You will not find many sympathetic characters in Clifford Jackman’s debut novel. But then again, sympathy is hardly an accurate litmus test for good literature. Hateful characters can still be good characters. And the Winter Family has plenty of both.
The Winter Family traces the trajectory of a loose band of outlaws over the course of three decades. Chronologically, it begins in Georgia during the last gasp of the American Civil War. Sherman’s troops are blazing their historic path through the state after the fall of Atlanta. A small advance army, headed by the psychopath, Quentin Ross, contains the seed which will become the Winter Family. Their horrific penchant for violence – particularly their actions in Planter’s Factory -- is what causes the Union Army to disown them, sending the group north and west to Chicago in 1872 on a bizarre quest for pardons.
By now, they have all become hardened criminals. Stories of their intervening years and the vicious trail behind them percolate to the surface. But all tales pale when compared to that of Augustus Winter – a bit player in Quentin Ross’ early band, now among the most feared and depraved. The very glance of Winter’s yellow, cat-like eyes is enough to instill terror. His arrival in Chicago with the fiendish Lukas Shakespeare – a teenage murderer -- causes a rift among the outlaws. And his dissolute dispatching of his foes forces one member to fall “to his knees, among startled, scampering pigs” and begin to throw up. “We’re building something here,” he tells the man.
But “building” is a misnomer. Driven by a nihilistic worldview, Winter is really tearing things down. He has moved beyond simplistic notions of society, justice, and order. He has transcended them. He says, “This is how everything works. Everything they tell you is just a lie to hide it.”
Having peeled back the gloss of civilization, Winter leads his gang south to Phoenix in 1881. They have now become scalp hunters and guns for hire. Casual slaughter follows them. But here, Augustus Winter is shaken by an encounter from the past. His convictions are challenged by an unlikely opponent. And the unstoppable wickedness which is the Winter Family runs up against a force of nature equal to or greater than their own.
Ten years transpire before we pick up their scent again in Oklahoma, and this time it is they who are hunted. Reduced by death and desertion, The Winter Family is on the verge of extinction. The world, and members of his inner circle, has turned on him. Cataclysmic violence, apparent throughout, erupts in an almost cinematic showdown.
Jackman’s writing has been compared to the American author, Cormac McCarthy. On the surface, similarities do exist. Both write about hard-scrabble men cutting swaths through various incarnations of an amoral, lawless West. But where McCarthy’s prose is sparsely elegiac, Jackman’s is more grounded and straightforward. The emphasis is on action. Jackman’s characters are also not as archetypal. The Judge, for instance, from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is practically cloven-hoofed – a metaphor for the evil in the world. Winter, a scalp-hunter like the Judge, for all his savagery, is still a man. We witness the twisting of his soul through upbringing and experience.
Therefore, as a man, he is subject to his own mortality. Or is he?
There is nothing overly redemptive about the conclusion of this novel. If anything, the brief epilogue in California, 1900, reminds the reader that malevolence endures. But like the hateful characters of Quentin Ross, Lukas Shakespeare, and Augustus Winter himself prove, redemption isn’t necessary in a good novel.