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The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo

Review

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo

San Geronimo may sound like a fictitious name for a locale, but is in fact a real place. It is a little over 50 miles northwest of and a world away from somewhat better known San Francisco and is the setting for THE LAST COWBOYS OF SAN GERONIMO, Ian Stansel’s extremely impressive and eminently readable new novel. Set in the northern California of right now, it is one of those rare books that is relatively short (under 200 pages) yet seems much deeper and longer in all the best possible ways.

Stansel is known primarily for his short fiction, and his ability to set scenes and develop characters with a sterling economy of memorable prose serves him well in this story of the rough and ultimately fatal rivalry between two brothers. They would be Frank and Silas Van Loy, who, as a team running a horse boarding and riding business, were greater than the sum of their parts. The book opens with Frank dead by Silas’ hand, and Silas fleeing the scene on horseback, traversing the California woodland in what is little more than an ill-planned mad dash. Law enforcement is after him, but so is newly widowed Lena, Frank’s wife, who is intent on getting her own measure of revenge as she is accompanied by Rain, a young woman who has been the Van Loys’ trusted and revered stable assistant.

"You will read longer books than THE LAST COWBOYS OF SAN GERONIMO this year, but you will encounter few with characters, situations and prose that will stay with you the way that Frank, Silas and Lena, and their interactions, do from first page to last."

A series of flashbacks interspersed with the events of the present --- almost all of which alternate between Silas’ and Lena’s points of view and memories --- tell the reader what has gone before and where the parties are now, going non-linearly from Frank’s and Silas’ boyhood days through the present, as well as the courtship and marriage of Frank and Lena. It’s a dark tale, though not entirely so, until the uneasy partnership of the brothers is rendered asunder and made irrevocably so by reciprocal acts of all but unforgettable treachery.

Stansel sets the novel in front of the backdrop of the majestic northern California coast, letting the scenery function almost as a supporting character without interrupting the flow of the narrative. I was put in the mind of John Steinbeck’s “Flight,” not so much topically as stylistically. One senses almost from the first page that the book is going to end badly, but the story is full of surprises as we slowly learn how, and why, one brother came to murder another.

You will read longer books than THE LAST COWBOYS OF SAN GERONIMO this year, but you will encounter few with characters, situations and prose that will stay with you the way that Frank, Silas and Lena, and their interactions, do from first page to last. Even the incidental characters who weave their way into and out of the narrative will stand well within the edges of your peripheral consciousness once this tale is told. It’s a grim joy to read from beginning to end.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 7, 2017

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo
by Ian Stansel

  • Publication Date: July 4, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Western
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0544963393
  • ISBN-13: 9780544963399