Wednesday, December 03, 2014

"PAINTED HORSES" by Malcolm Brooks

“Painted Horses” by Malcolm Brooks is being presented by Grove/Atlantic as a classic epic of the West so, of course, they drag Cormac McCarthy, Wallace Stegner, and Jim Harrison onto the blurb page of the dust cover, though the three writers have nothing in common in terms of themes, style, or essential nature.  In the past Grove has been notorious for publishing literary but obscene books, which confused me more since this book has no obscenity in it.  

So I went to the publishing house website to see what their position is now that they have merged with Atlantic Magazine, which was held up to my Enriched English class in 1955 as an example of high-minded respectability.  I was startled to see that Grove/Atlantic is the US publishers of Helen MacDonald’s “H is for Hawk,” one of the most esteemed British books of the year, one I love but hardly a Western epic.

Brooks’ book is in sections, beads on a string, and I suspected they were written at different times and possibly published in small magazines, as writers trying to make a name are advised to do, but I was wrong.  Only one section was previously published.  That was in “The Big Sky Journal,” which is indeed Western, even a product of the Montana writing craze of a decade ago.  (Now replaced by the Portland writing craze.)  The string that joins the beads is that a valley is about to be flooded by a dam (see Thomas King).  A secret feeder blind canyon is accessed only by the man who painted horses and his love, who is supposed to be doing the preliminary environmental study that would allow that destructive dam.  (See Zane Grey: “The Rainbow Trail.”)  

Other reviewers call the novel “layered” meaning that the back stories of the two lovers are in chunks.  One piece is the man’s friendship with a Basque sheepherder which expands to a sojourn in Basque country connected to military WWII mule-wrangling in Italy in places where wheels cannot go, esp. in rainy season.  Another “string” through his story is his saddle, which he never abandons -- if I told you why, it would be a spoiler.  There’s a sort of “A Farewell to Arms”  tale of a previous doomed love affair also connected.  And he has a doppelganger, a brutal man who rounds up wild horses to sell for dog food.

The woman’s story also starts in Europe, this time in London, where she turns away from the concert piano because of the thrill of archeology at a time when possibilities were literally opened by the bomb craters of WWII.  She takes a lot of personal damage in this story.  Her doppelganger is a teenaged Crow woman which is the excuse for a lot of indigenous stuff, including a strange ceremony about a horse that may or may not be authentic.  (I know very little about Crow.)  I see he doesn't know anything about "jingle dresses" which are adorned with the furled lids of snoose cans, NOT rifle cartridges.

The first jolt I got was that a character is named “Max Caldwell” which is the name of the husband Lorraine Scriver left in order to move in with Bob before I was quite out of the picture.  It's just a coincidence.  The character is not at all like the “real” Max Caldwell, who is dead now, and the name evidently also belongs to a friend of Brooks'. 

All through the book I ran up against strange little knots of metaphor and assertions that didn’t ring true.  One, the idea that a horse would trample a newborn lamb, was disturbing enough that I asked the advice of Sid Gustafson, horse vet and novelist.  He said the circumstances would have to be VERY unusual -- it is not normal behavior as “Miriam” claims on p. 240 as evidence of the innate wickedness of horses.  All through I kept suspecting that some information was coming from bar gossip and internet factoids rather than real experience.  The best stuff might be from National Geographic: cave art.

The charm of the book, endorsed by the cover art (Brooks is getting the full media promotion that “publishing” is supposed to be about), is the idea of "horse", of the ancient paintings of horses on the walls of caves in France, this protagonist's love of depicting horses on both stone and canvas, his merging of this with the Native American symbolism of painting on horses, and his desertion of the military (spoiler here) in order to save a group of horses which he gives to gypsies, refugees from the German holocaust.  Oh, romance!  

The main purchasers of contemporary novels are said to be single women in their thirties, generally educated, lovers of Indians, horses and handsome men who limp.  Brooks has said that one of his goals in writing this novel was to “successfully” capture the inner life of a woman.  (Zane Grey was good at this -- but then, his wife and “nieces” wrote much of his novels.)  In that interest he closely describes manicures and menstruation.  (His description of starting a fire by using a sanitary pad for tinder is highly suspect.)  This novel teeters on the edge between genre and "literary."  In the end the conceit of a secret valley where genetically pristine Barb horses can hide for centuries simply collapses in greed, violence, political corruption, and running away.  The prospect of the lovers reuniting is only a couple of sentences at the end, possibly demanded by the publisher.

The other function of publishers, besides promotion, has historically been editing, and some editors have been credited with making their writer’s pile of prose into something brilliant, notably Perkins pruning Thomas Wolfe and Gordon Lish cutting Raymond Carver down to famous minimalism.  I’m not sure how much editorial meddling there was in “Painted Horses.”  

What I want is to point out that today (maybe it was always like this) what is written by Westerners is often edited and promoted by Easterners, and most reviews are written by Easterners.  They are not at all troubled by things that a cowboy would question.  Brooks is a Californian, a carpenter, and a dweller in Missoula which is not exactly Montana.  I would like to hear what someone like Sid Gustafson might say, since he WAS raised on horseback, makes his living whispering to horses, and is core Montana.  I doubt that many Easterners or most Montana university townspeople would even notice the glitches.

How important is that?  I don’t suppose anyone could find an absolute measure.  I ought to have kept a list of the kind of  small metaphorical mismatches that Peter Matthiessen would have blue-penciled.  But that kind of editing is out of fashion now.  The list of acknowledgements at the end of the book gives the specifics of who helped Brooks, so it wasn’t arrogance on his part -- not defying expert advice.  Maybe I’m just picky.  For an antidote, go to

But as a person who lived with horses as models for sculpture and painting, becoming personally acquainted with many painters of horses, there was something hollowed out or crowded aside in this tale.  Maybe Brooks should have looked for advice from an actual painter of horses, like Bill Anton

This Anton painting fits the story. is the designer of the cover, but probably not the painter.  The image refers to the two gentle "hills" of the line of the back of a horse with its head down which  Brooks suggested, but never really followed up, unless I missed something.

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