Only Killers and Thieves is a novel of oppression – of men, women, animals, land, opportunity and soul. It’s all crushed under the harsh Australian sun, beat into the dry sand and bush and obliterated as far from purity as possible. That’s what makes Paul Howarth’s debut novel so engaging. As we immerse ourselves in a bracing loss of innocence, we are riveted to the rhythm of this doom spiral.
Howarth’s narrative is somewhat simple – Brothers Tommy and Billy are just on the brink of manhood when their parents are killed by intruders on their farm. They hit the outback with a ruthless landowner and his hired enforcers to track down and ‘disperse’ the Indigenous Australians who they deem to be worthy suspects. It’s ethnic cleansing under the guise of justice. It’s heinous. It is sin incarnate. And of course, the novel is rooted in truth.
Indeed, truth is a common thread that runs through Howarth’s prose. We believe that there are men this evil and conflicted that can contort their inherent goodness do these despicable acts and then try to sleep at night on a rock in the middle of the outback with a sandstorm a few miles away.
There are hints of John Williams’ majestic western novel Butcher’s Crossing here. Butcher’s Crossing saw a group of men slaughter herds of buffalo for their hides but in doing so begin to realise their own fragility in nature. Only Killers and Thieves sees a bunch of men (and children) set out to slaughter other people in service of something intangible. But how does one measure the success of such a mission when every bullet, knife, punch or bite hits both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time?
To that backdrop of brutal conflict blossoms a heartfelt coming of age story in which brothers lose their bond. The tragedy of Only Killers and Thieves is at once epic and intimate. This is a harshly beautiful debut novel by one hell of a promising author. Fans of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry’s westerns will find their North Star shining brightly towards Paul Howarth.
Only Killers and Thieves is out now via One, an imprint of the ever-brilliant Pushkin Press.