FICTION: A scholar and a cowboy scope out a new dam project in Montana.
It’s hard to imagine that there are still Westerns to be written, but Malcolm Brooks proves with his haunting and lyrical debut that there’s room for at least one more.
Taking place in the middle of the last century, “Painted Horses” brings together a dynamic cast of cowboys and intellectuals in the service of an ambitious dam project in Montana. Catherine Lemay returns from a Fulbright in Europe with a thirst for adventure and professional opportunity. She finds both via the Smithsonian Institution, which hires her to make sure the enormous canyon set to be flooded is in no way historically significant.
Along the way she meets John H, an American veteran of World War II, an artist and a horseman extraordinaire. Together they scour the landscape, making discoveries that complicate not only the dam project, but their feelings for each other as well. That Brooks manages to make fresh and convincing a love story between a cowboy and an idealistic, headstrong heroine is a true testament to his skills. Theirs is a relationship that builds expertly and mirrors the vast and gorgeous landscape it traverses.
Impressive as the weaving of their work and relationship is, however, the novel’s greatest strength is its astonishing portraiture of horses. Not since Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy has the noble equine been given such lovely treatment. There are moments when Brooks’ prose rises to meet the mythos it describes. They are moments of near perfection.
Peter Geye is the author of “Safe From the Sea” and “The Lighthouse Road.” He lives in Minneapolis.