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.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Singing Cowboys by Douglas B. Green

The author is also known as “Ranger Doug” of the longstanding western music band “Riders in the Sky.” This lavishly illustrated volume is clearly a labor of love.

We receive an approximate page-long biography of each singing cowboy actor’s career coupled with gorgeous photographs.

As a bonus, there is a 10-track CD song sampler of the genre included.

I came into this book with practically zero knowledge of the singing cowboy phenomenon beyond knowing the names of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. For rookies like myself it is a watchlist generator. For the expert enthusiast the volume may strike one slim as it is clearly aimed at greenhorns like myself.

Lovingly done.

Friday, February 28, 2020

A Literary History of the American West

My copy clocks in at a whopping 1,353 pages.

This massive book sponsored by The Western Literature Association contains dozens of essays by noted Western literary scholars on aspects of the Western
written canon both familiar and obscure [to this reader, at least.]

Do you want information on the phenomena of Mid-Western "Farm" literature? It's here.

Details on Scandinavian Immigrant Literature? Bingo!

A careful examination of Frank Dobie? Yep.

Admittedly, this is a scholarly work and may hold less appeal for the strictly formula Western reader, but I'd say any true lover of the genre will find ready fodder for future consumption within.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

She said quietly, “Look at it this way, Carl. That was the big thing in my father’s life. He led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast, and when it was finished, his life was done. It was a big thing to do, but it didn’t last long enough. Look!” she continued, “it’s as though he was born to do that, and after he finished it, there wasn’t any more for him to do but think about it and talk about it. If there’d been any further west to go, he’d have gone. He’s told me so himself. But at last there was the ocean. He lives right by the ocean where he had to stop.”

A literary giant offers this 100-page novella in four parts. Ostensibly we are tied to a single small ranching family in California, but Steinbeck being Steinbeck has larger fish to fry with his themes. 

We view the passing of the mythic West, the, perhaps lesser spirit of contemporary non-Westering beings, and some bona fide heartbreak.

It is a curious amalgamation that feels a bit disconnected in its parts, but it is never less than beautifully written, chockful of incisive observation and it has a few surprises of character that may give one pause. They feel real, and that’s what renders the surprises more redolent.

Called one of the 100 Best Western Short Stories, I’ve no quibble with that estimation.

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, whic...