In Lonesome Animals, ex-lawman Russell Strawl is drawn from retirement to track down a serial killer. Joined by his son Elijah – a drifter who fancies himself a Catholic prophet – Strawl follows the trail of bodies from place to place: always trying to get one step ahead, and always seeming to be one step behind. As the hunt lengthens, Strawl’s own dark and broken history is laid bare, leading in turn to shocking revelations about the killer’s identity.
Lonesome Animals is Bruce Holbert’s first novel – a bleak and bloody Western with noir sensibilities. It is also (for the most part) an exercise in style over substance, which is unfortunate, given Holbert’s tremendous pen-power. Let this be clear at the outset: I’m not questioning the man’s talent. But for a story with so much bark, the actual bite is more than a little underwhelming. Poetic prose and earnest dialogue abounds, as does grisly imagery; what’s missing is a point, a sense of purpose. But then maybe that is the point.
Holbert seems hell-bent on shattering popular romantic notions of the Wild West. And though I’m tempted to say there is no clear-cut good and evil in this story, that would be untrue. The evil is entirely clear-cut, thriving in these pages with a vibrant ugliness. The good, on the other hand, has already ridden off into the sunset. Search ye high and low, near and far – it is nowhere to be found.
And therein lies my biggest problem with Lonesome Animals. In his attempt to destroy what he perceives to be the Western ethos, Holbert unshackles the bull of nihilism and kicks it squarely in the gonads. You can imagine the chaos that ensues. The characters here wander through blood-soaked scene after blood-soaked scene, dealing out death and succumbing to it, with an unspoken question on their lips: “What’s the point?”
In the end, the answer seems to be that there is no point. Just a whole lot of violence and pain and anger, followed shortly by death. Deal with it.
Of course, I recognize that justice in a fallen world can be (and often is) a messy business. To pretend otherwise is to spit in the face of reality. But Holbert veers into a different kind of extreme: in his story, justice is an illusion. It’s hardly acknowledged, much less sought after or carried out. There is only darkness. Darkness and misery. The lonesome color on Holbert’s palette is pitch black, and his characters are saturated with it.