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Running a scratch cattle ranch on the lonely side of the Sierra, the Bridges' boys don't have much excitement in their lives. Then, during the first snowstorm of the season, they come under the spell of the bogeyman for all cowboys. There's a big cat slaughtering the cattle, but, from the willfulness and malice of the kills, it just might be the legendary “black painter”, a huge panther as black and elusive as the myth surrounding it. Curt, the arrogant, selfish yet competent heir apparent, is anxious to test his hunting skills against this formidable predator. Along with Arthur, the inward, soul-seeking one who searches for the mysticism behind the event, the two soon discover they are in fact dealing with a feral consciousness beyond their experience. Always the acolyte, Arthur naively falls prey, which hardens Curt's determination to be the victorious killer.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch house, another morality play is pandering its participants. The Father is face-down in his sour mash, especially in the mornings. The Mother is serving up Fire and Brimstone to hide her fear that God's abandoned her, especially after Arthur arrives belly down on his brother's horse. The only daughter, Grace, is a wellspout for tears and laments, becoming a background for grief, depression, and hysteria. The old Indian hired hand, Joe Sam, is wooden, solemn, and mysterious through most of the novel, prone to walking around naked in the snow and stabbing at the livestock with a knife or broken whiskey bottle. He's possessed, you see, having higher, arcane knowledge of the Earth's spirits.
Then there's the lovers, Gwen and Harold. He's the youngest brother and the burden of this whole, dysfunctional family falls on his shoulders once The Cat whittles down their numbers. It all becomes a frontier soap opera full of jealousies, deceits, back-stabbings, mis-directions, and despair. Deemed “Part Two” by the author, it could probably be removed from the center and tossed away without too much remorse.
Because the real tour-de-force of this work is Part Three, which is what happens to a man who spends 3 days in a Sierra snowstorm without much food, protection, or a compass. As Curt blunders through shifting realities, profound dreams, waist-deep snow, tempting hallucinations, and sub-zero temperatures, the Black Painter bounds in and out of his frozen world, dissolving it, re-shaping it, and ultimately melting it to nothingness, like ice into water on mammal-warm fur. Is it a descent into madness or a supernatural possession? Or simply one, stumbling fool dying of exposure to the natural elements?
Part Four acts as a tidy conclusion to the events. Harold kills the Cat, gets the girl and emerges as the new head wrangler of the household, however reluctant and wary he may seem. Leaving the novel, there is a sense of reverence, of awe and shocking inconsistencies with the ordered universe. And, as the old Indian mysteriously makes “a wide gesture with his arm, which might have meant it was in the mountains above, or that it was everywhere and not confined to one place” (Random House, 1949, p.394), the blush of a true epiphany settles in just outside one's peripheral vision.