By Leo Brent Robillard
Turnstone, 172 pages, $18.95
Think of the Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and you likely think of Hollywood's take on the legendary frontier outlaws. In his debut novel, Leo Brent Robillard performs the welcome service of driving tired celluloid images from the mind -- both the balletic gorefest of The Wild Bunch and the costumed hijinks of Newman and Redford as Butch and Sundance.
There's gore in this novel, but it's rare, brief and explosive, and inevitable. The stars are relegated to tasteful cameos in the prairie sky. Leaving Wyoming can't but invite the dream-factory comparison -- then makes you quickly forget it.
We open on Alberta flatlands at dusk, with a lawman on a horse. "The moon rises like a tossed coin and wings its way above the man's shoulder." He arrives at a sod house, enters, his gun drawn. There's a man asleep, a woman naked at the far window.
Cut to a daredevil train robbery that echoes any number of horse operas, then overlays the cliché with a sensory precision that only writing -- spurring the reader's inner creation -- can achieve. When Ewen (Wyoming) McGinnis leaps from a hump of sun-blasted rock onto the roof of a passing boxcar, we feel the seconds of crazy flight, the fear, the impact, the peril and the exhilarating survival.
Still new to the game of mayhem, Wyoming has already made himself indispensable to Butch and Sundance and their Wild Bunch cohorts -- in part by robbing a bank in his underwear. The train heist goes like clockwork, then they're on the run with a posse quickly behind. They split up, Butch and the Kid heading south while Wyoming veers northward with Harvey and Ben. At a ranch house late one night, Harvey shoots the owner dead in a revenge killing -- the first murder young Wyoming has witnessed. That night, he leaves Ben and Harvey sleeping off a quart of whisky and absconds into the night with the cash.
Research, sported like a new suit, fills many of these pages. We're offered thumbnail histories of Butch, the Kid, the Wild Bunch, Allen Pinkerton (founder of the detective agency), Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull -- even Samuel Colt's invention of the revolutionary six-shooter. Robillard's prose is assured if somewhat mannered, vividly evoking the sprawling frontier landscape, the sweat and funk of fugitive men and their ruthlessly driven horses.
Wyoming attempts a one-man daytime robbery in a sleepy town. The scene grows into a delightful exercise in snowballing absurdity. He exits the bank without a cent, tipping his hat to the oblivious town marshal. As the town wakes to the failed robbery, Wyoming waits out the ruckus under a bed in the cathouse next door. "It's a long day, and an even longer night. The bed bucks and twists."
We meet Webb, the man who will dog Wyoming to the sod house of the opening and closing pages. Discharged from a the cavalry, he's at a loss for purpose without thieves and Indians to shoot. Reinvented as a Pinkerton detective, he draws a bead on our fleeing hero and homes in. To his diminishment, he finds Wyoming in love.
Robillard's prose can occasionally soar blithely into the dubious or the outright impossible. Does the moon, in its one-way orbit round the earth, really move "like a metronome"? Can a shovel cutting into prairie grass dislodge "root systems that have not been disturbed since the beginning of time"?
These are small lapses. Don't bother with the director's-cut DVD. Leaving Wyoming is a case of the word transcending 1,000 pictures.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.