Two hitmen travel to a bar after their latest job, expecting to get paid, only to find that it’s been burned down. So begins Colin Winnette’s debut novel Haints Stay, and it only gets bleaker from there.
Haints follows Brooke and Sugar, two brothers and the aforementioned hitmen, who wander looking for work while fighting off thieves and lawmen. One night, a young boy appears between them, naked and not knowing who he is or how he got there. After determining that he’s not worth killing, they name him Bird and let him tag along.
Bird is soon separated from the pair by a stampede of wild horses, and the brothers are arrested when they arrive in a town. Sugar—who is actually Brooke’s sister, and pregnant—is put in jail, where authorities plan to hang her after she gives birth. Brooke makes a lucky break from captivity and begins wandering through the wilderness. Bird is taken in by a family, only to be sent fleeing again when its patriarch is murdered by creditors.
As the synopsis suggests, there is no security in this world. “[W]e are always in the wilderness,” says one character. “Beneath everything is wilderness and there is no end to it.” There’s no religion, either, or standards of decency or morality, or, most of the time, familial love.
Even in the novel’s most stirring moment, when Sugar escapes from prison, massacres a town searching for her newborn, and takes off when she finds it, Winnette makes clear that it’s not a mother’s love at work:
“As it was, something was keeping the thing pressed to his chest. Something made him want to warm it and stop it from crying. He did not feel a tenderness toward it, but felt a strong desire to balance it out. To put the creature and himself on a more even keel.”
Haints Stay does not have particularly well-developed characters or sense of place—the setting seems vaguely western and apocalyptic—and sometimes feels like a bleak parable without a moral. And the coincidences that bring various characters together in its final pages strains credulity, introducing sentimentality into a novel that proudly shuns it.
The novel’s ending gives us not hope but a bit of sick comfort. Terrible as it can be, the world keeps moving along in awfully familiar patterns.
Haints Stay by Colin Winnette. Published June 2 by Two Dollar Radio. 212 pages. $16.00