Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Ever notice in western or gangster movies that one shot from a pistol will remove an insignificant character from a gun fight, whereas it takes ten or twelve shots (and maybe two to the head) to finish off one of the major characters? And that the most malefic character of all seems invulnerable to dozens of bullets flying about while those around him are dying like flies? Those same phenomena occur in The Winter Family, a curious western of practically pointless violence, featuring a gang of psychopathic killers having virtually no socially redeeming characteristics, who follow their eponymous leader, Augustus Winter, through perilous scrapes with the confederate army, Apaches on the war path, various law men, the Pinkertons, and the U.S. Cavalry.
You might infer from the introductory paragraph that I did not enjoy the book, but that would be wrong. The book is full of action, and the writing is pretty good. You even get to sympathize with, if not like, one or two of the members of the gang as they begin as bummers for General Sherman in his “March to the Sea.” (“Bummers” was the nickname given to Sherman’s soldiers who were assigned to requisition food from Southern homes on the route of the march, and who became notorious for looting and vandalism.) They then sign on as political enforcers in a Chicago mayoral election, serve as bounty hunters chasing Geronimo, and meet their (not especially tragic) ends trying to help one of their own escape from prison.
If Quentin Tarentino had written a western, it would be The Winter Family, which resembles “Reservoir Dogs” in mood and structure. One difference is that Tarentino’s characters never try to justify their senseless sadism. Near the end of the book, Winter muses on his life and sees it as an epic protest against civilization, which he deems “meaner than me….And it’s never going to die.” Maybe Jackman should have stuck with gratuitous mayhem.
But in the end, it all comes down to a confrontation between two monstrously competent killers—one outlaw, one Pinkerton—neither particularly virtuous, but both preposterously lethal. I won’t ruin the ending other than to say it is quite artful.
Evaluation: If you don’t mind a story that is “brutal” and “extreme” as one reviewer described it, you will find the book keeps you turning the pages.
Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, 2015