Bruce Holbert knows his books have a reputation for violence and darkness.
When reminded that his previous book, the Washington Book Award-winning novel “The Hour of Lead,” featured a character who chopped his own leg off with an ax – intentionally - Holbert smiled.
“I’m not saying it’s undeserved.”
There’s violence, too, in his latest book, “Whiskey,” which comes out Tuesday from Farrar Straus Giroux. But in Holbert’s mind, it’s violence of a different variety.
“The violence in this book is more emotional violence, and the darkness is more dark comedy,” said Holbert, 58, who recently retired from Mt. Spokane High School after a 30-year teaching career. “These two guys spend a lot of time whistling past the graveyard. They know they’re in a screwed-up situation and they don’t have any signposts out. … I think this book is pretty funny.”
“Whiskey” tells the story of two brothers raised around Grand Coulee Dam. One, Andre, is a teacher in the midst of a crumbling marriage. Smoker is unsettled, and when his girlfriend takes their daughter and runs off with Harold the Preacher and his no-good son, the brothers head out in search of the girl. Their travels take them to Spokane and Metaline Falls, Wenatchee and the shores of Lake Roosevelt. The book’s structure jumps back and forth, and is centered on three repeating time frames. “Genesis” centers on the boys’ parents, Peg and Pork. “Lamentations,” set in the 1980s, tells the story of Andre and his wife, Claire. Exodus is set in 1991 as the brothers search for the missing girl.
Andre and Smoker are composites of the guys Holbert grew up with – guys with “comic/tragic elements in their lives, and I think that’s common with a lot of the people I grew up with.”
There’s also a little autobiography there, too.
“Andre … he comes more out of my fears, and Smoker comes more out of how I wish I was. Smoker does real well in that old Western thing, and Andre doesn’t because he’s too sensitive. There are times when I wish I did better in that world.
“The flip side, and one of the things I try to get at for Smoker, is that he does really well in that world but he has no soul.”
There’s a bear, too, that the boys encounter near downtown Spokane – a anecdote based on a real incident from the 1980s. Holbert recalls hearing about the commotion on the radio as he traveled back to Cheney from Grand Coulee while he was in college.
The time he saw a naked woman walking down the street? That found a place in the book, too. Of course that was in Grand Coulee, he said. “Grand Coulee is a weird place.”
Weird or not, it’s a place Holbert knows well. He grew up in and around Grand Coulee, and graduated from high school there. His father’s family homesteaded a ranch across the Columbia River from the Colville Indian Reservation. His mother’s family moved there to work on the Grand Coulee Dam during the Great Depression. They may not have always lived in Grand Coulee, but was very much home base.
And it’s the kind of place that leaves a mark. Holbert has a vivid memory of himself as a 3-year-old, in his dad’s arms and looking over the spillway of the dam. He dropped the bottle he was drinking from and watched it plummet 550 feet over the spillway to the river below. He quit drinking from a bottle after that.
In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly called “Whiskey” a “violent, gruesome, and beautiful tale that, despite its despondency, is perversely winning.” A starred review by Kirkus made a not-uncommon correlation between Holbert and Cormac McCarthy: “Like Cormac McCarthy, another bard of the modern West’s brutality, Holbert finds beauty and cruelty in the land, in the tease and punch of eloquently elliptical dialogue, and in the way humans struggle for love, self-knowledge, and a grip on life that won’t just burn their fingers.”
That sense of place runs deep in Holbert’s work, and that place is Eastern Washington. His debut, “Lonesome Animals,” was set in the 1930s in the Okanagan country. “Hour of Lead” ranged from the Palouse to the scablands of central Washington.
“In a way maybe the three books could be a trilogy, because place evolves in each. The first book it’s pretty raw, the second book it’s settling down and with this one it’s settled down more than the people are,” Holbert said. “Certainly with the first two books you could say, ‘OK, he’s written about a certain time,’ and I say (“Whiskey”) is less about a certain time and more about how things are.”
The chapters are episodic because that’s how they were written – as short stories.
“The characters just kept occurring in the stories. There were times when I’d say, ‘I’m tired of writing about these guys,’ then they’d show up,” Holbert said. “And they’re still showing up. I’m working on a collection of short stories and Crazy Eddie (the brothers’ bartender friend) shows up.”
Some of the pieces of “Whiskey” date back 20 years, and pretty much all three of his first novels were written simultaneously.
“Because I taught school and raised kids and had a wife I liked to spend time with, I wrote a lot on the margins,” he said, adding that he would go where the energy led. “If I was frustrated with this book, I would go and work on ‘Hour of Lead,’ and back and forth.”
And while the story is centered on the two brothers, the character who fueled the writing, Holbert said, was their mother, Peg, a woman who is tough, selfish, cruel and not the least bit maternal.
As Holbert was writing the first stories that would become “Whiskey,” Peg was a man. But he quickly realized he was tired of writing about that kind of man.
“Holy smokes. She took over the book, the torque,” he said. “She uses her sexuality as a club. She doesn’t apologize for anything. And everybody else at one point or another is roadkill. She just runs over them.”
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