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Know the West

An author’s West of dreams and nightmares

Malcolm Brooks mingles romanticism with pragmatic realities.


Montana writer Malcolm Brooks spent part of his childhood in southern New Jersey, just across the river from Philadelphia, raised by a horse-loving mother who owned a huge palomino. His young parents, he says, had a “gypsy streak,” which led them to move across the country to California and then back again. Growing up, Brooks harbored the sort of cowboy dreams that seem to be strongest in those who weren’t born in the West. “All through childhood, I was enamored by the Wild West,” he says, “really interested in horses, even the Little House books.”

Brooks’ family moved to Orange County, California, when he was 10. He expected, he says, to encounter “a mythical place out of John Wayne movies. I remember being incredibly shocked that it was asphalt and concrete and subdivisions.” He decided then that if California wasn’t the “real” West, perhaps Montana would be.

Brooks’ eighth-grade teacher gave him a copy of Lonesome Dove, the book that inspired him to become a writer and further stoked his visions of an unfettered, open-range West. “I grew up in somewhat cloistered and often what in retrospect were pretty stressful circumstances,” he says, “and books were a lifeline for me, a direction for escape and, eventually, an exit strategy.” After high school in Northern California, he dropped in and out of college, learning carpentry to support himself. He didn’t settle into his studies until he was in his mid-20s, in 1995, when he moved to Missoula and earned an English degree at the University of Montana.

He had a natural flair for language and eagerly absorbed the work of contemporary Western writers: “I thought Tom McGuane was literally God, and Jim Harrison his right-hand man.” Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses “had me genuflecting, too,” he says. He read widely, thanks partly to his then-girlfriend’s job at a Missoula bookstore. “We didn’t have a television. All I did the first five years I lived in Montana was hunt, fish, read and work.”

But even Montana didn’t live up to the romantic notions he’d gathered from Field & Stream and novels like Legends of the Fall. “What I didn’t understand about Montana was how difficult it is to make a living if you’re dependent on the local economy, at least in the popular, populated mountain towns,” he says. “When I moved here, I knew McGuane had paid something like 70 bucks a month to rent a house in Livingston in the late ’60s, when he came to write and fish and hunt. I thought I was going to do the same thing, to the same extent, but that was pretty delusional.”

Brooks supported himself through remodeling work while he toiled on a manuscript for six years, and started to publish articles and stories in places like Outside and Montana Quarterly. “I’ve got four other complete novel manuscripts in addition to this that were test runs. I regard them as a part of the learning curve until I found my own voice and landed on an idea that I just felt absolutely had to go the distance.”

His first published novel, Painted Horses (Grove Press, August 2014), mingles Western romanticism with the author’s hard-earned knowledge of the region’s pragmatic realities.

In a captivating story largely set in the 1950s, Painted Horses follows Catherine, a young East Coast archaeologist hired to look for cultural artifacts whose finding might prevent the construction of a dam in a canyon near Billings that’s “fifty miles long and deeper than Satan’s own appetites,” according to one local. It soon becomes clear that the authorities don’t want her to discover anything. Catherine’s path intersects with that of Miriam, a young Crow woman, and John H., a journeyman painter, World War II veteran and horse trainer. With Miriam’s help, Catherine adapts, learning to read the land, “the most unruly, indecipherable tract of earth she’d ever seen,” much as the idealistic Brooks learned to adapt to the real-life conditions he encountered in the West.

“I wanted to write a book that had one foot firmly planted in the romantic myth of the West, but another foot in this much more complicated, much less glossy, reality of what the Western experience really was in all of its facets,” Brooks says. “The dark side of Manifest Destiny is around us everywhere, in human despair and crushed dreams and the toxic fallout even from realized dreams, on poverty-stricken reservations, in rampant diabetes, in the Berkeley Pit, in coal-bed development, in meth addiction. The West, like nature itself, has two different faces, neither of them really complete without the other.”