montana expert" at every other literary venue, he knew that in Missoula he was merely a devotee—one who hoped he'd gotten it right. It was a gallant admission from the British author whose career skyrocketed with 1995's The Horse Whisperer (later made into a movie by Robert Redford). Since then, Evans has staked a (literary) claim in Montana, with four subsequent novels set in Big Sky Country. His latest, The Brave, is, at its surface, an accessibly entertaining narrative. At its core, though, it is a multilayered, myth-busting treatise on the fallibility of our heroes.
When a young woman asks Tom Bedford, The Brave's British-born protagonist, "How come an Englishman has this great passion for the West?" the novel, quite unabashedly, attempts to answer the very question many readers (Montanan and otherwise) have undoubtedly asked themselves, in regards to the novel's author. The fictional Tom tells his companion about his "childhood obsession with cowboys and Indians; how he'd grown up in little countryside and how, when he came to live in the States, the sheer scale of the real thing had blown him away; then his fascination at discovering the brutal truth behind all that myth and legend."
In the present time of the novel, Tom is in his mid-50s, divorced, a recovering alcoholic, who has lived in Missoula since first attending the University of Montana creative writing program decades earlier. As a writer, Tom doesn't have much to his name, with the exception of a five-year-old documentary series on the Blackfeet Indians for PBS. A little lonely, a lot unfulfilled, still, Tom has a relatively content life on the edge of town, with his dog, Makwi. That contentment becomes short-lived when Tom's ex-wife calls to tell him that their son, a U.S. Marine from whom Tom has been estranged, has been arrested for gunning down Iraqi civilians. The news compels Tom to reconsider his past: his childhood in England, his older and relatively remote parents, and his time spent at a British boarding school where the staff beat students mercilessly for the slightest infraction and where the other boys were utterly cruel to the 8-year-old Tommy who has an unlucky penchant for bedwetting.
In alternating chapters, we see, in the present, the adult Tom struggle to understand the crime with which his son has been charged, and, in the past, the 8-year-old Tommy escape into a fantasy where TV cowboys become his imaginary saviors. It's somewhat convenient, then, when Tommy's beloved older sister Diane, a gifted and supremely beautiful actress, begins dating Ray Montane, the veteran actor who plays Red McGraw in a popular television cowboy series, called "Sliprock." At first, Ray and Diane sweep Tommy into a world that reinforces his image of the cowboy mystique: Ray's chivalry gives Diane a chance to rescue Tommy from the misery of his (im)proper English boarding school; Diane and Tommy move into Ray's Hollywood mansion, where the actor has a child-sized Red McGraw costume made especially for Tommy (buckskin, gun, etc.). Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the image cracks: It turns out Diane has been keeping secrets from Tommy his whole life, that Ray Montane is not really a heroic cowboy, but, definitely, an insecure, violent philanderer who resents Diane's rising star.
It is in these alternating chapters where Evans' storytelling shines brightest. Despite covering more than 50 years, the narrative never seems to lose track of itself, its frame never weighed down by unnecessary subplots, the single through-line of how Tom Bedford's past has informed his present pulsates on nearly every page. At the risk of overplaying a metaphor, one might compare Evans to an expert wrangler in his capacity to manage so many threads.
Nearly every novel is imperfect, however, and here, one wishes that Evans would have pushed his prose more and not relied so heavily on long expository passages that virtually press the pause button on existing action, as if to say, "Here, reader, let me fill you in on a bunch of stuff before we go back to the story."
Its imperfections aside, Evans' novel is most memorable for how it deconstructs mythical heroes at almost every turn: cowboys, soldiers, even mothers are problematic idols with most limbs made of clay. If The Brave teaches us anything, it is that our heroes are fallible beings who deserve compassion (some more than others) or, at the very least, a more scrutinizing eye.
And, as for the non-native's admiration of Montana, perhaps Tom Bedford says it best: "He had fooled himself into believing that at last he'd found somewhere he belonged, whereas in fact it was simply a place he wanted to belong." Like most Montana imports, Tom eventually finds that he does belong—and that becomes the most satisfying realization of them all.