I loved this book – probably more than any other book I’ve read this year. This is one of those collections of linked stories that masquerade as a novel. I actually like it better when I think of its chapters as stories, because I’m doubly impressed by the nuanced work that went into giving each story or chapter an integrity of its own without sacrificing the overall narrative of the collection. Justice is a prequel to Montana, 1948; its plot follows David Hayden’s father, Wesley, who is the protagonist of Justice if anyone is. The first story is more of a novella. It’s about a road trip Wesley takes with his older brother Frank and two of Frank’s friends. The chapter is called “Outside the Jurisdiction,” a title that alludes to the fact that Wesley and Frank’s father is the sheriff of Mercer County, Montana. Frank uses the phrase “outside the jurisdiction” to refer to everywhere in the world other than Mercer County – but in this story it refers to a little town in North Dakota called McCoy, where the four teenage boys stop for dinner and a hotel when a blizzard cuts short their hunting trip. The pace of this novella is leisurely; we listen in on the banter of the four boys and get a sense for the differences in their characters. Frank is the leader of the four, undoubtedly because he imitates his father’s authoritative mien. Tommy tries to imitate Frank’s confidence and suavity, but others see through his act. Lester comes from one of the poor families in town, and Frank intuitively pays for Lester’s share of the hotel room and dinner, just as – we learn – his father often buys the vagrants and drunks he arrests train tickets to their hometowns in exchange for their promise not to return. We also learn that Sheriff Julian Hayden’s acts of generosity are usually performed in private. When Julian becomes aware of an outsider causing trouble in town, he usually manhandles this individual for a while, shoving him to the ground or into his car, even dragging him around by his heels. The money for a train ticket or other gifts are given silently, out of sight and earshot of others in town.
This idea that people with power sometimes like to be draconian in public but merciful in private is explored on some level in each chapter or story in this collection. On the road trip in chapter 1, Frank and his friends encounter two Native American girls and begin to circle and approach. Wesley watches the scene more than he participates, but he’s in awe of his older brother’s seductive prowess: “He had seen Frank around girls before, at school, at football games, at the drugstore counter, and Frank was always louder and funnier and bigger and bolder than anyone else. Girls couldn’t stay away from him – because he was handsome, yes, but also because there was something dangerous about him. They had to keep an eye on him. And they were right. Wesley had heard the way his brother talked about girls, as if he could tear chunks from them, get ‘a piece of ass,’ ‘a little tail,’ ‘some tit,’ or how he could punish them with sex, make them ‘moan’ or ‘squeal’ or ‘beg for more,’ or how he’d reduce them to animality and have them ‘crawling on their hands and knees.’ Now Wesley saw this courtly young gentleman who seemed more interested in the Indian language than… than what Wesley knew his brother wanted from these girls” (35).
Everyone in this collection is two-faced, and the plot is driven forward by the characters’ slow but insistent chipping away at one another’s secrets. This, along with the motif of public “justice” acting as a curtain concealing private mercy – and that the opportunity to offer mercy in this way is a side effect of privilege and can, when used with skill, be an act of the deepest condescension – is the essence of this book.
Frank and his friends never get to drag their Indian prey back to their hotel room, and one of the girls slips and falls on her way out of the restaurant, chipping her tooth. In the middle of the night the local sheriff appears at the hotel and orders the boys to come with him to the police station. The sheriff and the deputy accompanying seem to know that Frank and the other boys did not commit any crimes by talking to the girls and that the injury was not their fault, but they are determined to humiliate and scare them away from ever returning to McCoy to chat up the local women. The public “justice” they deliver is cruel on several levels; the private mercy is the opportunity to drive home in the morning and agree never to return.
Each story in the book is told from a different point of view, though the focus never strays too far from Wesley. We see the young Julian Hayden’s inexplicable decision to stake out and attack his sister’s employer to retaliate against a modest slight instead of confronting the man verbally. We see Wesley’s mother, whose miserable childhood left her perennially frightened; Wesley’s wife, Gail, who more than anyone else in the novel has Julian Hayden figured out and who is deeply troubled when she sees Julian’s patterns of law enforcement replicated in Wesley, who becomes sheriff when Julian retires; and Julian’s deputy Len McAuley, whose own secrets are legion. It’s a book about masculinity, about friendship and family, about secrets, and about the starkness of life in a rural Montana town in the middle of the 20th century. I recommend it highly, both as a quick, compelling read and as a text with a lot to teach fiction writers about the many ways that short stories can be made to resonate and harmonize with one another.