Holbert’s (Lonesome Animals, 2012) second novel is a tale of the American West as faithful to the legends as McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.
Holbert’s work rings out with the hard, clean truths of love and loyalty, family and friendship, all flowering from thickets of poetic language, some simple ("work was praying the same prayer everyday"), some gut-wrenching ("When he finally took the baby from her and held her bloody stillness in his hands, he wept"). Matt and Luke Lawson are twins, born to the rich land and open skies of eastern Washington. In 1918, as they journey home from school one day, they’re trapped in an epic blizzard; their father leaves the farmhouse to search for them. Of the three, only Matt survives. Everything else that unfolds is set in motion by that tragedy. Matt’s mother turns inward. Still a young teen, Matt runs the farm while obsessively searching for his father’s body; he's accompanied by Wendy, a storekeeper’s daughter, to whom he feels devotion. But Matt's also angry, frustrated and simmering with violence. He's the quintessential Western hero—taciturn and strong as iron with an unbreachable moral center. Rejected by Wendy, he abandons his mother and the farm; guilt-ridden Wendy moves to the farm to help. In this superb allegorical tale, Matt wanders through bar fights and ranch work and then settles in with Roland Jarms, a dissolute but good-hearted gambler. There, adrift in his great odyssey, Matt stays, and during his exile, he re-forms himself—"I believe I’m safe for people now"—before returning to Wendy bearing a motherless child he's named Angel. From the great flat land where "[w]ind gusted from the north and geese sliced ahead of it through the sky," Holbert's powerful work echoes the romance of America’s Western experience.