The hero of Paul Howarth's blood-soaked debut novel, "Only Killers and Thieves," is a 14-year-old boy who can't do anything right, and that includes burying his dad. It's 1885 in the scrubland of Queensland, Australia, and Tommy has come home with his older brother, Billy, to find his parents murdered and his sister grievously wounded. At the spare funeral ceremony — no coffin, just corpses bundled in sheets — his grasp slips. "The body tumbled and rolled and the bedsheet unraveled, and Father lay exposed in the earth, bloated and white, riddled with a veiny fungus, ravaged by the flies."
Howarth is a Briton who lived for six years in Australia, but prose like that arrives direct from Cormac McCarthy's dusty Southwest: the rolling, Biblical run-on sentences, the evocations of violence, the suggestion that we clumsy humans are stupidly doomed to decline and death. Even so, Tommy is the stand-up guy in this Down Under Western. Because he can't do anything quite right, he's admirably out of step with the ruthless and racist world he has been thrust into. It's a world Howarth depicts artfully, although he also takes a discomfiting giddiness in the violence he has conjured up.
The Queensland setting is parched and expansive and feels overrun with Black Hats. Chief among them is John Sullivan, a rapacious squatter who forced Tommy's family into privation by secretly cutting off their water supply, starving their livestock. Supporting him is Inspector Edmund Noone, head of the region's Native Police, which for much of the 19th century deputized aborigines to effectively help exterminate themselves. Both men and their cronies never go wanting for a race-based justification for their actions.
"The only thing they understand is the gun," Sullivan opines. "You kill enough, they'll get the message."
"Remember Darwin: a species adapts or it dies," Noone says. "We must not allow them to adapt. If we take their land, their women, kill their men, sooner or later they will simply expire. It is science."
It's tempting to roll your eyes at the transparent bigotry in lines like these, as if Sullivan and Noone were twirling their mustaches, begging us to hiss at them. That simplicity weakens some central plot points. We're meant to believe that Tommy, naive but also alert and inquisitive, never really doubts that a native farmhand he respects murdered his parents. He's similarly credulous that his dying sister, a witness to the incident, will be treated by a doctor due to arrive, oh, any day now.
But Howarth is more nuanced when it comes to broader themes of power and masculinity. Although Billy is just two years older than Tommy, he embraces his role as the new family elder with gusto, staying close to Sullivan, attempting to keep up with his new cohort's drinking and shutting down his kid brother at every turn. "All I'm doing is seeing us through this," Billy insists. "We're minors. . . . They'd make us wards if they found us, put us in some lockup or Mission house, no better than the [expletive] blacks."
The heart of the novel is an expedition deep into the outback that's ostensibly a search for the murderer but is in fact a grotesque hunt for aborigines. The boys are forced to witness members of a native family captured, chained, raped and murdered. Howarth's language turns symphonically lurid at such moments: "The lightning crackled above them and the echoes of grunting and whip cracks came whispering through the ravine." Tommy is press-ganged into having a hand in the violence himself, of course, setting the stage for a redemptive third act.
Howarth is skilled at taking the old forms of the Western — the thrill of the chase, the Manichaean nonsense of "civilized" and "savage" — and reshaping them to address contemporary concerns. That's only fitting. Ever since John Wayne died, we've been well trained on how to question those old John Wayne tropes, which demonized Native Americans and lionized white privilege. The very title is designed to flatter this wisdom. It refers to the casual characterization of aborigines, but we're not far into the story before we know who it really refers to.
Like every Western, Howarth's spotlights how arbitrary frontier justice can be. But he also asks: How much less arbitrary is a purportedly civilized society? "Every law, every custom, every rule by which we live is made up by someone, conjured from thin air, then written down and by some sort of magic enacted into law," Noone says. "It is so malleable, Tommy." For the farm boy, it's as valuable a lesson as how to dam a river or how to fire a gun. As long as people are inclined to scapegoat, there'll be people who'll use the law to legitimize it. Tommy's heroism resides in his ability to pursue a more noble purpose. But the bloody, bullying milieu of Howarth's imagination reveals how difficult it can be to make that leap.
Mark Athitakis is the author of "The New Midwest," a critical study of the region's fiction.
By Paul Howarth
Harper. 336 pp. $26.99