by Chris Hannan
Review by Hereward L. M. Proops
Have you ever read a Western novel? No, not western as in a novel written by an author living in the west, but a Western with cowboys and shootouts and swinging saloon doors. Unless you’re single, hopelessly male and certifiably insane, the answer is probably a resounding NO! With the exception of the books of Zane Grey and Willa Cather, they’re pretty awful. Turgid, one-dimensional characters, tired plots and ridiculous macho posturing all help to further damage the reputation of the ailing genre. Television shows such as Deadwood might be trying to resurrect interest in the Wild West but in all honesty, I think it more likely that sandals and socks will make a comeback in the fashion world before Western fiction becomes popular once more.
That is what makes playwright Chris Hannan’s debut novel so impressive. He seems to have achieved the impossible – he’s written a novel set in the American West of the 1860s that skilfully avoids the clichés of the genre. Hannan’s tale follows the misadventures of nineteen year-old “flash-gal” Dol McQueen and by focusing on the fallen women of the Wild West, he keeps gunfights and saloon brawls to a minimum, character taking precedence over action.
Dol, the book’s narrator, is an unapologetic, hard-drinking opium addict and part of her charm lies in the way she drinks, smokes and screws her way through the novel without giving a thought to the consequences. The main story sees her saving a grotesque pimp named Pontius and then her attempts to get her hands on the crate of opium (or “Missy”) that he possesses before a gang of murderous youths exact their revenge upon him. Though well-paced and full of lively incident, this main plot is not as interesting as the sub-plot which tells of Dol’s tempestuous relationship with her gin-swilling mother. Both women live in denial of their own addictions and Dol’s efforts to save her mother only serve to blind her to the squalor of her own existence.
Sounds heavy? It really isn’t. One of the strengths of the novel is Hannan’s ability to tell a serious tale through Dol without compromising her carefree voice. Unfortunately, towards the end of the tale Hannan makes some efforts to redeem his central character and this leads to a rather abrupt, navel-gazing conclusion that doesn’t do justice to the freewheeling energy, wit and pace of the rest of the book. This, however, is a minor grumble as it is the irrepressible spirit of Dol that stays with you long after the somewhat unsatisfying ending. Hannan’s debut breathes new life into a stagnant genre and does so with a sense of flair and confidence that elevates this to something more than the average yarn of the old west. Dol McQueen might not be the kind of girl you’d take home to meet your mother, but you’re guaranteed a good time in her company.
Hereward L. M. Proops