Malcolm Brooks’ debut novel, “Painted Horses,” has a little bit of everything in it: wild mustangs, sacred petroglyphs, the ad hoc horse cavalry that served in World War II, ancient Roman archaeology, the march of progress into natural spaces — and that only scratches the surface.
The novel was selected as the 2016 title for Everybody Reads, a library program in the region that selects a single book each year for reading and community discussion. As part of the program, Brooks, who lives in Missoula, Mont., will visit next week to do reading and question-and-answer events at several locations in the area.
Set in Montana in 1956, “Painted Horses” intentionally shirks a defined genre or audience.
“If I had to describe it in a literary sense, I would call it an existential Western,” Brooks said in a recent phone interview. “The book asks more questions than it answers.”
Like the stories that Hemingway wrote, Brooks said he wanted to write something that could be a popular narrative, but also had layers of complexity for those who chose to read it that way. The result was honored as a No. 1 Indie Next Great Read, a Barnes & Noble Discover Selection and was one of Amazon’s 100 Best Books of 2014.
Though the story itself is made up, many elements in the story have a historical basis, and weave together a collection of stories, ideas and interests that Brooks has built over time.
“I’ve been packing around the seed of the novel for years and years,” Brooks said.
“Painted Horses” is Brooks’ first published novel, and the one that has financially allowed him to focus on his writing, but he’s not new to the writing craft.
“This is the one that finally stuck,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t read like a first novel because it’s not.”
In many ways, the wide appeal of the story and the simple, laid-back way in which it’s told reflects the author himself. Brooks grew up doing construction work — his dad was a contractor — and though Brooks got an undergraduate degree in English in his late 20s, construction is how he’s made a living for most of his adult life.
“I’ve always had one foot in the blue-collar world and one foot in the artistic or creative world,” Brooks said.
That Brooks spends a lot of time outdoors is apparent in the novel, which is set largely in Montana’s open, empty landscape and barren, winding canyons. He hunts a lot — birds and big game, he said — and for him, these natural space are more than recreational: They raise issues about the modern world which he explores in “Painted Horses.”
The comforts and distractions of the modern age shield us from having to ask the “big cosmic questions,” he said. So being in nature opens us up to ideas and questions that can be difficult and uncomfortable.
“I wanted to try to explore this rational time in which we take so much for granted and stack that against the ancient pain that we don’t know what we’re doing here,” Brooks said.
These bigger questions, including the conflict between traditional religion and modernity, are ones he’s exploring more directly in his upcoming novel, “Cloud Maker.” The story follows a group of teenagers in Montana who build airplanes during the Great Depression.
IF YOU GO:
Conversations with Malcolm Brooks
Monday, Nov. 7 — 2:30 p.m., WSU Holland and Terrell Libraries, 173 Bohler, Pullman; 7 p.m., Neill Public Library at BellTower, 125 SE Spring St., Pullman
Tuesday, Nov. 8 — noon, Whitman County Library, 102 S. Main St., Colfax, reserve (509) 397-4366; 7 p.m., Latah County Library at 1912 Center Great Room, 412 E 3rd St., Moscow
Wednesday, Nov. 9 — 12:30 p.m., Denny Ashby Library at Pomeroy Senior Center, 695 Main St., Pomeroy; 7 p.m., Prairie-River Library at Nezperce Library, 602 4th Ave., Nezperce
Thursday, Nov. 10 — 10 a.m., Lewiston City Library at Lewiston Roundup Ketch Pen, 2100 Tammany Creek Rd., Lewiston; 7 p.m. Asotin County Library, 471 Sycamore St., Clarkston