August 13th, 2017

This is not a Review...

…of Haints Stay

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[What follows below is an essay about Haints Stay. It is CHOCK FULL of spoilers. If you haven't read Colin Winnette's remarkable western, please buy it here before continuing on to the reading of the essay, or resign yourself to having your experience sullied by the author's analysis. That having been said...]


Haints Stay is something like as if Cormac McCarthy’s bloody West were touched by the hand of Samuel Beckett, and something of the aesthetic spirit child of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, except for more honest. It breathes through its bloody teeth and sings in places you thought were immune to song. It has a power that is difficult for a reader to reconcile themselves with, but also difficult to turn away from, or something like rubbernecking a divine accident.


The book follows two brothers who are killers, Brooke and Sugar, and—as is often the case—a small altercation leads to one thing that then leads to another, and eventually a monumental tragedy. Around this aforementioned monumental tragedy are many series of other tragedies no less strongly felt. It is a brutal story told in the lilting tones of other brutal stories you may have read, but with a logic all its own. It’s true this isn’t a review, but that having been said, I loved this book.


I loved this book because, after my initial love affair with the language and gritty realism that Winnette was able to achieve—and of course the characters—what I came to love about it was the way in which the book snuck the fairytale into the realism. Now—a person could argue that the fairytale never left. Whether the story is crime fiction or Proust, there is always the element of the imaginal and the magical present, but the inherent magical thinking of good v. evil, or of a rose-tinted-spectacles-perspective-of-things is different than the actual mechanisms of the fairytale. Something that is most clearly apparent in magical realism, where fairytale and realism are said to meet in the melting pots of the late twentieth century.


(In case you didn’t know, there were these writers—Borges, Italo Calvino, Tony Morrison, and of course Gabriel Garcia Marquez—who presented readers with outlandish tales sometimes within the ideological confines of post-modernism and sometimes sprouted in a more carefree environment, but always exploring stories that bound about on the outskirts of reality, where barons live in trees, maps can be manufactured with such a perfect scale and exactitude to entirely conceal the country they are meant to portray within their folds, and where people can discover ice only to look back fondly on this discovery many years later while facing the firing squad.)


However, what Winnette was doing here was not magical realism. It was more like Jane Bowles and less like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Which is to say that he was not so much heaping on the imagery of the fantastical as more introducing contortions of time and character that are more magical in their thinking. (If you haven’t read Two Serious Ladies, by Mrs. Bowles, you should.) The boy who appears with literally no past. And how the characters seem to age when in the story it appears to only have been a few weeks or months. Because of how subtly these elements are introduced, the book is able to maintain its sense of gritty realism through to the end despite its occasional aforementioned fairytale elements. The fairytale remains within the characters’ perceptions of each other and themselves, and so always remains as psychological and never cosmological.


Of course, Colin’s first book, Revelation is nothing if not cosmological. (Full disclosure: we published it.) In Revelation, Winnette took the apocalypse as described in the bible and made it the background for the very real and mundane tragedies of three friends coming of age and then aging together.


Revelation presents a magic. In each section, another moment of wonder within the divine silence of the characters’ lives is explored. Teenagers at a beach overwhelmed in the corpses of rotting sea-life. A star that’s fallen into the stream and the intoxicating drink that’s made from it. A hole full of strange biting things discovered outside the old folks’ home.


In a certain sense—at least in how it handles these magical elements—Haints Stay is like the inverse of Revelation. There is magic hidden in among the mundane here, just as in Revelation, but in Haints Stay it is presented more as a sleight of hand, than as a miraculous event. Whereas Revelation got Old Testament with its Raymond Carver self, there are certain places in Haints Stay that are like as if Zane Grey were processed through God’s digestive tract. It’s a different universe of magic.


Now—in every essay at some point the author must make their agenda known, and the time has come for me to explain first off, why we originally chose to publish Revelation, and what I personally see when I read a Colin Winnette work of literature, because what I am seeing at work here is a focus on and magnifying of attributes of reality that have been lacking in the more two-dimensional literatures of recent decades—that was explored superficially in the realm of magical realism, and with a kind of zen austerity in the fragmented literatures of high modernism—this headlong dive into the mystery of being and becoming, a mystery that cannot be resolved, only acknowledged, but in the acknowledging of this mystery, a greater cognizance of the uncomfortable confines of our day-to-day environment is somehow made clear.


