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An absorbing but flawed first novel, by the 1986 winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, traces the braided destinies of two men and a woman, each on a personal quest in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The small ranching town of Medicine Springs is the geographical magnet that pulls in the trio--pivotal among them Vietnam vet Tom McVay, honor-bound to avenge the drug-related murder of his kid brother. Also at hand is legendary wolf-trapper Bill Egan, lured out of idle retirement to kill the beast--a supposedly extinct gray wolf?--that's been savaging local livestock. And then there's gorgeous Kate Running, back among her native Sioux after years of city-drifting. Tom grows close to both Kate and Egan, bedding the former in a steamy romance and joining Egan as he tracks a series of animal-kills until convinced that a wolf, indeed, haunts the Hills. Local squabbling (should the wolf be killed or captured?), a renegade band of Sioux who aim to dynamite Mt. Rushmore, and the brooding presence of the Hills themselves lend a backdrop of danger--danger that churns into violence as Tom fitfully renews his search for his brother's killer, the drug-dealer Billion. When Tom at last confronts Billion, the dealer escapes; but the wolf doesn't, shot days later by Egan, who dies of a heart attack while trying to hide the carcass from exhibitors. The violence and the quests end soon after, as Billion comes gunning for Tom and is slain by Kate, and Kate decides to remain with her Sioux rather than leave with Tom, who drives off with the wolf carcass in the back of his truck. O'Brien's ideas are weak--his characters, although well articulated, are stock; his action wanders and slips into clichÉ, as in Egan's death--but his prose is as strong and true as the frontier it evokes, and his presentation of mood and place is acute and gripping. The Old West does breathe in these pages, then--albeit asthmatically.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1988
Publisher: Crown