By Colin Winnette
Two Dollar Radio
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Another milestone: the first western I've ever reviewed! Presumably, this is not your typical western. I don't read many and have no idea what the "mainstream of westerns" looks like. Haven't even cracked Lonesome Dove yet! So maybe I'm unqualified to review one, but who knows? The western has been associated with violence and moral ambiguity since Sergio Leone, and Cormac McCarthy's masterful Blood Meridian upped the ante for grotesque violence west of the Mississippi pretty severely. So maybe the violence and horror and all-around surreal weirdness of this book is something western readers have come to expect these days? I'm not sure, but if your idea of a western is "upstanding rancher defends his farmland against unscrupulous bandits," you're not gonna get that from this book. John Wayne wouldn't set foot in these woods. Instead, you get a mix of the anti-western, surrealism, and flat-out creepiness.
Unfortunately, it's hard to say quite what you will get without ruining a plot point. Granted, Winnette drops it in pretty early, but an early spoiler is still a spoiler. Suffice it to say that this book concerns a sibling team of bounty hunters, Brooke and Sugar, who have fallen onto hard times. Desperate for work, they slip into drifting and the sorts of spontaneous bursts of violence you'll find in Cormac McCarthy's novels. Not only does Winnette use a grim and stifling atmosphere similar to the likes of Blood Meridian, Outer Dark and the Road, he also writes in a stark prose style reminiscent of McCarthy without being too derivative and plays with themes like the cycle of and proclivity toward violence. These themes are especially embodied in the third character, Bird, who encounters the brothers as an amnesiac and leaves as... ah, but why spoil the surprise?
Like McCarthy, Winnette is also quite good with tone and atmosphere. I'd say the two factors were the strongest facets of this novel for me. He definitely creates a dangerous and terrifying world, one full of abrupt gunfights and gangs of cannibals, one ran by no rules; even the law of the jungle that tends to dominate novels of this persuasion gets flipped around here. While he doesn't hit spine-tingling heights, there are plenty of creepy motifs through this novel, including a recurring use of phantom limb syndrome and a minor character "whose hands were crisscrossed with scars he likely dug himself" (151). All the darkness, weirdness and so forth on display might not make it everyone's favorite book, but if you're a fan of blurbers Lindsay Hunter, Amelia Gray and Brian Evenson (as well as McCarthy, of course), you should be right at home here. I enjoy all three of these authors, and so I was along for Winnette's strange ride for a long time. Even the minimal prose worked for me; it had a haunted quality that I found suited its title. "Haint," for the curious," is an old-west term for "ghost." In these respects, it's easy to see why this has gotten so much acclaim.
Not everyone will be in love with the approach to plot, though. I know I wasn't happy with the last fifty pages, as the book seems to drag on for too long after its climax. The climax itself is quite well-executed and some of what Winnette sets up in the denouement is both necessary for another character's arc and compelling in its own right, but much of it simply struck me as unnecessary. Let's just say there are places where backstory doesn't belong. Bit of a shame that such a compelling and unique book should fall off like that, but at least I can soak in the strangeness of the first hundred-fifty pages.
Out of 10: 8.0