I first encountered Colin Winnette’s writing when we published his short story, “Every Super Painful Thing That Isn’t Dying,” in Midnight Breakfast. It was immediately clear that he was a writer of unique talent and voice. When I learned that his new novel, Haints Stay, was a Western, I thought: This is the genre he was born to write in. And I wasn’t wrong.
Winnette’s already sharp prose is honed here to a razor edge. It rolls across the stark, lawless world he evokes like approaching thunder.
Haints Stay, published by the consistently fantastic Two Dollar Radio, is one of those novels that challenges you to find a good moment to put it down. It’s a blood-soaked, Wrath-of-God kind of Western that centers on two killers-for-hire, Brooke and Sugar, and the trail of bodies they carve into the unforgiving land. I’m hesitant to say any more about the story for fear I’ll spoil the thrill of being thrown off-kilter by Winnette’s whip-crack plot turns, which he paces, like a good stagecoach driver, just well enough to keep the novel hurtling forward at such a speed that you, the reader, can do nothing more than trust his instincts and pray there isn’t a cliff around the bend.
My advice? Hang on for dear life.
— Taylor Pavlik, Senior Editor
The baths were crowded. Men of indeterminate age, but none of them young, lined the edges. A mix of tobacco smoke and steam crowded the air. Sagging wooden guardrails led down a row of steps into the water of the communal bath. The floor and walls wore a yellowing tile.
The heat pressed against Brooke’s and Sugar’s lungs as they moved along the bath’s perimeter to hang their towels from a row of silver hooks lining the far wall.
Someone whistled. Others coughed, shifted, and began to whisper.
“I think they like you,” said Brooke.
Sugar smiled and Brooke stepped into the water. The blood on his left hand lifted and dispersed. He bent at the knees and submerged himself up to his shoulders. He shut his eyes, listened to the sounds of the other men as they examined his brother.
“You don’t even smell like a woman,” said a longhaired man sitting alone in the corner of the large square, now shared by nearly twenty men.
Sugar had seated himself on the bench lining the edge of the bath. He crossed his legs, then thought again and uncrossed them. He parted his knees just slightly. He nodded at the longhaired man sitting a foot or so from him.
“It’s because I’m not a woman,” said Sugar. He snapped his fingers at a passing boy in white. The boy paused and removed a thin cigarette from a pack on the silver tray he carried before him. Sugar gripped it with his lip and the boy lit it with a smile.
“Your charge number, sir?”
“It’s on your man,” said Sugar, and the boy nodded. He made a mark in a small notebook beside the cigarette pack on the tray and began again to circle the bath’s perimeter.
“You’ve got the finer parts,” said the longhaired man. “I don’t mean at all to pry or stare. I just haven’t seen a woman’s parts… in years, and… well you don’t expect to come across them in a place like this.”
“Is he bothering you, Sugar?” Brooke rose from the water before them. He was lean and cruel looking. He looked as if he should have been covered in scars, but all of the wounds he bore were fresh. His muscles were mottled with age and effort.
“No,” said Sugar. He let the smoke drift between his vaguely parted lips. “He’s just admiring my parts.”
The longhaired man smiled and shifted and put his hands up. “No,” he said, “I’m just noticing is all. I don’t mean either of you any discomfort or trouble.” He slunk away to a far corner of the bath and settled between two older men who were leaning against the bath’s edge, eyes closed, either sleeping or dead.
Brooke took his spot there in the corner near his brother.
“You should cross your knees,” he said. “In a place like this.”
“You should avoid giving advice,” said Sugar. “You haven’t got the face for it.”
“Did you notice our friend?” said Brooke. He ran his palms along the surface of the water, examined the edges of his scabs as they softened.
“How long do you think we’ve got?” said Sugar.
“Get your hair wet,” said Brooke. “Then we should go.”
The broke-nosed thug was bleeding between two gangly men in the bath adjacent Brooke and Sugar. His eyes had not lifted from their movements.
Sugar crab-walked out from the bench and lowered himself under the water. He ran his hands back and forth through his hair and could feel the grit coming away in sleeves. He opened his eyes to see the water had yellowed around him. He picked at the pieces that clung directly to his scalp. He felt a shiver in his shoulders, the rare delight of a long-awaited bath. He admired his brother’s legs through the chalky water. The pressure in Sugar’s lungs grew more intense with each passing moment. He exhaled and Brooke’s legs lifted suddenly up and out of the bath. Sugar kicked himself toward the far edge of the bath and rose up and out as well.
Brooke was on top of the naked, broke-nosed thug, pounding his chest and stomach and face. The sound was that of a cow collapsing into mud, again and again and again.
Brooke broke the skin of the broke-nosed thug in various patches about his body. Brooke rose only when the reach of the blood surpassed his wrists. He rose naked and bloody and examined the room. Some looked angry, put out. Others were frightened and without a plan. The longhaired man who had been talking to Sugar sank between the two old men at either side of him, until the water reached his ears. He eyed the brothers across the surface of the water, bubbling air from his slender nose.
Sugar gathered their towels from the hooks and Brooke backed slowly into his as Sugar opened it to greet him.
They left the bath together, dressed hurriedly in the adjoining room where they had left their clothes, and sped toward the front door with the air of practiced men.