by MATTHEW POTTS
Devin Jacobsen, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2020), pp. 208.
Scary stories are probably about as ancient to human culture as campfires, but there’s a special sort of monster that lurks in the literature of the modern American West. In Enlightenment Europe, with the rise of Reformation and republican ideals, monsters took literary form in the fading figures of an ancien régime. The early works of European Gothicism presented vampiric counts who crept through castles and demonic monks skulking through cemeteries. The religious and political critiques here swam quite close to the textual surface. Gothic monsters were the chief antagonists not only of novels but also of the religious and political revolutions that were sweeping across Europe in early modernity.
As Leslie Fiedler notes in Love and Death in the American Novel, this European imagination weirdly inverted itself in colonial America. The enemies of Enlightened republicanism in the Americas were no longer the old world’s priests and nobles, but instead those indigenous people who found themselves inclined to resist the destiny so manifest to the continent’s colonists. The first monster tales of colonial America, by Charles Brockden Brown, were therefore racist and white supremacist tales, too. In a land without familiar European religio-political institutions to stand in the way of revolution, Indians were rendered as anti-Enlightenment monsters. The irony here is thick and repugnant: for the sake of Enlightenment humanism, indigenous Americans were robbed of their humanity. Thus, Brockden Brown set the racist stage for one of the most uniquely American literary and cinematic traditions: the Western.
It is into this tradition that Devin Jacobsen’s novel Breath Like the Wind at Dawn enters, telling the story of a family ravaged by domestic violence, both personal and political. Before the arrival of the American Civil War, the Tamplins were a clan already broken by years of inhuman family abuse. The onset of war fully fractures the family. The sociopathic patriarch Les enlists and develops a taste for killing in wartime that he cultivates through a post-combat career as a small-town sheriff serially obsessed with strangulation. His wife Annora is haunted by hungry family ghosts, and loses the farm and her mind while he is away. Edward, the oldest child, also enlists, has an arm amputated, and recovers from his war trauma while teaching Latin out east. The younger twins Quinn and Irving are raised as lunatic murderers in the ruins of the Tamplin home. When Edward returns to the Midwest he is persuaded by Quinn and Irving to join a bank heist in the town where their father is, unbeknown to them, the sheriff. All of this culminates in a fully self-destructive implosion of the family and a climax of theatrically gruesome violence.
Breath Like the Wind at Dawn is, then, not just a Western but a Western in the peculiarly postmodern form perfected by Cormac McCarthy. Two of McCarthy’s most influential novels – Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West and No Country for Old Men – are essentially gothic monster tales set in the wild west, each showing how easily and entirely human beings can be conscripted, cornered, or cajoled into astonishing acts of violence. Jacobsen’s novel does this too, but with an especially disarming twist. Because McCarthy’s Westerns generally avoid psychology, the most terrifying monsters in McCarthy’s books – Judge Holden and Anton Chigurh – remain obscure and mysterious, seemingly above usual human concern. They are nearly supernatural figures, specters of death and cruelty who haunt the landscape and stand inscrutable both to the reader and to other characters in those books. But in Jacobsen’s novel, the most murderous character – Les Tamplin – is the most fully developed character too, with multiple chapters in his first-person perspective devoted to exploring the violent compulsions of his psyche. The reckless twins Quinn and Irving are hardly relatable; Annora’s mental illness leaves her characterization appropriately incoherent; Edward is in some ways the most sympathetic character but the narrative voice never approaches him with much closeness. Rather, Les the serial murderer is the one toward whom Jacobsen beckons intimacy, and it is unsettling to sit within this character’s mind as he revels in his cruelty. McCarthy and Jacobsen both document the horrors of human behavior; but in a way McCarthy’s novels rarely do, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn invites its reader to reckon with the horrors of the human mind. This makes Jacobsen’s novel uniquely frightening, though Les Tamplin’s acts are no more or less gruesome than Anton Chigurh’s or Judge Holden’s. Because where Chigurh and the Judge wax esoteric, explaining their cruelty to victims in existential terms, Tamplin’s internal voice is frank, intimate, vulnerable, and unrelentingly obsessed.
But what Jacobsen’s novel gains psychologically it perhaps loses politically. McCarthy’s novels are not politically progressive, but it is clear that in them monstrosity is a primary characteristic of both colonial white supremacy and American westward expansion. Despite the setting of Breath after the Civil War and during the years of Reconstruction, race is mostly invisible to this book. The war functions mainly as sort of a traumatic stress that contributes to the main characters’ post traumatic condition. But it’s clear Les is already a sociopath before the war begins, and indeed, I think there may be a way to read Les with some political implication. Slavery was institutionalized serial murder, of course, and Les is a serial murderer. Les was always a sociopath and the American political economy was basically founded on the cultural sociopathy of white supremacy. But if this is indeed how we are meant to read Les, then the novel has missed some opportunities to address the violence of racism more directly and the allegory remains underdeveloped.
I’ve referenced McCarthy a great deal in this review not only because I think Jacobsen’s novel is set in a direct critical conversation with those important American works, but also because Jacobsen’s voice and style are very like McCarthy’s. This is true sometimes even to the point of distraction. One of the reasons why McCarthy’s highly stylized and arguably overwritten prose works well is that he manages his narrative pace so deftly, even down to the level of the sentence. Despite the weight of image and diction McCarthy piles on to each line, he keeps those lines readable and his reader moving through them. In fact, it may be that those easily parodied run-on sentences of McCarthy’s work precisely because they do keep things moving, because their cavalcade of conjunctions forces the reader never to tarry much and instead to attend to action. The pace prevents the audience from becoming overburdened by the sometimes weighty prose. Jacobsen’s pacing is more ponderous in Breath, however. Although structurally the novel moves quickly from scene to scene, at the sentence level Jacobsen’s prose sometimes flags under its own weight, especially in the early chapters. What’s clear is that Jacobsen has an ear and obsession with language. The author is presently pursuing a PhD at St. Andrew’s on the legacy of old and middle English in contemporary fiction, and his sentences are never uninteresting. They are dense, if sometimes difficult, and carefully crafted, if sometimes overworked. The choice of word and image is nearly always startling in this book, and often that’s to the book’s benefit. What’s also true is that this is Jacobsen’s first published novel, and a young writer who shows such care and attention to the construction of every clause will surely learn to more effectively manage the excesses of his ear as his writing develops. Indeed, the same might be said of Cormac McCarthy, whose own first novel The Orchard Keeper shows flaws of style that are similar to Breath Like the Wind at Dawn’s.
In any case, Jacobsen’s first novel is unconventional, unsettling, and unrelenting. The density of the prose and the violence of the plot will require focus from all its readers and patience from some. But for those interested in exploring the blurry boundary between humanity and monstrosity, especially as it has been drawn across the genre of the American Western and as it arises in the mind, Breath Like the Wind at Dawn will prove an interesting, perhaps even an important, book.
Matthew Potts is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, where he writes and teaches at the intersection of literary, ethical, and theological studies.