A Patch of Dirt by Richard Lutman

four stars

In Richard Lutman’s gritty western romance, A Patch of Dirt, we are thrown into the world of 30-year-old Joe Oliver, an alcoholic womanizer drifting across the Montana wastes from one ranch job to another, from one bar brawl to another, and from one loose dame to another. After a failed relationship leaves Joe heartbroken, the only break in the monotony of his life comes when Frank Hill, a wounded sixty-something Vietnam veteran, offers Joe an unusual job as a hand on his ranch. Both parties have unexpressed, ulterior motives and Joe quickly learns that there is more to Frank and his young bombshell wife Rita than first meets the eye. His continued involvement with the couple will test the wills, hearts, and charted life courses for all involved.

Lutman styles his novel as an update on the classic hard-boiled western, lading it with old-fashioned machismo, bravado, and gender dynamics, while presenting the male fantasy of a deeply flawed yet irresistible man who can get any woman he desires. Lutman casts these tropes and archetypes in a rugged grey light that brings the imperfections of Joe’s world into harsh relief. It is a raw Americana romance – tapping into the heady literary resonance of booze, sex, and blue-collar emotional violence – where the action passes by in flurries of slaps, whiskey shots, love making, cigarettes, and rusted tractors. While “A Patch of Dirt” may presents us with somewhat contrived romantic dynamics that seem simply to occur rather than to grow and develop, they are nonetheless both compelling and believable, conveyed more emotionally than logically by the sum of Lutman’s detailed scenes. The backdrops of the beautiful, desolate landscapes of a cold backwoods American West successfully infuse the narrative with a brooding, brutal, and melancholy atmosphere, and the entire world is painted with rich and evocative strokes of scenery and feeling. With descriptions full of intoxicating clichés, Lutman spins a tale whose comfortably familiar elements and inviting richness belie the vulgarity and cruelty of the narrative with thrilling counterpoint, adding complexity to the facile generic elements and sugar-coating the bitter pill of the often-bleak story. To convey this chronicle, Lutman opts for a narrative style that verges seamlessly into a stream-of-consciousness exploration the different characters’ perspectives, thoughts, and memories, sculpting a fluidly dynamic and textured romance. The result is a breezy and well-composed read, although the pacing can sometimes feel weird and uneven – the action doesn’t seem to rise and fall over time in a classic arc so much as it jumps up and down in quick bursts. Reading the novel can be like driving rapidly over speedbumps: uncomfortable and a bit challenging, but wild, exciting, and deeply connected to a certain savage abandon that is simultaneously linked to both a zest and disregard for the gravity of life. Although the novel ends with a few confusing moral messages, it is at its core a noble melodrama and a passionate tale of missed opportunities and second chances, as well as a moving meditation on the powers and shortcomings of love. Rigorously well-written, profoundly imagined, A Patch of Dirt has – beneath its chilly and bristling exterior – a warm, tender, beating heart.