Remember Tommy Lee Jones’ stand-out performance in The Fugitive, when he romps through the ‘warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse’ speech? An American Outlaw feels like a full-length novelisation of that moment; a relentless pursuit among the sun-scorched mountain trails and dirt tracks of west Texas with a committed US marshal tracking a fleeing trio after a bank raid goes horribly wrong…
Except An American Outlaw has considerably more depth to it than this quick synopsis suggests. It’s written in stylised ‘modern Americana’; stripped back descriptions and short sentences which verge on terse, but which perfectly capture the landscape of highway diners, remote hill cabins and dusty border towns with snoozing lawmen. The dialogue is similarly sparse and sharp; the drawl almost oozes off the page in some places.
The action takes place in the here-and-now when a group of ex-Marines stage a series of robberies. Things get wildly out of shape within the first couple of pages – making the opening chapter a rip-snorting read indeed. We follow one of the robbers, Gil, a veteran of the second Gulf War as he scrambles across the Texas landscape trying to evade a full-scale manhunt and make sense of what’s happened to his men-at-arms. Much of the plot revolves around Gil’s loyalty to his friends and their families, and the complex relationships between them. The core of the story examines the oh-so serious issue of how society looks after its returning soldiers when the war no longer needs them – but the author doesn’t let that subtext overwhelm the fast pace of the ongoing action.
So An American Outlaw is no Mickey-and-Mallory killing spree: there’s far more to the story than the obligatory helping of guns, trucks and feisty backwoods women. Additional characters enter the narrative as the net tightens and we discover the personal history which motivates the robbers. The author reveals a little more each time the action pauses and this gives the novel its solid moral centre – one reflected in the eventual outcome and the fate of the key characters. It’s not perfect, mind; some of the minor characters are so sketchily drawn that I had trouble telling them apart, and the pace of the plot is a touch too relentless. A couple of more contemplative / descriptive passages would have heightened the tension in the set-piece encounters and the narrative would have benefitted from a change in rhythm and tone here and there. For this book is entirely relentless – and this is very well realised – you almost feel the gritty exhaustion of the fugitives after several days in hiding; bleeding, surrounded and fresh out of alternatives…
An American Outlaw aspires to be a great American novel, and it almost makes the grade – which is a considerable achievement for an independent author and a first novel to boot. It very much has the sense and style of a 21st century western, right down to the traditional ‘good man doing bad things for the right reason’ motif. If you enjoy Cormac McCarthy or Jim Thomson then this is easily worth the cover price.
Available as an ebook at Amazon.
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