I’ve read some books with some pretty bad dudes in them before – James Crumley, Massimo Carlotto, etc – but the shifty, violent, unpredictable Sheriff Russell Strawl in Bruce Holbert’s Lonesome Animals takes the cake. In fact, he calmly takes the cake away from you, then comes back into your house with a bull and turns the bull loose after kicking it squarely in the balls. This isn’t a weird, crude reference I made up, mind you – he actually does this to a group of BIA agents in this book, maiming most of them in horrible ways and killing the bull in the process.
He also kills his wife with a frying pan on page 12 (spoiler alert!) – an unspeakably awful act that sets the tone for the rest of the journey Strawl takes. Can you really root for a guy like that? Well… not because of that, but… Okay, let’s back up a bit: the real story here is that Strawl, former sheriff of Okanogan County, WA has been dragged out of retirement to track down whoever has been brutally murdering Native Americans across his remote section of Washington state in the 1930’s. (And I mean brutally, as in dismemberment, wiring mouths shut, decapitation, disemboweling. Hey, it’s a great book club pick!) Holbert (a debut novelist and an Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate – although I won’t hold that against him) uses some pretty sparse, easy-flowing prose to get this story out and despite the fairly awful nature of it all, it bursts to life on the page. The dusty landscape of this still-far western frontier is super-vivid and populated by odd folks pulled right from a Coen brothers film. Plus you’ve gotta love the moral dilemma that Strawl presents you as a reader. Yeah, he’s a piece of shit who murdered his wife and does stuff like this while questioning people about the killer:
Strawl cursed Marvin, then set the pistol against the old woman’s ear, barrel up, and fired. She cried out. Blood from her eardrum spattered his wrist. Marvin knelt to receive his wife as she collapsed to the ground. Strawl looked at the two of them beneath him.
“You tell me if you hear of him or I’ll do her other ear.”
In fact, his reputation is so bad that most people he encounters just assume that he’s the killer. But because of the nature of his quest – the, dare I say, nobility of it, trying to put an end to these horrifying killings – you are left with no choice but to pull for him in some way. The lesser of two evils, perhaps, but Strawl is a far more palatable evil than the creature doing all the butchering.
Well, anyway, maybe Lonesome Animals just acted as an antidote to the crappy book I finished before it, but it really reminded me a lot of Blood Meridian or True Grit or Far Bright Star – not just in the violence but more in the style of prose, being so spare and raw throughout. So hey, if those types float your boat – as they do mine – get it in gear & check this one out.