THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE by Bill Wittliff
Kirkus Star

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A Texas boy goes searching for his missing momma in an endearing picaresque that evokes Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote and a whole passel of folk tales.

The narrator of this extended shaggy dog story, the first in a series, is Papa, who’s recalling his boyhood in central Texas in the 1880s. His mother has escaped the clutches of his domineering father, Old Karl, and Papa is quickly separated not just from both parents but from his brother as well. So begins the oldest story ever told—a youngster heads off on a journey—but the familiarity of the novel's setup is countered by the rounded, quirky, sometimes-creepy characters Papa encounters and the warmth of Wittliff’s down-home prose. The secondary cast includes Papa’s newborn half brother, whose bird-shaped birthmark holds an oracular power for those around him; Fritz, a stray dog with a strange laughing bark; Calley, a cowboy who’s at once a walking essay in conditional ethics and a father figure to the boy; and Pepe and Peto, Mexican laborers who’ve also escaped Old Karl’s heavy hand. Wittliff, who’s written screenplays for Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall, knows his Texas tropes backward and forward. Some of those tropes are overly familiar, and characters tend to appear and disappear in ways that strain credulity. But here too Wittliff knows what he's doing: The novel is less a grab bag of episodes and symbols (though it is that) than a sophisticated consideration of interconnectedness, an idea he tinkers with on practical and metaphysical levels. The elliptical story climaxes at the ridge of the novel’s title, giving the book the feel of an old-fashioned cliffhanger in its closing pages. Wittliff’s Huck-ish voice sometimes runs on a bit long, but he’s a font of well-told wisdom, and Unruh’s illustrations show key moments in the story with appropriately warped perspective and detail.

An unpretentious but smart reboot of Wild West storytelling.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-292-75995-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Univ. of Texas
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2014




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