Don’t be fooled by the length of Robert Garner McBrearty’s debut novella—at a mere 132 pages, The Western Lonesome Society includes enough intrigue to fill books twice its size. Characters battle mental illness, kidnappings and Comanches to find their way home after wandering across the wild and lonely American Southwest.
Full of lost souls, this absurdist Western thriller (perhaps the only one of its kind) is a trip through the human subconscious, alternating between three increasingly peculiar storylines. Anchoring it all is Jim O’Brien, a professor obsessed with committing his family history to paper. Two of his ancestors were abducted by Native Americans during a raid on their Texas cabin in 1870; Jim finds connection in the fact that he was also kidnapped as a child. All the characters, especially Jim, grope for purpose. But the professor’s vapid journal entries—“Spent night at Mesa Verde … Saw big wild turkey. Had fun playing football with boys”—suggest that he realizes the futility of his quest for greater meaning. And somehow, that is freeing: absurdism in miniature.
Chapters alternate between the kidnapped brothers’ adventures in the 19th century, the “Old West” part of the plotline; Jim’s own tale; and a third short story involving an escaped mental patient who moonlights as a stripper. In less-capable hands, the literary device known asmise en abyme—images within images, or stories within stories—can quickly become incomprehensible, but McBrearty cut his teeth crafting short stories for the North American Review and StoryQuarterly, among other publications. His taut narratives are composed with precision and spare imagery. (Don’t expect any grand descriptions of the Texas frontier; the closest contender is a riff on the seedy strip-club-lined underbelly of Austin.) That said, this is the kind of book that will attract fierce loyalists, but leave others scratching their heads. So,caveat lector: Though entertaining, the narrative requires intense concentration.
As the book accelerates to its conclusion, the stories—vignettes, really—become more bizarre, forcing the reader to decide what is real, and what are the ramblings of a delusional professor.
“We’ve all been taken—taken from our true home and it’s only a matter of getting back there!” Jim exclaims to his imaginary therapist. As long as the reader willingly suspends any expectation of realism, The Western Lonesome Society is a fascinating, hallucinatory trip down memory lane.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
The Western Lonesome Society
By Robert Garner McBrearty
132 pages, $14.95