PORTLAND'S Hawthorne Books has been quietly exercising great taste for years now, publishing authors like Monica Drake, Tom Spanbauer, and Poe Ballantine. In addition to their oversized format and distinctive French flaps, Hawthorne's books are characterized by strong, iconoclastic authorial voices, in both intensely personal memoirs and in novels that'd be unlikely to find a champion at safer, more conventional publishers.
The Mary Smokes Boys, first published in Australia in 2010, is no exception. Patrick Holland's novel moves at a pace that feels glacial at first, but with patience it unfolds into a tense tale of a brother's love for his sister, rooted in the unforgiving landscape of Australia's Brisbane Valley.
Grey and his sister Irene live in Mary Smokes, a "forgotten town whose smallness constricted their aspirations." The siblings grew up poor—their mother is dead, their father distant and alcoholic, and their closest thing to a family is Grey's friends, a crew of heavy-drinking outcasts perennially toeing the line between the right and wrong sides of the law.
Grey, his sister's sole caretaker, struggles with his responsibility for the young girl even as he tries to navigate his own romantic and professional life. Horse thieves, gambling, and gangsters make up the backdrop of their lives, but there's nothing exciting or glamorous about it, and the prospect of life outside of Mary Smokes is both tantalizing and out of reach.
The landscape is relentless and indifferent—"wide and empty country in which the world had no interest"—and it's impossible to argue that Grey's life matters much to anyone other than Irene. When the drive-in theater closes and the creeks and waterways begin to dry up, it doesn't bode well for the siblings, whose prospects grow more dangerous the more limited they become. The Mary Smokes Boys demands patience, but it rewards it, too—even as the promise of an indifferent world slowly takes its toll on Irene and Grey.