A bloody Western set during the 1930s, Holbert’s debut novel follows an amoral lawman hunting an amoral killer in the rugged, rapidly changing rural counties of Washington State.
Holbert’s unsettling book demands a strong stomach: The violence is graphic, and sublime prose is cheek-by-jowl with ridiculous conceits. Whether the violence is gratuitous is a question the book begs but avoids answering, but one’s pleasure may turn with one’s stomach. At the end the reader will feel relief or satisfaction or some combination, and tip a sweat-stained hat to Holbert for raising the stakes of the Western genre. The protagonist Russell Strawl’s name says it all, rhyming with drawl and squall, but the participle of another rhyme is the best word to describe him: appalling. Pure antagonism, Strawl travels light as a contagious disease and falls like a curse. He has superhuman hearing, which seems a prerequisite for his in- or sub-human behavior. We are expected to believe in types: in Keystonish cops, fops, sots and a young man who answers only to the name of a prophet. The plot is as tortured as the killer’s victims. Holbert’s sympathies seem to align with the quality of his prose: The land is rendered in loving, even exquisite detail, so too the crimes. The characters’ minds are infernal, and at its best the prose makes the darkness visible.
Holbert has gone all-in: This book is audacious. It reaches the heights and then keeps rising so far over the top one doesn’t know how to take it.