By David Nilsen
The Old West of Colin Winnette’s newest book is one denuded of the romance of American goodness, the country’s self-myth of inherent decency and indomitable success. There is little of either in Haints Stay. The book instead reads like a note pinned to a body dragged out of the wilderness, an inscription on a bloody stone slab telling an Old Testament tale of violent brothers, gangs, cannibals, near-feral children, and wild, whispering beauty. It is Cormac McCarthy interpreted by a depressed Quentin Tarantino.
The book tells the story of two brothers, Brooke and Sugar, contract killers who wander the dusty and lawless towns of the western American territories looking for people in need of killing and the people who need them killed. They have little to no code for this line of work; they have and will kill anyone if payment is tendered. They are stunted and fractured men, abounding in courage and competence and utterly lacking any compass for their use. They are the products of a moral and physical ecosystem that has reproductively rewarded a violent lack of empathy. It is revealed over time they have survived horrors and have conquered the aftermath within them by becoming greater horrors themselves. We don’t know this right away. They are introduced as our protagonists.
Weaved into the story of these brothers is that of Bird, a young boy who has either no memory of his past or a tremendous capacity to maintain testimony to that end. Bird enters the company of Brooke and Sugar, orbits them a short time, and in these brief days survives a stampede, an attempted murder, and a run-in with a mountain cannibal. He exits their gravitational pull in possession of only one of his arms and measurably less faith in humanity. His mind and spirit, heretofore almost mythically pure, begin to splinter along the same fault lines Brooke’s and Sugar’s must have so many years before. He is taken in by good people and sojourns with them a time until violence catches up with his new family and he must again enter the wilderness, this time with a girl his age, Mary, and their unofficial mother, Martha.
“Between each of the towns was pure wilderness, and what came bearing down upon civilization was beyond imagination, for most. He’d seen plenty, but he was still capable of surprise. He was not hardened to a measure of awe and respect for what the wilderness was capable of producing. Snow was bearing down upon him. Snow was obscuring the rocks and shrubs and horizon. The stream was still undeniably at his side, but if the snow kept up it would freeze and get buried with the rest. Brooke was now of the mind that once a thing began there was no use in expecting it to end any place short of total devastation.” – page 164
Brooke and Sugar are separated. Bird and Mary are separated from Martha. Bird and Mary grow close, and then they grow distant. Identities are masked and blurred, love is feigned, love is given where it ought to be feigned, and just enough justice crawls from the dust at the end of the book to maintain its legend in the absence of its ongoing existence. A whole lot of people die. Haints Stay is less about a way of life and the origin of a civilization than about the survival of a species, nature red of tooth and claw, human beasts burdened with a new organ called conscience and clumsy with its use. There is goodness, but it survives like scrub plants in a desert that stretches out of sight.
In any western that understands itself, the landscape is as much a character in the story as the human beings that populate it, and this is certainly true of Haints Stay. Winnette accomplishes something impressive in his handling of geography here; the book maintains in balance the limitless expanse of the West and the claustrophobic borders of a life that can only be traveled on foot. There are theoretically no boundaries to where these characters can travel and escape. The scope of the territory open to them is overwhelming. Realistically however the world before internal combustion was necessarily pretty small for most. Characters here wander for days under an endless sky and only succeed in reaching towns where they are still known more than they wish to be. When a story’s setting is relatively small, coincidence is given more chips to play with. Winnette does a remarkable job of invisibly limiting the scope of his setting while still giving the reader the enormity of a continent before borders.
Haints Stay is a bleak, bloody affair. Humanity lives in its pages, but a humanity of wartime, of survival, of instinct. There is grace, but it is snow on the wind. There is a particular brand of readers who might find heroes in this book where they ought not, permission where they should find prophecy. This is not a love song to some lost American masculinity. This is the endgame for an American masculinity granted its terrifying wishes. That the book works so well both as entertainment and reflection makes it one that deserves to stick around and reach an audience. Read it soon.
Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay from Two Dollar Radio is available now at Greenville Public Library.