In Malcolm Brooks’s first novel, it is 1956 or thereabouts. Elvis Presley is “this new singer,” and “Blackboard Jungle” is playing at the movie theater in Billings, Mont. But when Catherine Lemay asks the teenage Miriam, “Is rock and roll here yet?” Miriam replies, “Um, maybe? I know I’ve heard of it.” The rest of the country might be surging ahead on a wave of post-war prosperity, but Montana still feels like the rugged land of Zane Grey novels, an Old West inhabited by horsemen, wild mustangs and lonely shepherds.
Change is in the offing. South of Billings, a massive hydroelectric dam project will bring jobs, new services and modernity, but 50 miles of canyon will disappear when water rises behind the dam. Since part of the canyon lies on Crow Indian land, River Basin Surveys, under the auspices of the Smithsonian, has sent Catherine, an archaeologist, to look for any prehistoric sites that might be important enough to stop or postpone construction.
Harris Power and Light, the contractor for the dam project, has offered to furnish ground support for her survey, which strikes Catherine as a conflict of interest. Indeed, HP&L had pulled the strings to ensure that a 23-year-old female — a graduate student with scant experience and little knowledge of New World prehistory — was hired for this work in the first place. Soon enough, she realizes that she isn’t supposed to find anything.
Early on, she meets a man whose name is John H — people say the H might stand for “horse.” He and Catherine seem destined to come together, but Brooks is in no hurry to take his readers there. Events in the canyon play out fitfully, woven into a slow unfolding of John H’s history: Brought up in Maryland in the world of thoroughbred racehorses, he learned at a young age that “horses seem to regard him as natural kin.” He hops a freight west when he’s barely 14 years old; winds up in Montana, sheltered by a Basque sheepherder; takes up mustang-hunting; spends the war years in the U.S. Army cavalry — not the mechanized cavalry but a little-known unit hunting Nazis on horseback. Now in Montana he’s holed up in a stone hut that was a hideout for livestock thieves “back in the wild old days.” To make his living, he breaks horses for a family of sheepherders. On his own time, he hunts a certain young mustang stallion and paints horses in a way that unconsciously echoes ancient European cave paintings.
“Are you a cowboy?” Catherine asks him, and though he answers “nope” in a Gary Cooper drawl, he is, in fact, the iconic loner of classic Western novels.
Such novels are often elegiac, tinged with nostalgia, and there is both great beauty and muted sorrow in Brooks’s descriptions of the wild Montana landscape and John H’s vanishing way of life. “The walls angled pink and sheer on either side, the sky thin as a crack overhead. The gorge snaked and sidled like the forces of wind and water that carved it, twisting this way and that, its sandy floor littered with rocks calved loose and toppled from above.”
The novel is less assured, less persuasive, when it turns toward its heroine. Catherine is dauntless and a proto-feminist, if only by virtue of her work in a male-dominated field. Yet, as if to remind us of her femaleness, she frequently peers at her reflection and assesses her appearance — holds out her arms “like wings” as she examines her naked body in a shard of mirror. She worries about her jagged fingernails, her sunburned skin, her hair and how many sanitary napkins she will need when she heads out camping. She’s a veteran of the muck and mud of a London dig, but in Montana she hesitates to fill her canteen from a clear mountain spring.
Despite these odd missteps, “Painted Horses” vividly evokes an earlier time, a place and a way of being that is at the cusp of great change. In his gift for the language of horses and the culture of horsemen, Brooks will inevitably recall Cormac McCarthy. And like Ivan Doig in “Bucking the Sun,” he mines one of the darker veins in the mythology of the American West, the seam where “greatness gets built on destruction.”
Gloss is the author of several novels, including “The Hearts of Horses.” Her novel “Falling From Horses” will be published in October.
By Malcolm Brooks
Grove. 370 pp. $26