The American West is dead. After 20 or so years of western expansion came the Hallows leaving the western frontier a wasteland beyond Omaha. This is the world that Court Merrigan created in The Broken Country: Being the Scabrous Exploits of Cyrus & Galina Van, Hellbent West during the Eighth Year of the Harrows, 1876; with An Account of Mappers, Bounty Hunters, a Tatar, and the Science of Phrenology (Beat to a Pulp). Yes, that is the complete title, all thirty-five words not including the ampersand. But why did Merrigan choose such a long title? Merrigan’s The Broken Country is narrated in the third-person with the writer firmly planted in the late 1870s when book titles like George Doud Freeman’s Midnight and Noonday: Or, The Incidental History of Southern Kansas and the Indian Territory,: Giving Twenty Years Experience on the Frontier . . . and Incidents Happening in and Around Caldwell, Kansas and Custer’s General Custer Indian Fighter: My Life On The Plains, Tenting On The Plains, Following the Guidon, & Boots & Saddles existed. Even the cover, beautifully designed by dMix, is based on a 19th-century drawing and, if you look closely, instead of the phrenological sections being “scientifically” named, dMix added a map of the American West. I bring up the craziness of the entire cover, title and all because this is how this is all part of Merrigan’s gentle introduction into his hallowing world, a world like no other.
Some 250 words into the review of Merrigan’s book and still no words of comfort on what the story is about or even if The Broken Country is any good. On the latter, never fear, this book is astounding, the fact that more people are not talking about The Broken Country’s aesthetic and Merrigan’s achievement is shameful. And regarding the former, the novel begins with Cyrus entering an inn, killing the innkeep, and raping the serving girl Galina. At this point, the reader realizes that The Broken Country is a no-holds bar novel that is equally beautiful as it is grotesque. Chapter Two introduces to twin brother and sister Atlante and Delsin, children of a mapper who before the chapter’s end watch their father get eviscerated. On second thought, maybe there is no Beauty in this novel.
The cast of characters beyond the four mentioned above could have all been ripped from an amalgamation of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and from the darkest alleyways of Gotham. Hal is the leader of a group of disparate bounty hunters, but he is also a man of God and science, frequently judging people they encounter by reading their skulls with phrenology.
But there is Beauty in the novel and it is found in Merrigan’s prose. How Merrigan co-opts a writing style some hundred years old and makes it his own is quite an accomplishment. There were many times I had to use a dictionary in reading The Broken Country and more often than not the word would be tagged with the antecedent historical.
Cyrus wakes to see the smith staggering from the hearth, throat blooming blood. Cyrus leaps from the hammock, grabs a heavy iron bar, brains the smith. When he’s prone Cyrus gives him a few more wallops. He and Galina stand over him cold footed.
“You didn’t hear him coming at me?” says Galina, holding a blooded penknife.
“Shit,” he says. “You ought to keep me in your loop some, woman.”
“I thought I did.”
Cyrus spits. “Pennyroyal bastard ran his yap too much anyhow.”
At dawn Galina finds a new pair of women’s riding breeches in a sappy pine box. She pulls them on and asks if it is true, if they are bound for Omaha.
“Like I said,” says Cyrus. “I thought on it some. I ain’t ever got a straight shot in this country.”
“Anyone coming after you? For them straight shots you never got?”
He looks at her sharply. “They ain’t doing much of a job if they are.”
“So, Omaha. Then what?”
“I was born out west. Pa died in the Harrows when I was still a squirt and we hoofed it back east like everyone else. Now I’m headed west to get back what’s mine.”
Midway through my reading of Merrigan’s The Broken Country, I knew I was reading something special, a book of imagination, neither dystopian or alt-history, but one unbridled of any genre and washed across the desolate Western landscape. Merrigan attains something most writers only dream about with The Broken Country, he has created some unique and original. Not only will this book be on my Top Ten for 2017, it may even be entering my re-read pile along that includes Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Kosińsk’s Being There, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro among others.