The Wintering Place by Kevin McCarthy

The Wintering Place by Kevin McCarthy

Five words or phrases to describe McCarthy’s The Wintering Place: Raw, Disturbing, Visceral, Emotionally Invasive, Riveting. This is a novel for fans of Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy, readers who enjoy (perhaps with grimacing faces) the feel of dirt under the character’s nails, an odor of decaying blood lingering and fetid, the kind of novel that settles a deep chill in your bones and in your soul. The Wintering Place is a novel about resilience and survival and the cost of that survival on the human soul.

The novel is set in the 1840s on the American plains, in the rural hills and the long stretches of lonely woods. It revolves around two brothers, Irish immigrants, who have fought and lived according to a primal form of justice. They are army deserters, fugitives in more ways than one. Blood and death are on their hands, rightly or wrongly. A woman, the bride of one of the brothers, accompanies them — and together they are a kind of family, dependent on each other for their survival and security. There is a bond of love between, the kind that is weathered by the harshness of life, silent, sullen, and not always kind. The woman is like the brothers: alone in the world, a survivor of a place and time that beats women out of their dignity, power, and softness.

The three of them seek a wintering place. A place to hole up for the dark season. They need only to survive the weather — that is, until they encounter animals of their own kind who threaten them. Humanity is the evil that lurks in the shadows of the forest. The snow, wolves, and frost kill too, but humans pose the most danger.

The three of them encounter ruffians like themselves, Native Americans, officers of the law, traders and merchants who hold the power of life or death over all who dare to traverse the plains in winter. Everyone is seeking a safe wintering place in some way or another.

My description sounds stark, but McCarthy’s prose and the way he unpicks the fabric of the story and lets it unravel into its bare parts, is captivating. I read this novel compulsively, wanting always to know what happens next. Do they survive another day? Will one of them perish in the effort?

The characters were fleshy, real, and irresistible; the stink of their unwashed bodies and the smell of blood permeated the safety of my apartment as I read this book. It was as if I could sense them in the room with me. McCarthy uses an epistolary delivery, bringing the characters into dialogue with the reader directly; it is almost like having a conversation with them.

At the end of the novel, this reader even felt a little lost — as if there was a little death in the finishing of this book.

I must add one more word to the description: Haunting.

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