Many years ago, I watched and enjoyed the film Cutter's Way. This prompted me, some time later, to pick up a paperback edition of Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornburg, on which the movie was based. But the novel languished on my to-be-read pile for ages. I finally took it with me when I headed off to Tallinn Literary Festival earlier this year, and flight delays meant that I read it from cover to cover on the excessively long journey home. The novel was so impressive that I quite forgot my frustration at the hopelessness of the airline in question.
The book is a crime story, certainly, but above all it's a study of a relationship between two men, and of an America struggling to come to terms with the impact of the Vietnam War. One of those men is Richard Bone, who gave up his career in advertising (Thornburg had worked as a copywriter himself) and his marriage to become a drifter using his good looks and charm to persuade women to spend money on him. One night, Bone abandons a woman only for his car to break down. Then he witnesses a man putting something into a trashcan. Soon it becomes clear that he's seen a murderer disposing of the remains of his victim, a young woman.
When Bone thinks he recognises the killer, from a newspaper photograph of a ranching tycoon called J. J. Wolfe, his pal Alex Cutter dreams up a fanciful extortion plan. Cutter is a Vietnam veteran, whose combat experience has left him with one leg, one eye, a lot of scar tissue, and a hatred of elites. Cutter lives with a woman called Mo, mother of his child, whom Bone is crazy about, and the complexity of their relations is superbly portrayed.
The victim's sister becomes involved with the extortion racket, and later a young woman called Monk joins up with Cutter and Bone as they embark on a crazy trip to the Ozarks (where Thornburg, like Wolfe, farmed cattle) to confront the killer - assuming he is a killer, that is. Bone really isn't sure.
The story blends the grotesque and the poignant, the witty and the macabre, in a way that isn't quite like any other novel. I agree with George P. Pelecanos, who wrote an intro to my edition of the book, that the occasional comparison made between Thornburg's novel and the work of Ross Macdonald is no help at all. This is a genuinely original story, and one that has lingered in my mind ever since I read the final, shocking scene. Highly recommended.