The epic Western novel has been absent from the forefront for a while, but the genre has never gone away (the meager offerings in big box bookstores notwithstanding). Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour have always been in print, and such stalwarts as “Tabor Evans” and George Gilman have kept the West alive on the mass market paperback racks since. Larry McMurtry, of course, has had an enviable list of Western bestsellers, while Cormac McCarthy has ushered the genre into the halls of academia. And an author named Elmore Leonard has had remarkable and greatly deserved success with both frontier and modern westerns.
"HARD COUNTRY is a true Western, but as with the best of literature, it transcends the boundaries of any particular label and stands on its own. There is action, suspense, romance, and even at one point a murder mystery. But its most compelling element is McGarrity’s storytelling ability..."
It was just about time, though, that an epic Western in the classic sense shoulder itself to the forefront of the public’s attention. HARD COUNTRY, the sprawling new novel by Michael McGarrity, fills that need, and then some. The book is divided into three sections and takes place in the American Southwest --- primarily the New Mexico territory--- between 1875 and 1918. The tale is thus book-ended by two horrific wars --- the Civil War of the 1860s and World War I --- and overlaps yet a third, the Spanish-American War. It is the story of the Kerney family, beginning with John, the Irish immigrant who wore union blue in the American Civil War and made his way to Texas on the promise of a better life. That life comes with hard and bitter strings attached. And so it is that on what is probably the most tragic day of Kerney’s life --- he loses his wife, brother and nephew --- he must give up his infant son while attempting to build a life for both of them.
Kerney’s travels and employment lead him to an encounter with Cal Doran. An incident shows each man the character of the other, and as a result they forge a friendship that will affect them both for the rest of their lives. Kerney eventually recovers his son, who is markedly changed by the hardship he has experienced during the first few and short years of his life. A great deal of the book follows Patrick Kerney from his childhood years to adulthood, as he slowly assumes the reins of the Double K cattle ranch, which his father and Doran established in southwestern New Mexico. HARD COUNTRY is also Doran’s story. Doran is somewhat of an enigma, but McGarrity drops a hint or two about certain aspects of his make-up. What is truly and surely revealed is that Doran is a man of his word and of strong character, an iconic Western figure if there ever was one.
The most interesting character, though, is the western territory itself: dangerous, beautiful and unforgiving, a place where fortunes can be made but where life can be lost in the blink of an eye. Indeed, it does not pay to become too emotionally invested in any particular character here. Anyone can die at any time; expect the unexpected in a world where nature is as dangerous as any hardened criminal.
HARD COUNTRY is a true Western, but as with the best of literature, it transcends the boundaries of any particular label and stands on its own. There is action, suspense, romance, and even at one point a murder mystery. But its most compelling element is McGarrity’s storytelling ability, which moves the narrative along at a stallion’s pace through its generous page count. Western aficionados will be more than pleased at what they find here, but anyone who is enamored with the joy of reading should pick up HARD COUNTRY as well. Additionally, fans of McGarrity’s fine series of Kevin Kerney novels will enjoy this marvelous account of Kerney’s ancestral backstory.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 11, 2012