Review by James McWilliams
One doesn’t really enjoy a novel with a protagonist whose distinguishing feature is a passion for watching people take their last breath. And given that these last gasps are not gentle expirations after a life well lived but rather throat throttles at the hands of the protagonist, well, let’s just say Breath Like the Wind at Dawn is not what anyone would call a lyrical, feel-good novel. It’s safe to say it did not make any “summer must read” lists.
Yet, for reasons that have nothing to do with the novel’s conscious echoes of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner — and perhaps even in spite of these immediate influences — this is a novel that should be read. (Blurbs by Zadie Smith and James Wood also suggest as much.)
Contemporary fiction, especially work published by the big commercial houses, is generally shot through with sanctimony. Whether its racial bias, environmentalism, internet bullying, homophobia, police abuse, and big pharma, novelistic investigations of injustice seem obligatory literary themes. Virtue signaling runs rampant. These messages are certainly on the right side of history — but they can make for tedious fiction.
So in a literary landscape where the main ambition is to be a good person after a good cause, it comes as a relief when a fiction writer goes dark and takes his characters as deep into that darkness as his prose allows. Devin Jacobsen’s debut novel does just this, highlighting degeneracy so pure that it transcends hate. One outcome is the realization that irredeemable inhumanity can inspire fiction that, bereft of an agenda, is a lot more interesting to read.
Breath Like the Wind at Dawn is set in Minnesota during and after the Civil War. The war itself only figures in it briefly, albeit with a battle scene — “everyone grew stooped and bent and cynical” — as gripping as anything from The Red Badge of Courage. But it’s in the wake of battle, in the two decades afterwards, where the morbid and entertaining bulk of the novel unfolds (the book’s criminal-driven drama reminded me of a sleeper by Elliot Chaze, a novel called Black Wings Has My Angel). Driving the narrative is the disintegration of a family called the Templins.
The Templins are a rough bunch. Les, the patriarch, is the compulsive strangler who lands a job as a small town sheriff (a fox in the henhouse); his twin sons Quinn and Irving become ultraviolent thieves who roam the upper Midwest like Blood Meridian’s scalp hunters, ultimately raiding a bank vault in their father’s jurisdiction; their one-armed black sheep of a brother, an improbable Latin scholar named Edward, leaves the life of the mind for one of crime (joining his twin brothers in their heist); and the mother, Annora, sticks to her Minnesota homestead, a decision that invites rape and incest, which she accepts as one might a spell of bad weather.
Obviously this is all rather unnerving. But the evil in this novel is so untainted by redemption that it attains a kind of beauty. This happens because the complexity of language stands in for complexity of character. Jacobsen offers up characters (with the possible exception of Edward on a good day) whose evil is innate. Nobody really evolves. Instead, a language empowered with the force of darkness envelops them. The reader’s task is to confront the text sentence by sentence, slowly, as if to allow the darkness to settle in like the smell of death.
Jacobsen’s dimensionless characters, rather than stunting their emotional awareness, actually hone an inverted empathy that, again, challenges contemporary expectations of bland moral decency. When Les enlists, he says to Annora, “Therefore I leave you the greatest presents any wife can be left by a her husband: hatred of my return and wishing me for away where you will never hear the sting of my tongue or feel the bite of my hand, thus granting you freedom to do and say what you wish.” It’s not your garden variety empathy, but it is empathy nonetheless.
Likewise, Les is sentient enough to know there’s something rotten in his urge to witness death. His self-awareness leads him to wonder how “he had come to need this.” Thinking the matter through, “he grasped it had to do something with his service and the threat he had felt of being killed. . . But even had he seen the lucid diagram behind the labyrinthine reasoning how A grew into B grew into C, which equaled the insane D, still, he came to believe, he would never be able to say, Yes, yes, that accounts for it indeed.” Rather than crack under this ambiguity, Les takes it for what it is: essential to his being.
Continually, what keeps the reader close (but not too close) to the text is not Les, but the language that shrouds him. Repeatedly we’re reminded — and not in a showy way — that this is a novel that thrives on the sentence level. In the scene where Les learns that Annora is sleeping with her brother, Jacobsen writes, “Then, as if the inner seething had boiled, melting the nerves, so that the coolness now laved bare bone, he halted, seemed to take a step back, his massive anger having served to wash him clean and rid him of any hope.” In the horrific war scene, we learn how “Many turned on themselves in the heat of battle amid their enemies and blew out their brains like the stuff of daffodils.”
Inevitably, this kind of writing flirts with hyperbole — and Jacobsen occasionally crosses that line. One might suspect that such high-octane prose isn’t worth it. Maybe the novel would have sung more eloquently — or at least narratively — if someone had been redeemed, if a forlorn character, in a tender moment of reckoning, recognized his psychological war wounds and sought inner peace; if the hard language of evil yielded to sanctimony. Transformations tug at our heartstrings and sell books, as do noble causes.
But, in a perfect literary world, the essence of language, no matter where it takes you, is what most matters. This book should be read because we live in a dark world and we need fiction that has the maturity and wisdom to honor that reality. Plus, there’s something honest and admirable about a young novelist (who reads Latin, Greek, and Old English) with the guts to assume that war is war, evil is evil, hell is hell, and that sometimes the only hope we have is in the power of language to articulate these truths.
James McWilliams is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. His books include The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne Books), Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writings have appeared in The Paris Review daily, The New Yorker.com, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The American Scholar, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a contributing writer at Pacific Standard, and his literary non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Quarterly Conversation, The New York Times Book Review, and The Hedgehog Review.