It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H, a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?
But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks’s prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.
Painted Horses is the Debut Spotlight selection for Amazon.com’s Best Books of the Month for August 2014. Watch our interview with Malcom Brooks at Book Expo America below.