Portrait of a bad marriage during the Great Depression.
This successor to Todd’s novelistic debut (Sun Going Down, 2008) is the second book in his projected Paint trilogy. The family patriarch, Eli Paint, looms large at the outset. The Wyoming rancher, sire of 13 children, almost kills himself through reckless driving on a winter’s night. It’s 1933, and even affluent Eli must sell half the ranch to appease the banks. For consolation he has his Mexican housekeeper, Juanita; the two are in love. So this is Eli’s story? Well, no. A hundred pages in, there’s an abrupt transition to a boxing match in Denver. The fix is in for light-heavyweight Jake McCloskey to win his bout; everything screams corruption. But Jake loses his purse to his hard-as-nails wife Thelma, who then cleans out his bank account and leaves town. Divorce follows. For his next fight, Jake trains in the same Nebraska town where Emaline, Eli Paint’s granddaughter, waits tables at a diner. It took long enough, but now the principals meet. Emaline’s reservations about dating a boxer are overcome when Jake knocks out her childhood tormentor. They marry. Turns out Emaline has inherited her mother’s poor judgment about men. Jake is dumb, with a violent temper and a wandering eye. He quits boxing; they buy a farm and battle the drought and Dust Bowl. Todd overdoes context, working through the period with a checklist: Prohibition, FDR’s Inaugural and so on. The vernacular becomes a straitjacket. Blows rain down on his young marrieds: a miscarriage, foreclosure, loss of their savings to grifters (gullible Jake’s fault). This study in victimhood sidesteps their sex life, the linchpin of the marriage. At last, Emaline’s patience runs out; she splits for her grandfather’s ranch while Jake just disappears. The author’s best, least self-conscious writing comes at the end, as Eli and friends liberate a mustang stallion from a government corral.
Todd gives us a dull couple dwarfed by History.