Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy


When they rode out of the Yuma camp it was in the dark of early morning. Cancer, Virgo, Leo raced the ecliptic down the southern night and to the north the constellation of Cassiopeia burned like a witch’s signature on the black face of the firmament. In the nightlong parley they’d come to terms with the Yumas in conspiring to seize the ferry. They rode upriver among the floodstained trees talking quietly among themselves like men returning late from a social, from a wedding or a death.

Undeniably evocative writing. To claim this novel is not a work of art is a bit narrow-viewed.

But…the novel’s stylistic choices that make up a large part of its artistic merit seem to leave the reader at a bit of a remove. In many passages the writing itself is so much the “story” that the reader [this reader, at least] was left admiring the colors on the canvas and less taking in the canvas as a whole.

I am reminded of the noir excesses of James Ellroy, himself a bold stylist of whom I have read much and enjoyed much, but I would be a liar if I did not admit that there is a “learning curve” expected of the reader to settle into what the author has to say.

McCarthy and Ellroy both seem intent and content with “Look at how I do this” which seems to push one a bit out of the narrative.

I enjoyed the novel. I admire the novel. But as an entertainment, I feel it lacks a bit.

Personally, I find James Carlos Blake’s In the Rogue Blood, a similar nightmare-scape, the better novel. It is equally gorgeous in its prose but never loses sight of the fact that “the tale is the thing.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weider


Word got around after a while, and others began to approach me, asking to help them get some justice. Sometimes they called it revenge, but I guess that depended on your point of view. At first, I only took a few jobs, ones where I was really angry over the circumstances, like the case where a guy forced his young niece to perform sex acts on him. But over time I became less picky, and I took almost any job. I didn’t think too much about it—after all, if the cops wouldn’t do anything, what was wrong with a private enforcer taking action?

The author, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation brings us this Neo-Noir tale of a “private enforcer” as described in the offered quote.

This reader is of two minds regarding this novel. The depictions of Rez-Life, encounters with prejudice on and off the reservation, walking the line between being “Indian” and being an “Apple” [red on the outside but white on the inside] and a myriad of other alien points of view are deeply fascinating.

But…to my mind, having this meaty subject placed over the familiar scaffolding of “Noir Crime” tale takes it down a notch. The crime aspect strikes as formulary and as this reader ages I find it harder and harder to read such noir tales no matter how touted the author without thinking this is just comic book fodder for big kids without four-color panels.

Of course, I am generalizing, sometimes these tales can be something more, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is the repetition and familiar that seems to attract many. I find that I am increasingly jaundiced to this repetitive “been-there, read-that” experience.

The author is clearly skilled, but I wanted it to hew closer to the meat and bones human story that he relates and less with the Lee Child punch-by-numbers manner of tale-weaving.

If you enjoy films such as Taylor Sheridan’s excellent “Wind River” and do not suffer from the reviewer’s impatience you will likely find much to enjoy in this first novel.

With all that said, I look forward to the author’s next novel with fingers crossed that he skips the Saturday Afternoon shoot-em-up and tells the captivating stories he clearly has inside him.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian


The man in the waistcoat slipped down from the mule and stepped forward, grinning. “That we did friend! Couple of hours back. The poor beast just balked and wouldn’t go another step. I tried reasoning with it, but we were on a narrow cut with sheer rock on one side and a whole lot of nothing on the other---a real awkward place for a mule to go onery. Well, I gave that mule a tug or two, sort of inviting it to have second thoughts about its uncooperative behavior. But, no. The poor old beast had made up its mind that it was going no further. So I did what any reasonable man would do when friendly persuasion fails. I sent a slug into his stubborn head and pushed him off into the ravine. He made a fair splat when he hit the bottom, I got to give him credit for that. As a comfortable ride and a willing companion, that mule was no great shakes, but when it comes to splatting…! Well, that just goes to show that all God’s creatures has their special gifts. Some are strong; some are wise; some possess the ability to comfort and console. And that mule? He was a natural born splatter.” Lieder grinned, and B.J. could tell that he took pleasure in his ability to turn a colorful phrase.

The sole Western penned by the single-named nom de plume Trevanian. The author was more known for two well-written spy satires in the 70’s, The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction. [One of which was turned into a Clint Eastwood film that the author felt missed the point of the satire.]

Those novels are well done, but this is a different breed of cat altogether. It is sly, wise, confoundingly unpredictable and is inhabited by an antagonist of bondafide evil.

It some ways it reminds me of an extended stay in the aptly named town of E. L. Doctorow’s also superb Welcome to Hard Times.

The opening passage may lead one to believe it is a novel that wallows in the less-than-savory side of life as one expects in a work by S. Craig Zahler, but the “evil” aspect is but one of the novels many moving parts. [For the record, I adore Mr. Zahler’s two Westerns.]

