Frontier justice takes a contemporary turn in this Western novel of literary ambition and psychological depth.
Amid the wilds of Wyoming, the latest from the prolific Everett (American Desert, 2004, etc.) finds racists and homophobes supplanting cattle rustlers as threats to societal stability. The novel’s first-person narrator is John Hunt, a horse trainer who specializes in problem animals and a rancher who seems to attract human strays. As a strong man who does a tough job in a hard place, the uncommonly reflective widower reveals himself slowly. He’s one of the few black residents in a region of whites and American Indians. He’s also far better educated than most of his neighbors, with a New England prep school pedigree and a degree in art history from Berkeley (paintings by Paul Klee and Kandinsky grace his ranch house walls). One can’t take the measure of Hunt too quickly, and he does his best to extend the same courtesy to others, though he plainly prefers animal companionship to that of most humans. Within this “live and let live” society, the murder of a homosexual, followed by the arrival of protesters, sparks a series of hate crimes (with racial epithets as calling cards) that law enforcement seems powerless to prevent. Hunt shines as the novel’s beacon of decency, but Everett surrounds him with more characters than the novelist takes space to develop and some plot devices (a metaphor-heavy cave, a three-legged coyote) that scream Symbolism 101. Yet the narrative voice remains thoughtful and consistently engaging, while the momentum of the plot accelerates as complications ensue. A man who strives to adhere to moral absolutes, Hunt embodies a perfection that can aggravate some who are closest to him, who feel that they fall short. Both Hunt and the reader ultimately discover that such perfection comes at a price.
As an astute judge of character, Everett recognizes that wounds are an essential part of the human condition. The possibility of healing gives his novel its redemptive power.