All Looks Quiet on the Western Front: A Review of Robert Garner McBrearty’s ‘The Western Lonesome Society’

UnknownThe discovery of NetGalley has led me to some books which I otherwise would never have encountered and one of these is ‘The Western Lonesome Society’ by Robert Garner McBrearty, published in September. It is  described as a “quixotic, hilarious, over-the-top Western’ and what person in their right mind doesn’t love the word “quixotic”?

‘The Western Lonesome Society’ is a very peculiar book, with several stories interwoven; Jim O’Brien is ostensibly the protagonist, seeking the retell the story of his ancestors who were kidnapped and raised by the Comanche, whilst also pondering his own childhood kidnapping. Jim fantasises about the potential rewards of telling these separate but interconnected stories, while other tales also intrude upon the narrative; a (deliberately terrible?) story written by one of his students, as well as his own journal of a long-ago family holiday.

For me, the most compelling of these strands is the Comanche kidnapping in 1870; brothers Tom and Will are taken by the tribe and adopted by the warrior, White Crane, with each boy reacting very differently to their circumstances. The struggle between the settlers and the Comanches, exemplified through this microcosm, provides the most interesting passages of McBrearty’s short novel (I read it in one sitting).  Both the short and long-term consequences of the taking of the boys create tremendous dramatic thrust.

It is evident from the outset that Jim is not the most reliable story-teller; the “shadowy” therapist to whom he unloads his neuroses is clearly imaginary, making Jim’s self-doubt all the more evident as even the counsellor he invents is uninterested in the major points of Jim’s anecdotes. These sections are comedic, with Jim claiming the “damaging effect” of his childhood experiences and even the therapist he has created questioning his qualifications to make such an assessment. The novel progresses and one is forced to question just how many of Jim’s exchanges take place in his mind  As Jim unravels further, the novel’s structure and mixture of narratives becomes more complex, but with a satisfying conclusion of the most interesting plot lines even as Jim’s paranoia seems irreconcilable with reality.

‘The Western Lonesome Society’ is a really entertaining read; it contains both moments of humour and action sequences which grab the attention.  McBrearty successfully incorporates elements of the modern novel with the Western tradition, creating a novel which is rich in imagery and incident.

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