Anton Chigurh, since his appearance in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men in 2005, has been the lodestone for literary villainy (and, yes, it helps to have an excellent cinematic adaptation to sear your character into our consciousness). Just as it is with the best heroes, the best (worst?) villains must have a code. They may well be sociopaths, but they are not simply cyborgs programmed to kill. Somewhere in their minds exists a rationale for why and how they do their evil.
And so it is for the Blackwell Brothers, the “Those” in Michael Koryta’s brilliant Western thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead. They are relentless, they are intelligent, and their brotherly way of talking around rather than to people is nearly as frightening as their propensity for violence. The strength of their brotherly bond is matched only by the tenacity with which they approach their goals. But though Koryta has written memorable villains in Those Who Wish Me Dead, the novel is ultimately a story of the tenacity of goodness, of the extremes people will endure in order to save those they love and their own souls.
Jace Wilson sees something he wasn’t meant to, and those he saw do it know this as well. Soon Jace finds himself with a new identity and a new reality, as part of a wilderness juvenile rehabilitation in the mountains of Montana. Sharing in this isolation is Hannah Faber, who is manning (womanning?) the fire lookout tower for the summer as she too tries to escape her past. Jace’s rehabilitation is run by Ethan Serbin, who together with his wife, Allison, has run such camps every summer (think Scared Straight by Mother Nature). Indeed, Ethan has for years been teaching people how to survive in hostile environments. And though he and Alison know that one of their boys this summer is being sought by bad men, they have no idea how hostile their environment is about to become. All four characters find their goodness challenged by fire, fear, and the ferocity of the Blackwell Brothers.
“You’ve got to observe the world you’re in to understand what parts of it may save you. At first, it may all seem hostile. The whole environment may seem like an enemy. But it isn’t. There are things hiding in it waiting to save you, and it’s your job to see them” (152).
These words of Ethan stick with Jace, and they stuck with me as a reader. Koryta is a keen observer of the world and of the goodness that hides within it and within us. Any good thriller has plot twists and character revelations, and Those Who Wish Me Dead has those in abundance. But Koryta’s novel also has what many thrillers lack: a larger purpose beyond unraveling its plot complexities. Those Who Wish Me Dead is about redemption, about chances to be who you wished you were. Not everyone survives, but what does survive is our belief that good can overcome evil only through sacrifice, and sometimes the ultimate sacrifice.