As Bruce Holbert's new novel Whiskey unfolds, its time-hopping plot and the alternating comedic and horrifying misadventures of brothers Smoker and Andre bound across the Washington scablands and North Idaho mountains while remaining rooted — much like the author — in Grand Coulee.
His dad's family helped settle the town, and his mother's was among the many who arrived to work at the dam. And while Whiskey is anything but autobiographical, the sense of place that comes through is as vital to the two brothers' story as it is to Holbert's own life. And it's a place that would be damn near ideal if it weren't for the pesky humans and their tendency to screw things up.
"I feel like, in part, these characters are trying to erase themselves," Holbert says of Smoker and Andre, who juggle ex-wives, a hungry bear and the long-term implications of their volatile parents throughout Whiskey. "And in the end, they manage to. No one really recognizes them.
"There's a tendency for self-annihilation in the West, and in these characters. You go and you stand and you look at a beautiful vista, and you say, 'Man, this is almost perfect.' And what's the one thing that keeps it from being perfect? That you're here. Because that means someone else is coming, too."
Indeed, Whiskey is a novel of constant motion, a truly ripping yarn with Smoker and Andre chasing after Smoker's young daughter — disappeared at the hands of a religious zealot — while running from their own sordid histories of violence, drinking binges and bad decisions.
Andre is the more meditative of the two, a high school teacher trying to stay sober and keep his marriage alive, while Smoker is the impulsive rabble rouser as likely to exacerbate a problem as solve it. While they have each other's back in their hunt for Smoker's daughter, set in 1991, the brothers are rivals and fighters, too. They've been played off each other since childhood by their parents Pork and Peg, whose teen love story is told in vivid flashbacks.
The jumbled timelines of Whiskey do nothing to slow its propulsive narrative; indeed, the flashbacks to mama Peg's coming-of-age and evolution into a sexually aggressive, intimidating force to both her kids and ex-husband offer many of the book's best passages.
"At the beginning I'd written her as a male character, and about halfway through the story when she comes in, I thought, 'Goddamn, I'm tired of writing about men like this,' so I said, 'OK, let's make her a woman,'" Holbert says. "I thought she might end up more a traditional woman and come in and calm everybody else down, but instead, man, she just ripped it up. She's the catalyst for a lot of their responses to the world, this woman who is the most dominant character of the group. The rest of them have to respond to her in a way that is more interesting than the way I was heading."
With Whiskey, Holbert could be heading into a whole new level of literary success. It sure seems to be setting up that way for the 58-year-old who won the 2015 Washington State Book Award for fiction for his last novel, The Hour of Lead. The new book is coming out from a larger publishing house, MCD Books, and he has a new agent.
Holbert recently retired after three decades of teaching, most recently at Mt. Spokane High School, and lives in Nine Mile Falls with his wife, Holly. Holbert hopes he'll have more time to get involved with the Spokane literary community that he greatly respects but feels a little distanced from due to his years teaching and living on the outskirts of town.
"I had a full-time job that I took pretty seriously for 30-some years, I had kids and wanted to be involved in their lives as much as I could be," Holbert says. "My wife, she's put up with me this long, so I try to take care of her. She suffers from a congenital illness and sometimes that limits the things we can do.
"The other thing is, I'm a misanthropic bastard. Teaching school all day long, you've got to be on. At least the way I did it, you have to be kind of a standup comic all day long. Then you go home and, especially if you're writing, you just want a little air. So I don't get out as much socially as other people do."
Over coffee and an hour or so of conversation, in addition to calling himself a "misanthropic bastard," Holbert refers to himself as a "mutant" and talks about how "I'm big, and everybody thinks I'm crazy, so nobody argues with me" in talking about selecting readings for his high school kids back when he was teaching.
The humor that infuses much of his everyday conversation pulses through Whiskey and might have taken hold early on when one of his relatives introduced his impressionable mind to some thought-provoking books.
"I grew up in a trailer, and we moved around a lot and there weren't many books because they were heavy," Holbert says. "My grandma and grandpa, at their house, they had a bunch of old pulp noir books with the really racy covers. I tried to read them, the pictures were way more interesting than the words. My aunt Marge, though, she was a really good reader and she gave me a couple of books when I was too young to gather everything from them. I think she knew they would continue to feed me, so when I was about 10 she gave me Catch-22 and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. And she was right, I kept going back to them."
The manic energy and memorable characters in Whiskey aren't far off from those created by Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey in those classics. Whether the ability to craft such a winning tale soaked in from Holbert's precocious childhood reading or from his years studying at EWU, where he graduated in English, or earning his MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop, who knows?
What is certain is that Holbert's been working at his craft for decades, and the results arriving now in Whiskey are pretty incredible. He figures he started writing about the brothers Smoker and Andre about 15 years ago, "just a few scattered stories, and the characters kept reappearing." A couple of his grad school friends told him they wanted more, and he kept going back to the brothers in his work, and to their Grand Coulee stomping grounds.
Eventually, Whiskey started coming together, the characters and the landscape pushing his writing into directions he wasn't expecting when he started.
"I'll dive into something and just try to go where the juice is; you go where the juice is taking you. You can usually feel it, when you go there," Holbert says. "I don't have a plan, ever, because everything I plan turns out boring. I'm kind of like the old farmers who go out and they get in their truck and say they're going to drive and check the back 40, but really they're just driving around.
"Writing is that way for me. There are certain things that compel me, but I have to discover things along the way. If I don't, then I don't think people reading are going to discover a lot. That's the real joy of reading, to feel like you're discovering stuff as the writer does." ♦
Bruce Holbert: Whiskey reading • Wed, March 14, at 7 pm • Free • Auntie's Bookstore • 402 W. Main • auntiesbooks.com • 838-0206