Back in the ring 

Neil McMahon punches up Lone Creek

If you had been told Neil McMahon was a former athlete, upon meeting him you’d likely guess basketball. Over 6 feet tall and slender, McMahon appears as if he might have had a good sky hook in his day. But his sport was not hoops. It was boxing.

Though the last thing you’d take him for is a pugilist, during the 1970s McMahon fought three seasons as an amateur heavyweight in Helena and the surrounding areas.

“I had a brief and very inglorious career,” says the Missoula author in a recent interview. “I got the shit beat out of me a lot of the time, but I think I did okay.”

The less-than-okay ones make the best stories, of course, and McMahon couldn’t resist telling one. Fighting at about 190 pounds, he “got hammered” by a 225-pounder at the prison in Deer Lodge. When he returned to the gym later in the week his trainer said, “I’ve been approached by some of the local merchants. They want to take out advertising on the soles of your shoes.” McMahon laughingly calls this “Anaconda sympathy,” and by all indications he seems to have profited from it.

When he wasn’t boxing in those days, McMahon was working construction, a labor he pursued for nearly 30 years, until recently, when he began to sustain himself with writing. To this day, he holds clean ring work and expert craftsmanship in the same high esteem.

“Back then, you did your best to be the best guy on the crew,” he says, “and if you didn’t nobody had much use for you. That was just the way it was.”

Hugh Davoren, the protagonist of McMahon’s forthcoming Lone Creek (due Tuesday, April 4, from HarperCollins) is, like his author, a construction worker and former boxer raised on a healthy dose of Anaconda sympathy. Returning to Montana at age 38 after failing as a husband and as a journalist in Sacramento, Davoren takes work on a ranch outside of Helena. The operation has been recently purchased by businessman Wesley Balcomb, under whose leadership the hardscrabble virtues of the West quickly give way to back-stabbing and opportunism. Things begin to go badly for Davoren when he finds two mutilated thoroughbred horses buried at a trash dump. Before he knows what’s hit him, antagonists are popping up like knapweed and aiming to take Davoren out. Worse still, Balcomb’s wife is coming on to him.

From the opening bell, Lone Creek progresses with the ferocity of two welterweights launching haymakers at each other for 10 rounds. And, other than Davoren and his friend Madbird—a Blackfeet and savvy Vietnam vet—the characters here are about as honest as the people running the fight game today. The book, however, is not a simple good guys versus bad guys morality tale. McMahon relaxes the furious pace at key moments in the novel to round out his villains. For example, when Davoren visits Doug Wills, one of the men who had run him off the ranch, he notices that Wills is a patient father. During a tense conversation Wills’ young son bursts into the room and overturns a laundry basket. Instead of slapping the boy, as Davoren expects, Wills steadies him and leaves him to ramble away. Davoren remarks, “The gesture was so carelessly gentle and sheltering that it almost stunned me…It was a kind of love, a generosity of spirit, even if only toward his own flesh and blood, that was foreign to me.” Writers frequently soften their rogues, but what’s different here is the grace of McMahon’s language, which matches the gesture and transforms Wills into a human being rather than a cheaply sentimentalized ne’er-do-well.

Fans of McMahon’s four previous Carroll Monks books know he can write a thriller. He has a knack for scaring the hell out of readers. (Anyone who reads the cobra scene in 2000’s Twice Dying with his feet propped up is certain to look under the chair before standing.) But something bigger and better is happening in Lone Creek. Setting his work in Montana rather than the San Francisco Bay area gives McMahon a landscape and a set of people he knows intimately. And changing the protagonist from an ER doc to a ranch hand allows him to draw from his own experience. Reading this new book, one senses that McMahon has exchanged a convincing costume for his favorite work-worn threads.

Fortunately Davoren doesn’t just ride off into the sunset at the end of Lone Creek. There’s more of him coming. In fact, he may be arriving sooner rather than later, as McMahon is already well into the sequel and keen to get it published within a year. Meeting the demands of a growing readership can be a tiring proposition, but McMahon is quick to point out he’s okay with that.

“It’s a problem,” he says, “I’ve wanted to have my whole life.”

Neil McMahon reads from and signs copies of Lone Creek Wednesday, April 4, at Fact & Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave. 7 PM. Free.
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