Westward, ho! 

Strong characters, slow trot in Painted Horses

Malcolm Brooks' debut novel, Painted Horses, is an exhaustively detailed, sprawling account of the modern world clashing loudly against the untamed American West. This is a book filled with great passion for its subject and full-fledged characters. Anybody worth their salt knows that books are magic and words are spells, and while I found myself captivated by certain passages, overall I wasn't able to fully fall under this book's particular charm. The reading experience for me was comparable to a long road trip in a minivan with my parents. A story needs to hook you in and pull your attention from one page to the next, and I found I couldn't find the necessary momentum through some of the more pastoral, lyrical passages. I suspect that whether or not you enjoy this book depends on if you're the Western enthusiast driving the car, or the impatient teenager kicking the backseat.

The story spans from the dawn of man to the early 1960s, with most of the action hovering around an archeological dig in a Montana canyon in the summer of 1956. We're introduced to two central characters whose adventures run mostly parallel to each other, until they intersect in satisfying, albeit predictable ways.

I identified most of all with Catherine Lemay, the plucky, fully modern 23-year-old woman from New York who should have grown up to be a concert pianist and/or dutiful wife and mother. Instead, a year studying abroad at Cambridge in London leads her to pursue a career in archaeology. A woman archeologist! the plot incredulously seems to say. Her new life path is almost beyond the pale but not entirely, as she soon lands herself an aggressively ambitious assignment: her employers—either the Smithsonian, a private party with an obvious vested interest in finding nothing of value, or both—have sent her to explore a canyon on sacred, native land that will soon be the site of a profitable dam.

In Lemay, I found a lady character fully realized and plausible enough to lasso my loyalties onto. Her naivety of outdoor living and Old West ways contrasts nicely with her genuine talent for the work, and I found it exciting and a little scary to watch her polish her camping skills and otherwise come into her own. She leaves her perfect, one-note fiancé behind in favor of adventure with a commendable lack of remorse or ceremony; I wonder if she had any idea she wasn't actually in love with him.

click to enlarge Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks, Fact & Fiction, Missoula, Montana, reading
  • Painted HorsesMalcolm Brookshardcover, Grove Press336 pages, $26

The other half of the book belongs to John H, a native Montanan who is more or less orphaned at 12 and forced to make his way across the country with little more than his wits and a preternatural affinity for horses. Soon he's drafted to serve in World War II in the war's only horse cavalry. These passages betray a great attention to detail. For example, I was delighted to learn that the cavalrymen had little opportunity to use the condoms in their kits for their intended purpose and instead used them to shield the heads of their rifles from the rain. Mostly though, I was impatient for Catherine and John H to meet up romantically, since by the novel's structure, we know they must.

Brooks leaves no stone unturned, and in some of my favorite passages we learn how almost every major character comes to lose their virginity. For John H, it's a lighthearted, whimsical experience in a brothel with a hooker who looks like his childhood crush. Catherine loses hers in a painful, dutiful ritual to her fiancé, which I imagine is true to the time but left me feeling a little depressed all the same. It's a minor point of the book but still, it's repeated more than once: Sex for women is painful and awful unless they truly love their partner. I wish Brooks had given Catherine more credit. She may not have loved her fiancé, but surely in the moment she liked him a lot.

Painted Horses could have been a captivating mystery; we're on an archaeological adventure through uncharted landscapes, after all. To be fair, this is a book about the journey, not the discovery, and some of the digressions are extremely entertaining. (Did I already mention the sex scenes?) I just wish we'd traveled at a steadier clip. The book picks up some momentum in the last 100 or so pages when actual discoveries come to light and everything they've worked for is thrown into jeopardy, but for this reader, the action came a little too late.

Malcolm Brooks reads from Painted Horses at Fact & Fiction Fri., Aug. 1, at 5:30 PM.

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