Intensely dramatic debut, set in Kansas and points west and southwest during the 1870s: a direct homage to Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised fiction (both his Blood Meridian and the recent Border Trilogy) but also an original work of high distinction.
The protagonist, teenaged Gabriel Lynch, arrives from the East with his widowed mother Eliza and younger brother Ben at a train station where they’re met by her husband-to-be, Solomon Johns, a farmer who had been Eliza’s first love before her life with the boys’ father, a prosperous middle-class Baltimore mortician. Gabriel resents the opportunities lost, and the hard life they’re introduced to, and eagerly leaves “home,” joining another black boy (James) to ride with a group of cattle drovers. A bloodthirsty odyssey ensues, as the gang’s embittered leader Marshall Hogg (an amoral fatalist straight out of Dostoevsky) directs his minions to steal, rape, and murder, ever moving on, through Mexico, Arizona, and the Rockies, en route to California—away from the avengers who slowly, methodically pursue them. Durham tells this story with great skill, weaving together a beautifully plotted central action and extended italicized passages detailing the embattled growth to manhood of the stoical Ben and the steely determination of a bereaved Mexican soldier who’ll follow Hogg to hell and back. Meanwhile, he also depicts with hallucinatory vividness the enigmatic figure of Hogg’s second-in-command Caleb, a black drover who never speaks, and harbors a terrible secret indeed. The only flaw in the narrative is Durham’s inexplicable tendency toward an abstract rhetoric clearly influenced by both the aforementioned McCarthy and his major influence, Faulkner, which often produces moments of ludicrous and vague grandiosity (e.g., watching Caleb, “Gabriel thought him some dark figure of the apocalypse”). Such moments aside, Gabriel’s Story grates on the reader’s nerves unerringly, and frequently rises to real grandeur.
A brilliant example of how to assimilate and transmute powerful literary influence. And what a movie this dark, haunting tale will make.