Haints Stay

By Colin Winnette


Two Dollar Radio
June 2015

Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias


It's almost impossible to reinvent a literary subgenre nowadays, but Colin Winnette's Haints Stay comes as close to it as possible. A bizarre mix of Peckinpah-esque bursts of hyperviolence and passages that border on the surreal, Haints Stay begins at the heart of the weird Western novel and pushes out rhizomatically in unexpected directions. The result is a narrative that brings together humor, the outré, and elements of classic Westerns, and smashes them together until a strange new shape emerges that fits in perfectly with the work of authors like Joe Lansdale and David James Keaton while occupying an entirely new space.

Haints Stay follows Brooke and Sugar, a couple of brothers who spend their lives on the move, killing people. Their relationship is strange; violence comes easy for them, and Sugar may or may not be who everyone thinks he is. While the duo moves from one town to the next, a small boy mysteriously wakes up beside them, lost, naked, and suffering from amnesia that prevents him from knowing his origins and his name. As the trio murder and escape from one town to the next, the brothers' life unravels and Bird, which is what they name the boy, focuses on trying to find retribution and his space in the world while also dealing with thoughts that place his companions at the heart of his enigma. What follows is an intense, bloody, touching, and unexpectedly funny narrative that's part road novel, part weird Western, and part coming of age/coming of gender story.

From dialogue to action, Winnette does many things right in this novel, but one of the best elements at work is the constant feeling of uncertainty he injects. Agendas shift, danger is ever-present, ultraviolence is perceived as natural, gender roles are malleable, and the small towns and desert geography seem to be interminable. The writing is clear and the language precise, but what Winnette builds with it is a world in which the unexpected is the only constant and where reality acquires a wonderful fragility. For example, Sugar, whose gender is akin to a floating signifier that refuses to be pinned down once an for all, has a baby, and what follows is far from what readers might expect:

Sugar was feeding the baby. It was not something he knew how to do, but something that had simply happened to him. It was a familiar enough idea, and when it came time to perform the task himself, something in him settled the child and his own body into place and the baby took hold. The sheriff left the doctor on the porch to smoke and chew and curse and approached Sugar splayed out in the cell with the baby attached. The sheriff gripped the baby by its sides and detached it from Sugar, who protested and was met with the barrel end of peace and order.  

Brooke and Sugar dish out pain and punishment like professionals, but they somehow retain very human, likeable qualities. The dichotomy is one that Winnette sustains throughout the narrative and something that almost forces the reader to see these killers as the "good guys" of the story. Furthermore, Winnette creates passages that mix the gruesome with the poetic, and those tend to cause conflicting emotions by delivering brutality and beauty in equal measure. This emotional juxtaposition amplifies the impact of each scene and helps the narrative stick in the reader's mind long after some scenes are finished. A perfect example comes from Mary, a woman who seems to not only accept violence as the narrative moves forward but also starts to apparently welcome it without a fight. The man she encounters is a killer, but the reader, just like all the characters, soon learns that, in this story, you can be either a killer or a corpse:

There was a desperate look in his eyes, like a cornered dog. But there was a matter-of-factness to his movement, like a lost man, decidedly looping the same patch of desert land in the hopes that death will find him more quickly. She knew that face. She knew this man. She had been born to kill him.

More than a narrative with a central premise in which one or more main characters carry the action, Haints Stay is a novel in which the story itself is the main character. Every individual involved in it is forced to carry its weight for a while as the narrative jumps around from one to the other like a flying parasite. In this regard, Winnette deserves praise for constructing a tale in which different personalities, places, and intentions coalesce into something that's much bigger than its parts.

In its DNA, Haints Stay has traces of Charles Portis's True Grit, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Joe Lansdale's series of Reverend Jebediah Mercer stories. But its voice is unique and the territory it viciously plods through is completely new. The guns, revenge, and horses are here to let folks know this is undoubtedly a Western, but the transgender birth, unflinching violence, bizarre relationships, and slightly surreal touches are here to announce that Winnette manages to use known elements to carve a new space in the weird Western subgenre. The fact that he does so while displaying chops akin to those of top modern literary fiction writers is just the icing on the bloody, sand-sprinkled cake.