‘Haints’ con­jures Old West’s vi­o­lence, fear

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Jim Ruland Ruland is the au­thor of “For­est of For­tune.”

Haints Stay

Colin Win­nette

Two Dol­lar Ra­dio: 212 pp., $16 pa­per

In his as­ton­ish­ing por­trait of Amer­i­can vi­o­lence, “Haints Stay,” Colin Win­nette makes use of the Western genre to stun­ning ef­fect. But this isn’t a chummy oater penned by the likes of Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. Win­nette’s fron­tier feels more Homeric.

“Brooke took the curv­ing blade then and ap­plied it to the neck of yet another man, open­ing him up like a coin purse and spilling his con­tents onto the blan­kets and bun­dles be­fore him,” Win­nette writes early in the novel.

Brooke and Sugar are killers for hire who self-iden­tify as broth­ers (though the up­roar Sugar causes when he dis­robes in a bath­house calls his gen­der into ques­tion). Brooke har­bors no doubts about his sib­ling’s sex, but his views re­gard­ing fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships can be char­i­ta­bly called mis­guided:

“The truth was they had plenty of fathers, but that wasn’t what peo­ple meant when they said fa­ther. They had that kind of fa­ther too, the kind that gave Sugar his thick hair and Brooke his crooked nose. There was a sin­gle man re­spon­si­ble for the husks of both broth­ers, only no one knew which man he was or had been and Brooke and Sugar did not care for them to.”

Brooke and Sugar are adept at caus­ing chaos wher­ever they go, which typ­i­cally takes the shape of griev­ous bod­ily harm for whomever crosses their path. This changes, al­beit briefly, when a young boy, naked and afraid, ap­pears in their camp. He can re­call lit­tle of his ori­gins ex­cept for a vague sense that some ter­ri­ble evil has be­fallen his fam­ily. The killers name him “Bird,” but af­ter a few days in the com­pany of the mur­der­ous duo Bird be­gins to sus­pect that this ter­ri­ble evil may very well be Brooke and Sugar.

Win­nette’s fifth novel in as many years bears re­sem­blance to Pa­trick de Witt’s “The Sis­ters Broth­ers,” which also fea­tures odd but charis­matic killers, and both novel so we a debt to Charles Por­tis’ “True Grit.”

Win­nette’s vi­sion is darker, and his knack for tap­ping into scenes of pri­mal fear and poetic vi­o­lence serves as an in­dict­ment of our species’ base na­ture and worst in­stincts. Blood­shed begets blood­shed, but “Haints Stay” lingers on the trauma of the af­ter­math and ex­plores the un­in­tended con­se­quences of vi­o­lence. This is es­pe­cially true when the nar­ra­tive leaves the broth­ers be­hind and fol­lows Bird’s per­ilous path be­tween the bru­tal wilder­ness and what passes for civ­i­liza­tion.

A “haint” is a col­lo­quial term for ghost, but per­haps the rest­less spirit here is the novel’s shift­ing per­spec­tive, which moves from char­ac­ter to char­ac­ter like a vul­ture flit­ting from corpse to corpse. When Bird is asked if he be­lieve in ghosts, he replies that he does. “Be­cause it is bet­ter to be­lieve in them and never see one than not to be­lieve in them when one de­cides to set upon you.”

As a coun­ter­mea­sure to all this death and deprav­ity, Win­nette in­tro­duces a widow, an or­phan and a new­born who col­lec­tively serve as the best hope for hu­man de­cency. Although “[s]he did not like killing things,” the widow is de­ter­mined to pro­tect the baby be­cause “there was al­ways the pos­si­bil­ity that [Brooke] was evil in­car­nate and that the things he was de­ter­mined to do with that baby would not re­ward imag­in­ing.”

While the novel flouts most of the con­ven­tions of the tra­di­tional horse opera, the re­wards of “Haints Stay” be­long to the reader.

Pho­to­graphs from Two Dol­lar Ra­dio

dark vi­sion taps into our worst in­stincts.

COLIN WIN­NETTE’S

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