By James Scott
There is resurgent interest in the western as a wellspring of authentic American voices. Charles Portis has risen from cult-writer status to that of literary master some 42 years after penning True Grit, mainly because a 2010 movie adaption captured the sweet naïveté with which he imbued his narrator, Mattie Ross. No conversation about Americana seems complete these days without reference to Cormac McCarthy, whose Border Trilogy serves as inspiration for countless contemporary writers. Each new iteration leaves the conventions of the genre further behind.
Scott’s first novel epitomizes what’s great in this renaissance: economy of dialogue; unsparing realism; the giddiness and terror induced by the knowledge of liberty. Scott has pushed the literal boundaries of the tradition—or rather, pulled them back—to the lawless reaches of western New York at the end of the 19th century. Here we meet 12-year-old Caleb Howell, survivor of a family massacre who fixes to hunt down the mysterious men who gunned down his father and four siblings. Travelling with him: his mother, Elspeth, who is wounded after stumbling into the aftermath of the killings. Caleb has nursed her back to health, but gradually learns that she carries an astounding packet of secrets.
There’s a blend of recklessness and preternatural wisdom to Caleb that recalls protagonists such as Mattie, or Eli Sisters of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. For him, as for them, the quest for blood evolves into a search for origin, and often the two conflate. At one point, Caleb sits in a brothel where he’s found work sweeping floors, pondering a painting on the wall that commemorates the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. “Burr’s pistol exploded in a cloud of gunpowder,” Scott writes, “and Hamilton’s chest bore a mortal wound, all at the same time. Caleb thought the painting captured the speed with which things happened.”
The analogy—a violent death woven into a nation’s young life—is hard to overlook. But Scott doesn’t pistol-whip us with it. It’s merely scenery in a journey during which a boy comes to understand the raw power of fear, and the random nature of fate. Aspirational notions like faith and rule of law might ease our anxiety; they indulge us in the fantasy that we can impose order on human events. But, as Caleb learns, they can only paper over the truth for so long.