The western has all but vanished from movies and TV at a moment when it might seem that our schools and shopping malls are devolving into some looping mash-up of “Deadwood” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”
Such is not the case with the new mavericks of frontier-life fiction, who, emboldened by transformational writers such as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, are imaginatively connecting the dots between the trigger-happy pathologies of America in its pioneer infancy and the stand-your-ground excesses of a graying democracy as it appears to be lurching into second childhood.
The impossibility of any sort of childhood in a preternaturally violent society is one of the themes of James Scott’s bravura debut novel, “The Kept,” which combines the revenge tropes of a classic John Ford horse opera with the gender-shifting plot elements of contemporary genre novels exemplified by Amanda Coplin’s “The Orchardist” and Mary Volmer’s “Crown of Dust.”
Scott’s take on the Wild West is actually the Wild East, or rather rural upstate New York, a region that, in 1897, still seems stubbornly resistant to the civilizing developments spurred by the second Industrial Revolution.
The farmhouse that career midwife Elspeth Howell has shared with her husband, Jorah, and their five children is a six-hour walk to the nearest town, so far that, when Elspeth returns after several months absence plying her trade to find Jorah and four of their children riddled with bullets, there is ostensibly no one in earshot to come to her aid.
Relief of a punishing sort arrives in the guise of the massacre’s lone survivor, 12-year-old son Caleb, who, terrified and confused, lifts a shotgun and fires at a figure that turns out to be his mother. He tends to her wounds, half expecting a ghost to emerge: “He imagined her spirit like a wisp of smoke,” writes Scott, embroidering with a characteristically clinical ferocity, “but one with talons and teeth that it dug into her insides and the groan was those nails and teeth being dragged across her rib, her throat and her lungs as it fought to keep its place.”
And all this, mind you, in the first 20 pages.
A tumultuous fatalism informs the more than 350 that follow, as a grimly resuscitated Elspeth and a traumatized Caleb, vaulted by outrageous circumstance into premature adulthood, set out in the frigid dead of winter to track down and kill the family’s murderers.
After an all-too-brief respite from a kindly elderly couple who weathered a close scrape with the suspected killers, they wind up in Caleb’s birthplace, a hothouse of vice and denial where children making snow angels are easily confused with the dead bodies that periodically line the streets.
As they sniff out their targets, Caleb goes to work for a thuggish cathouse owner while Elspeth, in a perverse grab at wearing the pants in the family, adopts male disguise and takes a rugged job as an icehouse laborer.
There are two journeys at play here: that of an adolescent boy finding his true grit and that of a perennially absent mother getting a grip on her maternal center (mysteriously lax for a woman who has amassed a brood of five). Even though mother and son share the same objective, their odyssey seems to unfold in isolation from one another, a separation exacerbated by Elspeth’s emotional disconnectedness and her omnipresent sense of sinner’s guilt.
It is a testament to the author’s artisan-like control that he is able to tease us with the essence of Elspeth’s crimes from the outset and yet keep the terrible measure of her dereliction at bay until the final clinch, as breathless as it is inevitable.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version incorrectly stated the last name of the protagonist, Elspeth. It’s Elspeth Howell.