Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Gentle Annie by MacKinlay Kantor

When we reached the place where Cotton had left his horse and buggy, we had a few moments’ conversation. The Goss brothers spoke with rare feeling about Charley Tatum and what had happened in the bar. They swore seriously and calmly, with astonishing fluency. I was to find that this was a habit they practiced by themselves; in some strange fashion it accounted for the cleanliness of their talk when they were with women or strangers or with people whom they did not like. To be admitted to a swearing bout by the Goss boys was a rare privilege; it marked one’s acceptance by them.

A Western by the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Andersonville. I’ll confess I have not yet read Andersonville and I will also confess that this novel, my first visit with Mr. Kantor does not have me rushing to the next title.

This novel of a train-robbery investigation starts beautifully, and one knows they are in capable hands, but as it continues, we are introduced to a love-rectangle that confounds in both believability and its apparent purity.

So much time is spent on the soap opera of how these genteel amorous mechanics work that I was a bit exasperated. One is left scratching the head wondering how any single man, let alone three feel so strongly for such an exasperatingly fickle character.

We add to this concatenation of curious emotions an askew morality regarding family dynamics and robbery that we are to assume the author wishes us to sympathize with.

The fault may be this reader, but I found this novel, while well-written, a chore to finish.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Cry Dance by Kirk Mitchell

“Forgive my petulance this evening, Mr. Parker. I have this overwhelming feeling I’ll be out of a job this time next week.’

‘Well, you were looking for a job when you found this one, right?’”

Author, Kirk Mitchell, possesses a law-enforcement background and a familiarity with the areas of which he writes. This was the inaugural volume of a modern-day mystery-series featuring Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator, Emmett Quanah Parker of the Comanche tribe, and mixed-race FBI agent Anna Turnipseed.

A body that has been bizarrely mutilated is found in the Havasupai Nation, this is the incident that brings together our protagonists.

Mitchell gets the law enforcement turf wars down pat but even more interesting is the almost otherworldly interactions between different tribes. He gets the “All Indians ain’t the same” correct and walks our characters through the heady atmosphere of tribal politics and even deeper tribal belongings that manifest behavior hard to understand to an outside homogenized culture.

While the mystery works, I’ll admit that it was the insight and depth of this unusual setting that truly held my interest.

A worthy read for fans of Hillerman.

Friday, May 8, 2020

“The Last Ride” by Don Winslow

His daddy used to say that most people will do what’s right when it don’t cost much, but very few will do what’s right when it costs a lot.

Noted crime author, Don Winslow, released a volume of six novellas titled Broken. Five of these hew to his usual terse and quick-reading style and a few of them go so far as to bring back characters from past novels for another go around.

I have enjoyed Mr. Winslow much in the past, but I would be a liar if I didn’t say that this felt a bit by the numbers. It is well done mathematics but, all the same, nothing exactly new.

That is, until the last novella: “The Last Ride.”

Here Winslow takes a shot at a neo-Western in the tale of a Border Patrol agent wrestling with questions of right and wrong and the border between duty and honor.

Does it have a political bent that may rile some?

It does at that, as Mr. Winslow is not shy about his opinions. One must offer him the grace that his opinions come from a very informed place.

So how does he do in the western genre? 

Pretty damn well. This is easily the high-water mark of this volume for this reader.
It limns a complex character in almost iconic strokes and renders personal integrity in elegiac terms. 

Although it goes its own way it calls to mind Edward Abbey’s splendid The Brave Cowboy.

I’ll not rate the entire volume but this story is an easy A.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sierra Showdown by John Reese

Bobby, men is the cheapest thing in the world! I can buy all the men I need. It’s like buying nails—by the pound or by the keg, whichever suits you. But a man who’ll stick with you and tell you the truth and think for himself, that’s something money can’t buy.”

My first read of Mr. Reese. This is a fast-paced title put out by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1971. It is a familiar tale of beleaguered ranch versus those who wish to run owners off of the land.

On one hand it is no great shakes in originality or even events for that matter, but…I spent a pleasant afternoon with it and enjoyed the author’s interior observations.
Such as the following referring to the atmosphere around the ranch once some know trouble is on the way.

The spring wagon got there about noon. By then only six men remained. The others had drifted away by ones and twos, remembering little chores Ed wanted them to do. They would be long gone from Wild Rose Valley before this night fell, but Bobby said nothing to them. Nothing could hold a certain kind of man when the chips were all shoved in this way.

