Three generations of a Native American family struggle with hard lives, bad choices, and alcohol in this impressive novel.
In the summer of 1991 in the state of Washington, two brothers sit in their local tavern at a critical time. Andre is heading toward his second divorce from Claire, and Smoker (born Wendell but nicknamed for his boyhood habit of torching candy cigarettes) is hunting his wayward wife so he can retrieve his 10-year-old daughter, Raven. The siblings embark on an odyssey that weaves through the book in scattered sections. They capture a bear they keep in their camper for possible trade value and get involved in a variety of violence by fist and gun. As one character opines: “You boys ain’t run-of-the-mill crazy.” Other sections look back to the boys’ youth, to the troubled history of their parents, hard-drinking Pork and sexually adventurous Peg, and to Andre’s efforts to avoid whiskey and hold on to Claire. The jigsaw structure can frustrate, but Holbert (The Hour of Lead, 2014, etc.) is a canny writer, and soon the finely drawn fragments from the past percolate into 1991’s narrative and go far to explain why the brothers are rolling toward some reckoning. Like Cormac McCarthy, another bard of the modern West’s brutality, Holbert finds beauty and cruelty in the land, in the tease and punch of eloquently elliptical dialogue, and in the way humans struggle for love, self-knowledge, and a grip on life that won’t just burn their fingers. He writes terse prose whittled to essentials and grained with vernacular: “He smelled gamey as an elk and his breath made an awful racket.” His characters may well brand a reader’s memory.
A gut-punch of a bleak family saga that satisfies on many levels.