Paul reviews the Breath Like the Wind at Dawn by Devin Jacobsen.
This review was originally published on Bookends & Bagends in 2020.
|Series: N/A||Genre: Western, American Literature, Literary Fiction|
|Date of Publishing: June 1st, 2020||Trigger Warnings: Violence, Rape, Murder, Blood, Gore|
|Page count: 208||Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press|
Spanning two decades, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn tells the epic story of the Tamplin family—of outlaw-twins Quinn and Irving; their brother Edward, who is on the run from a dark past; and their mother Annora, who has been left to defend their haunted Minnesota homestead. Yet at the center of the novel is Les, patriarch of the Tamplins, Civil War veteran, and sheriff of Utica, who is possessed by an indelible lust to strangle his victims. Only when the brothers set about to rob Utica’s bank will the family at last converge in an unforgettable finale when blood will be met with blood.
Combining the multi-perspective family drama of As I Lay Dying with the violent lyricism of Blood Meridian, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn brings a brave new voice to American fiction.
It’s a bit of a lazy choice, but I think it fits.
Breath like the Wind at Dawn isn’t my usual read; it doesn’t fit within my preferred genres, nor does it operate within any parameters of prose to which I am accustomed.
It is the type of book, however, that I do want to read. Having devoured The Road and True Grit within the past year, I had developed a simmering hunger for more Western Americana.
This novella takes place both during and in the aftermath of the American Civil War, though this gangrenous period of American History is not the focal point. This is not a war story, or at least not in the traditional sense.
The war here takes place within and without the Tamplin brood, a family tree with rotten roots and blight-blackened branches. Self-perpetuating ripples of hatred and violence telegraphed down the familial line like ripples cast from a river-tossed corpse.
To open the book is to pierce the Earth’s mantle and strike immediately a vast pocket of oil. Language explodes through the crust in thick black gouts, relentless and primal.
Devin Jacobsen’s use of language is phenomenal and quite unlike anything I have yet read. It is dark, visceral, and evocative writing delivered with an authentic ornery bite.
“Again a pseudonight palled the miserable activity, causing friend to fire on friend or soldier against captain and the struck to retaliate. The ground in constant paroxysm sending up like April shoots generations of worms twitching and quickening. Many were trampled; those who weren’t were often shot while attempting to extricate themselves from traps of viscera.”
At times it reads as some kind of esoteric poetry dripping in simile and metaphor. The bulk of the story is delivered through streams of consciousness, awareness, and perception rather than dialogue.
What dialogue there is, is caustic and bitter, smeared in humour as thick and as dark as molasses.
“One I saw a man stride his horse so high his fetlocks reached his muzzle. Round and round they went, cavorting, a hilarious smile so wide an eagle’s nest could fit inside. Tipping his hat to the bewildered applause.
Whether he or someone else had trained the mare to prance that way he would not say despite my plying. So I beat him and stole his horse.”
These characters have been nailed firmly to the darker extremes of the morally grey spectrum. They are not root-able nor redeemable, all existing within their own cesspit of self-satisfaction and greed. This gives a glorious sense of schadenfreude as they invariably implode and receive their comeuppance.
The exception, perhaps, is the matriarch, Annora. Her story is one likely to cause issues for readers as it is harrowing in the extreme. Domestic abuse, rape (not graphic but implied) and a deep unsettling environment of misogyny.
“Therefore I leave you the greatest of presents any wife can be left by her husband: hatred of my return and wishing me far away where you will never hear the sting of my tongue or feel the bite of my hand, thus granting you freedom to do and say what you wish.”
Many of the strengths of the novella could also be classed as weaknesses.
The narrative, for all its richness, frequently swings from what feels like lucidity to mania. Some passages feel dense and hard to penetrate. In contrast, others are effervescent and dissolve in mind the moment they are read.
Characters feel at times little more than beasts, loosely conjoined strokes of barbarity, bound by abandonment issues, and motivated by avarice and gnawing hate.
Perhaps of them all, Les has the most fleshed-out character, and for being a serial strangler, his chapters are incredibly engaging – unsettlingly so.
Breath like the Wind at Dawn is not going to be for everyone, whether it be because of the non-traditional writing style or traumatic themes.
But if you are not turned away by these issues, you are in for an intense and uniquely lyrical experience, made all the more impressive for it being a debut.