There is an exchange between two characters in Malcolm Brooks’s extraordinary debut novel, “Painted Horses,” that epitomizes the surprising and satisfying depth of the characters. In the mid-50s, Catherine Lemay, a neophyte archaeologist, arrives in rural Montana to determine whether a remote canyon might have any cultural or historical significance that may prevent it becoming a future dam site. Knowing she needs a guide and ally, Catherine hires a young Crow woman named Miriam. On their first day in the canyon, Catherine awkwardly apologizes for her privileged background.
“[M]y parents have a notion that Englishness is somehow sacred . . . and buy a lot of grotesque furniture and Wedgwood pottery . . .
“Miriam shook her head. ‘Catherine, you’re going to have to get something straight. I never lived in a teepee. I can barely stand to eat venison . . . I don’t know what Wedgwood pottery is, but I’m sure I’d love to own some.’ ”
Admittedly, my first glimpse of the principal characters — archaeologist Catherine; John H, the mysterious horseman-artist; the menacing and malevolent mustang hunter, Jack Allen; and Max Caldwell, the gas station owner with the heart of gold — had me on the brink of an epic bout of eye-rolling.
Brooks, however, defies low expectations by supplying multiple layers of their emotional and psychological evolution. Brooks has fashioned compelling and sympathetic protagonists in Catherine, John H and Miriam, but he doesn’t make the mistake of simply presenting them to the reader whole cloth. They’re interesting because of the roads they travel to the present; Brooks is nothing if not ambitious in exploring those roads.
John H — orphan, rail rider, cowboy, World War II veteran, Paris artist, canyon hermit — in particular, has a backstory that is both intimate and sweeping in a way that may remind readers of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.” True, it’s necessary to suspend disbelief as the young Montana horseman and shepherd makes his way from the battlefields of Italy to the salons of Paris and back to Montana without raising the eyebrows of a single border patrol officer, but because Brooks is so careful in constructing multidimensional characters, he manages to pull it off. “Painted Horses” is, after all, one of those big, old-fashioned novels where the mundane and the unlikely coexist, where a scarcely trained archaeologist can find herself at the center of one of the potentially most significant finds in North America, where some of the most poignant moments take place at a town dance or trying to get service at a local café where Indians are not welcome, or where Catherine and John H finally come together through their shared obsession with the painted horses of the title.
When the story opens, Catherine’s nascent career as an archaeologist has taken an enormous leap forward because of her lucky inclusion in a post World War II dig that uncovers a Roman temple. She is barely across the state line when she first encounters John H. Their meetings grow with frequency and intensity as their mutual attraction and shared sense of mission intensify. Though their reasons differ slightly, both Catherine and John H are determined to derail the massive dam project, even though they know from the outset that the forces against them are overwhelming. While the first half of the book is heaving with the characters’ backstory, the story picks up speed and becomes a race against those determined to lay waste to the land’s past in order to build what they consider the glorious future.
Painted horses have different meanings for nearly every main character in the book. For John H, they harken back to the great Native-American horsemen of the plains. For Jack Allen, they represent a challenge and threat to his sense of order, and for Catherine, they are an important link to prehistory. One of the book’s great and unexpected moments occurs when John H’s lover in Paris, Elixabete, takes him to the French countryside. They arrive at the ruins of a chateau where they are guided into a cave and shown prehistoric paintings of wild horses . . . paintings that have an uncanny resemblance to John H’s own work. It’s a wonderful moment of illumination that is repeated in the novel when Catherine and Miriam make their own unexpected discovery.
The book’s greatest strength and success is that the characters don’t act simply to service the plot. They act like people. Their flaws as much as anything else push the story toward a sadly inevitable conclusion. When Miriam unwittingly betrays her friends, it’s because she’s simply a woman attracted to the wrong kind of man. When the long-awaited showdown between John H and Jack Allen occurs, it’s not ‘High Noon’ or any other overly romanticized Western scene. There is a touch of heroism about the protagonists, but they’re not superheroes endowed with powers that will save the last vestiges of the wild and natural West. In the end, it’s enough they could briefly experience it.Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.