This absorbing, dark historical novel tells of two Irish brothers and two Army veterans caught up in a civilian murder amid conflicts with Native Americans in the late 1860s.
In one of the book’s two narrative strands, Irish immigrants Tom and Michael O'Driscoll enlist in the Union Army in 1861 and end up helping to build a fort in Montana after the Civil War. In the other, Kohn and Molloy are veterans investigating the murder at the new fort of a trader and his wife who are related to the secretary of the treasury. The two storylines are out of sync chronologically, and part of the book’s fun is watching them slowly converge. Michael narrates the brothers’ tale in flashbacks while in the fort’s jail for reasons that are long withheld. In the third-person ongoing present of the Kohn strand, he pursues the murder investigation mostly alone because Molloy drinks constantly to obliterate war memories (“I kill children….I have killed”). McCarthy (Irregulars, 2013, etc.) aims to highlight the role of Irish immigrants in the violent period (as his bibliography notes). The amount of boozing in general may serve historical accuracy but also may sustain the hoary slur of Erin go blotto, while the purely white man’s view of Native Americans as savages is hardly balanced by nods to the Indians’ athletic skills. The Kohn narrative reveals him as an intriguing character, an exemplary soldier at ease with violence who “joined the army to escape” his Jewish background and a life as a tailor. Among other things, he offers a very Joycean take on the Irish: “A cursed, wandering race, like my own.”
McCarthy has a fine sense of voice and period detail, but it’s the well-drawn characters and riveting scenes that make this novel memorable.