For his third novel, Bruce Holbert returns to the hardscrabble territory of central Idaho, where he lives, and has set two previous outings, “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hours of Lead,” winner of the Washington State Book Award. “Whiskey” is a family story, told across three different timescapes, of violence, addiction and, among the fractures, love.
The primary thread of the tale is that of Andre and Smoker White, half-Indian brothers residing in the Columbia River territory near the Colville Indian Reservation and the Grand Coulee Dam. It’s the early '90s and together they go in search of Smoker’s wife, who disappeared with their 10-year-old daughter. Their violent search reveals she been turned over to the care of a backwoods religious fanatic. While that is the driving narrative, “Whiskey” flashes back and forth among this and two other time periods, where we see the courtship of the brothers’s parents, Pork and Peg (beginning in the '50s), as well as Andre’s relationship with his wife, Claire, starting when they meet as schoolteachers in the '80s. Twists and turns inhabit all three time periods, with similar themes of hardship, betrayal and alcohol linking them.
Holbert writes beautifully. The way he evokes the spirit of the landscape his characters traverse, and the dignity of their efforts to stay alive — even when those efforts involve questionable decisions in the face of necessary conflict resolution — bring to mind the excellent work of writers like James Lee Burke or Jim Harrison. For example, this passage, detailing one of our primary character’s visit to the family homestead, carries all the weight and artfulness Burke employs when sharing images from his bayou landscapes, applied here to rural Idaho:
“Ten miles of washboarded gravel and they met the driveway gate: three boxed logs with the family brand burned into a flat piece of driftwood that dangled from the center pole. A bird trilled. A lark of some kind, Andre guessed though he wasn’t sure. Smoker spent most autumns at the place getting his venison and a freezer full of birds to feed him and Dede through winter. Andre, though, visited the place only holidays. His father was more stubborn than most men, but he wasn’t a god. Pork would die and the place would fall to Andre and Smoker and they would lease the ground to a bigger rancher who would farm it and leave the house to collapse on its concrete foundation. Someone would scrounge the good in it — the stove, some clean timber — then set a fire. Springs, the grass would renew itself and the locusts would green up and the foundation would turn into one more concrete crypt visited by crows and wandering cattle. Outside, the bird spoke again and Andre listened. Separating a lark’s song from a sparrow’s cheep was something he might have managed once. Though he’d never been taught the difference, he should have had it in him to know.”
The criticisms I have of the novel are few. Sometimes the time changes were a bit jarring, as the narrative shifts gears from period to period, and I would lose track of what was happening. It also took some time for me to get a grip on who the characters were by name, what their relationship was to each other, and minor details like that. I don’t know if this is a problem with the writing or more the result of late night reading in bits and pieces through a frazzled attention span.
Quibbles aside, “Whiskey” is a perfect contribution to the canon of rural, blue-collar folk wading through hardships to make a go of it in the world. Fans of Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Woodrell should take particular note.