Or this…

Worse than anything else was their hunger. With a full belly a man was just about equal to anything. When it was empty, so was his heart.

Again, no great shakes, but hearty fare nevertheless.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow

There is no work harder than cutting a grave. Though the rain had softened the ground, it was a few hot hours of taking turns at the pick and shovel before we had the five holes dug. The bodies we had gathered were lying under blankets. When it came time to put them down and rebury Fee I didn’t want the boy there, I shooed him away. We stood waiting while he walked back, turning every few yards to look at us. He finally squatted down at the edge of the flats, not going as far as the town, I suppose, because the buzzards were all down in the street now eating from the dead roan.

That picture of bleakness gives nothing away in this masterful first novel from Mr. Doctorow. The novel starts bleak on page one and only gives hints of sunshine here and there throughout.

In essence it is the story of the death of a town, the titled “Hard Times,” its painful re-birth and aftermath of that re-birth.

It is a spare novel, a mere 200 pages, written in an easy manner that puts many a “literary Western” to shame, but make no mistake, this easy manner is no formula work—this is a piece of art.

I leave us with another extract.

Now the saying is common that Sam Colt made men equal. But if it is true then our town wouldn’t have burned up in the rain; instead that Bad Man would have been buried with due honors and a proper notice sent to the Territory Office. He would have had a hole in his chest, or his back, and the one who shot him would have Avery standing him a drink and maybe redheaded Flo and Molly smiling his way. Colt gave every man a gun, but you have to squeeze the trigger for yourself.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Night Before Chancellorsville by F. Scott Fitzgerald

And in the papers the next day they never said anything about how our train got attacked or about us girls at all! Can you beat it?”

This brief tale from the legendary author may strike some as anticlimactic in that it deals only tangentially with the events of Chancellorsville. Instead the author takes a tack that reminds me of a routine from the acerbic but brilliant comedian, Anthony Jeselnik, loosely titled “Don’t forget about me.”

The crux of “Don’t forget about  me” is the outpouring of “hot takes” from many post any tragic event, be that a celebrity death or a disaster that left the “hot taker” untouched but they somehow still have some fodder that returns the focus to them ala, “I can’t believe David Bowie is dead, I’m so sad he was so influential to me" or, "I was in the region where that tornado touched down just last month!"

These “Don’t forget about me-ers” always relate to themselves and seldom remember to add “Oh, and my best to the families.”

Mr. Fitzgerald has provided us with his version of that solipsistic phenomenon. Some may feel cheated that the battle is not the true subject, but a closer reading reveals an all too human, and all too unflattering observation about prevailing egoism.

An intriguing tale with a bit of a wry sting.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Sundance by David Fuller

“Those were good times, though, weren’t they? I miss ‘em, I do. But the two of us back together? I can’t be famous again. I only just learned to be dull. It’s not so bad.”

Screenwriter/novelist David Fuller takes a whack at the legend of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka “The Sundance Kid.” In his imaginings, Sundance didn’t die in Bolivia, and we are glad for it. 

We follow the charmer in his twilight years as he heads East to New York City to look for the love of his life, Etta Place.

Along the way we encounter the Triangle Fire, anarchists, Charlie Siringo, and a few surprises.

Fuller has the easy-going Redford redolent Sundance charm down cold. The character is a pleasure to spend time with. So much so, I’ll admit that as the novel wore on and leaned on the inevitable mechanics of plot I was a little disappointed as Sundance must react to plot-mechanics rather than simply be the laidback charmer.

Honestly, Fuller could have doubled the length of the narrative and simply allowed Sundance to mosey along. I’d follow that character anywhere.

But, for this reader, the plot become so baroque Sundance must take a backseat in a sense.

Don’t read that wrong. This is a fine novel, constructed with much craft, albeit a timely coincidence or two does mar credibility. But Fuller is to be congratulated to provide such an indelible character.

Sundance’s outward demeanor is one of never flagging charm.

While his inner dialogue is rife with potent observations, as in the following.

Experience taught him that intuition was a weak sense, a shallow sense. Intuition fooled men into thinking they had secret unconscious knowledge ready to tap when in fact it was no more than guesswork, and often poorly informed guesswork, based on past experiences that would never truly align with current conditions. Intuition was to be engaged for frivolous things, never for matters of life, love, or death. Intuition led men to quick judgments, and invited superstition.”

Such observations abound.

Gentle Annie by MacKinlay Kantor

When we reached the place where Cotton had left his horse and buggy, we had a few moments’ conversation. The Goss brothers spoke with rar...