For a majority of the novel, Mr. Scott grants no quarter, taking the reader on a chilly, merciless journey, where the frigid climate is as barbaric as some of its inhabitants. If not for the author’s sparse, elegant prose, twanged with puritanical patois, “The Kept” might be simply agonizing. Instead, it is a haunting narrative, salvaged by precise language that never overreaches or oversells. Although there are moments when Mr. Scott might have gone lighter on excruciating details — a finger probing a bullet wound, the radiating agony of a cracked fingernail, a body brutally crushed under a block of ice — for the most part, his restraint is an excellent foil for the moral and physical desolation of his story and characters.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, “The Kept” is an intriguing, if sometimes unbalanced reimagining of a western novel artfully transposed from the conventional dangers of the desert and Plains to the snowbound northern frontier. Mr. Scott populates his frigid landscape with stock figures: gunslingers, underage prostitutes, a devilish brothel owner and a handful of good country folk simply trying to tame the wild land, all of them rising above the genre in which they are anchored. But his hero is not a full-grown cowboy but the 12-year-old Caleb, a kid who single-handedly assumes the job of avenging his family’s murder. And that’s where Mr. Scott’s trouble starts.
Revenge is a heavy burden to hang on the shoulders of an illiterate preadolescent who can’t anticipate its consequences. And it’s hard not to wish someone would come along to shake some sense into Caleb. Perhaps his mother: Surely she could put an end to his obsession.
But Mr. Scott soon reveals that Elspeth Howell is no ordinary parent. Unable to have children of her own, which has left her with a sense of incompleteness bordering on insanity, she kidnapped Caleb and his siblings when they were newborns and rushed them back for her disapproving husband to raise while she embarked on another long sojourn.
Although Mr. Scott does an admirable job of conveying the unhinged motivations behind Elspeth’s crimes, it can feel less than credible that any mother would allow her 12-year-old son to hunt his family’s killers, let alone assist him by leading him to Watersbridge, the town where the murderers live. Even the hardened and decidedly unparental Rooster and LeBoeuf in Charles Portis’s “True Grit” understand the foolhardiness of young Mattie Ross’s participation in their bloody errand and do their best to shake her off. But Elspeth has her own demons that compel her to Watersbridge, her own need for recompense that eclipses any instinct she might have to shield Caleb from his bad ideas. And doesn’t any good western demand a showdown?
In Watersbridge, an ersatz Dodge City on the shores of Lake Erie, which Mr. Scott depicts with the rich detail of a George Bellows painting, Elspeth and Caleb embark on asymmetrical journeys of justice and redemption. In a more conventional novel, this is the point where mother and son might discover common ground deeper than revenge and shrug off their sins and transgressions in favor of preserving what little family they have left. Or, at least, you keep hoping that this will happen. Instead, Caleb continues on his quest to hunt his family’s murderers and to find the killer’s instinct to bring them down.
And where better for the boy to learn the murderer’s craft than at the Elm Inn, Watersbridge’s seedy brothel, where a dead body being thrown off the porch is commonplace, and some of the prostitutes, like Caleb’s 12-year-old confidante, Ellabelle, are horrifyingly young? It’s heartbreaking to watch Caleb try on the postures of the sort of men he imagines murdered his family, approaching his deadly errand with a childlike wonder and limited understanding.
Mr. Scott places more importance on words than on action, and his denouement is slow in coming, though not unpleasantly so. The plot unfolds with a weighty languor reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. There’s a harsh sense of destiny in Mr. Scott’s novel that recalls Mr. McCarthy’s work, too, the doomed progress of the father and son in “The Road,” and the deadly providence drawing together the kid and Judge Holden in “Blood Meridian.”
But there is no reason that bleak beginnings must beget bleak endings. And while Mr. McCarthy’s characters have little or no choice in their fate, Caleb and Elspeth do, or at least they should. During his tenure at the Elm Inn, Caleb learns enough about the viler side of human nature not to follow through on his crusade, and he sees enough to comprehend that revenge is a childish notion. So does Elspeth.
Despite this, “The Kept” reaches a credible outcome, if a disturbing one. You imagine that the uncompromising resolution Mr. Scott presents is precisely what would happen if revenge were left in the hands of children. But you wonder if other novelists would go so far.