Backlands“Backlands – A Novel of the American West” by Michael McGarrity

Dutton, $28.95, 503 pp.

By David Steinberg

If you know the writing of Michael McGarrity, it’s probably because you’ve read his string of best-selling crime novels starring protagonist Kevin Kerney.

Each successive book in the series revealed more about Kerney’s life.

“He sort of straddled the two worlds of law enforcement and ranching. Because of that, I was always kind of drawn to his back story and also drawn to the family dynamics. The idea of delving more deeply into his past and into his forbearers always was in my head,” McGarrity said in a phone interview from his home in Santa Fe.

McGarrity’s latest novel “Backlands” has a passel of Kerneys but not Kevin. And it’s certainly not crime fiction.

The reason is “Backlands,” subtitled “A Novel of the American West,” is historical fiction. It’s the second in a planned trilogy about Kevin Kerney’s ancestors. The author said he convinced his publisher that three volumes were needed to fully tell Kerney’s family story.

The first prequel was “Hard Country,” (2012) covering the period from 1875 to 1918.

“Backlands,” just out, spans the period from 1920 to the end of World War II. It has the qualities of an epic but with the pace of a cowboy loping along on horseback; sim”

The book is a rich view of the land and a mosaic of the people who populate south-central New Mexico i.e. the territory west of the Rio Grande along what is known as the Jornada del Muerto, from south of Socorro to Las Cruces.

The backbone of the novel are three Kerneys – the ailing Emma Kerney, who lives in Las Cruces; her ex-husband Patrick Kerney, who operates a ranch on the western slope of the San Andres Mountains just north of the Tularosa Basin; and their younger son, Matt, whose coming of age is the book’s dominant story. The couple’s older son, CJ(cq), was killed in the Great War.

Emma is smart and is a good person. But she is terminally ill. As an ex-husband, Patrick is stiff; as a father, he’s cold; as a cowboy, he’s savvy but he hides secrets.

The novel also pulls in a community of characters whose presence reminds readers that Anglo and Hispanic ranch families were neighbors, friends and in some cases, married each other. The book slips in several real-life people, among them the writer Eugene Manlove Rhodes(cq) and famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin, both with ties to the Tularosa.

“I tried to avoid every possible stereotype of the western genre novel that I could,” McGarrity said. “I have been totally committed to avoiding that. It’s so superficial and outlandish that it’s almost a comic book version of the way the world is.

“By bringing together people who were simpatico … by showing they had an appreciation and sensitivity to one another was important for me to do in ‘Hard Country’ and ‘Backlands,'” he added.

McGarrity said he tried to be fair and honest about the history so that it has an authenticity to it.

Likewise with language. Meaning words and phrases in the dialogue were critical to painting an accurate picture of a past time.

Here are some culled from the book:

“Anyone traveling shank’s mare…”

“Let’s mosey on over.”

“The whole vacation has been the berries.”

“That’s jake”

“It’s a mite big.”


Michael McGarrity discusses, autographs his new novel “Backlands” at these New Mexico locations:

– 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6 at The Inn at Loretto, 211 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe

– 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 7 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, Albuquerque

– 6 p.m. Thursday, May 8 at Collected Works, 202 Galisteo, Santa Fe

– 7 p.m. Friday, May 9 at Tome on the Range, 158 Bridge St., Las Vegas

– 2 p.m. Saturday, May 10, Old County Courthouse, 104 North Plaza, Taos

– 5 p.m. Friday, May 16, Barnes & Noble, 700 S. Telshor Blvd., Las Cruces

– 11 a.m. Saturday, May 17, Coas Books, 1101 S. Solano, Las Cruces

– 1 p.m. Sunday, May 18, Hastings, 805 N. White Sands Blvd., Alamogordo

– 4 p.m. Sunday, May 18, Books Etc., 2340 Sudderth Dr., Ruidoso

– 7 p.m. Saturday, May 24, Barnes & Noble, Coronado Shopping Center, Albuquerque