Recently, we here at Mutable have written several manifestoes in support of—or examination of—an “Apocalyptic Literature,” and I would argue that this is precisely what Winnette is enacting upon us with these two books. Much of magical realism was an exploration of the space carved out when two conflicting cultural paradigms collide. What Winnette is giving us is similar, the difference being that what we are seeing in his works is a realism that has become incorporated within a larger realism that is not strictly based on reason but also includes revelation as a fundamental element, and specifically the mysteries of our experience of time and ourselves. The brutality in Haint’s Stay is expressed as much in the cheating of Bird’s childhood from beginning to end of the book as in the random annihilation and sudden changes in fortune which are more clearly expressed on the page. The book presents itself as a theater to display the randomness and cruelty of human existence, but the true killer in this book is time.


But you cannot talk about Haints Stay without talking about Sugar as the man with the body parts of a woman who gives birth to the child we are led to believe came from his brother, Brooke. This gender element of the book is the most noticeable example of what I have been talking all along. Like the boy who appears and has no past. Like the snowstorm that stops time. Sugar is also a kind of psychological super-truth—meaning that quite literally belief transcends the physical facts, which is another theme of Winnette’s—that if you believe it, then it is so, despite what others would say or describe to be the case.


However, that having been said, it is specifically this discrepancy between the reality of Sugar as it pertains to Sugar and Brooke, and the reality of Sugar as perceived by the other characters in the book that is what leads to their undoing again and again. But is this undoing the result of the discrepancies between the universe as they understand it and the universe as these others understand it, or is it just that in the ways we do not know ourselves that we are our own murderers? Sugar stabs Bird because he cannot accept the child growing in his belly. It is just after Sugar has told Brooke that he is carrying their child that Brooke makes the fatal mistake that leads to them being captured and separated. And it is in his efforts to secure the safety of his child that Sugar ends up executing the entire town of Wolf Creek.


These are the facts, but the the question is always the direction of causation. Is it that Sugar is not acting in relation to the universe as it is, or is it that the universe is not taking Sugar as he is? For in this book, Sugar never stops being a man, despite these biological facts, and this is also a crucial element of Haints Stay.

Narrative presents the struggle of the individual existing in relation to an ever-shifting river of actions and their repercussions. We become witness to the effects of time, and how a person’s actions come to define them, and the repercussions of our way of seeing what we must suffer through. From Fyodor Dostoevsky to Jay McInerney, an ideology is being unveiled—perhaps of divine planning or of a more nihilistic sort—but there is no world without a worldview.


It is our incomplete understanding of ourselves that leads us to falter in the world. Our realism is a result of this fractured way of seeing.


Cormac McCarthy once famously said, in reference to magical realism, “You know, it’s hard enough to get people to believe what you’re telling them without making it impossible.” The brilliance of Winnette is that he slips the impossible into Haints Stay in imperceptible ways such that only afterwards do you think, Wait. What just happened here? What did I miss? I missed something.


I am reminded of a Fassbinder film, Beware of a Holy Whore, in which the majority of the movie takes place while the characters are waiting for the movie to begin, and then, in the last few minutes of the movie, the entire experience of filming is portrayed in this rapid stop-cut fashion. In Haints Stay, it is a single snow storm that shifts the time frame like all the characters have been placed on hold, and afterwards they are become changed in some way. We are led to believe this is a very straightforward telling of two killers on the run and the misfortune that surrounds all who are associated with them, but occasionally the nature of the world of Haints Stay itself comes into question.


(A haint is a ghost, and clearly Brooke, Sugar, and Bird are meant to be like ghosts, but are they indeed ghosts? Is this a ghost story told from the perspective of the ghosts living within it? Is this how ghosts see the world?)


“That night, the sun did not set. Sugar placed a strip of fabric over his eyes. Brooke slept on his stomach, his face buried in his elbow. The boy sat awake and watched the trees bend and heard them creak and imagined he heard men approaching from all directions. He heard laughter. Then a twig as it broke. He listened for more, for the hiss of those sounds fading out to confirm them, but heard nothing. It was as if the enormous quiet of the woods around him consumed any possible sounds, growing stronger, more present, more oppressive and huge. He nudged a rock with his toe to provoke a faint scraping, the mild tremble of a rock turning against the earth. As quickly as it rose the sounds were gone. Brooke shifted, rocked his hips. The boy was not afraid of anything in particular, but he was impatient to know what was coming. Whas was after them and when would it get there? What were they after and would they achieve it?” [pp. 30-31, Haints Stay, Winnette, Two Dollar Radio, 2015].


Winnette’s books read like dreams, because dreaming’s what makes the world. His characters cannot wake up, and neither can we.