It is rife with observation.

B.J. made a dry three-note laugh. “Delanny doesn’t care about people. Dying is a selfish business, Matthew. Ask anyone who’s cared for an aging parent. And Jeff Calder is no one’s friend. He’s a man of prejudices, rather than values; of appetites, rather than tastes; of opinions, rather than ideas. He doesn’t care who’s right, only who wins. There are millions of Calders out there. They elect our Presidents, they fill our church pews, they decide our---”

As I said rife with observation. Observations that resonated in the 1800s, that resonated at the time of the novel’s writing, and that resonate now.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker


“Wants it too bad,” I said.

We walked out of the gleaming new office and down the broad corridor.

“Wants everything too bad,” Virgil said.

“Wants to be more than he is,” I said.

“Not the key to happiness, I’m thinking,” Virgil said.

“You’d settle for being what you are,” I said to Virgil.

“I have,” Virgil said.

Another of the late Robert Parker’s dialogue driven marvels.

His style distills the Western essence to laconic exchanges that tell all the tale replete bells and whistles without ever feeling like the clumsy expository writing of many one could name.

Terse and succinct.

It’s as if Parker sought to outdo Elmore Leonard in the “Leave all the parts out that people don’t read” dictum.

This novel also resonates. The stark observations come often and are always welcome.

Pony looked at the dark sky.

“Apache man warrior,” he said. “Apache woman proud.”

“I know,” I said.

Pony grinned.

“In land of Blue-Eyed Devil, not so simple,” he said. “Man can’t always be warrior. Man gets to be cowboy and store man and saloon man. And man who sit in office. Not warrior, I just man who saddle horse. Pitch hay. Pick up horse shit. But I go with you and Virgil, I warrior.”

“Not everybody wants to be a warrior,” I said.

“No. But nobody wants to be pick-up horse shit man, either,” Pony said.

“Some people like it ‘cause it’s safe, I guess.”

“Life not lived to be safe. Safe makes you weak,” Pony said. “Make you slow. Make you tired.”


A Frontier Phrase/Philosophy Worth Resurrecting by Mark Hatmaker


[Some kind folk have mentioned how much they dig this bit of bloviating and aim to apply it—Thank you and good on them for that! I’ve tightened the wheels a bit and tacked on a new tail at the end from Arthur Chapman that seems apt and holds with the Warrior-Poet Spirit we’ve been discussing]

Circa, 1830s-1880s, if a friendly [or merely polite sort] asked one “How’re doin’?” You might hear from gregarious hombres,

Well, I’m livin’ in the shade of the wagon.”

To declare that one is “livin’ in the shade of the wagon” is to say, “Life is all right by me, no matter which way she bucks.”

If we pull this gregarious little phrase apart and have a look at the context it reveals more than a quaint colloquialism.

Crossing “The Great American Desert” [The Great Plains] and actual deserts was no easy feat. The Oregon Trail, the Bozeman, the Santé Fe, the Applegate, the Gila, the Upper and Lower Roads of Texas, and all the other lesser known routes for the adventurous, determined, or downright foolish and unprepared to cross were rife with dangers.

All of these early trails were peppered with the graves of the hopeful and the discarded belongings of people who continually lightened their loads jettisoning what they thought they “couldn’t live without” to what they really needed to survive and thrive.

Dangers were incessant. The elements, the indigenous folks, the non-indigenous that had gone rogue, disease, the never-ending struggle for food, potable water, and hardships a bit beyond the grasp of we pampered folk reading this on a screen.

Such challenges and privations spawned a philosophy all its own. A creed with its own informal chapters and verses.

The Texas Proverb [a rendering of a Kit Carson expression] being one of them…

“Cowards Never Started,

The Weak never Got Here, &

The Unfit Don’t Stay.”

Lest one thinks hard people were hard-hearted, often the early journals are full of robust humor, honest evaluations, and admirable unflagging “stick-to-it-iveness.”

Moving on to our shady phrase.

Many of these terrains had zero trees, bluffs, hills, anything to block the sun.

The wise walked on the shady side of the wagon when travelling.

The wise walked on the shady side of the horse when afoot.

The wise slacked against a wheel in the shade or stretched out under the wagon to provide relief from the sun.

“Livin’ in the shade of the wagon” meant that “Sure, there may not be a shade tree in sight, but I got my own shade right here and she’s just as good.”

It meant, that you were amenable and adaptable.

It meant you kept your sunny-but-shaded disposition wherever you went because you knew how to enjoy what was at hand no matter the circumstances.

The shade was both the actual wagon and the metaphorical cool spirit of the individual who displayed coolness under duress.

Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” waay before Hemingway. The rough ‘n’ ready embodiment of the sprezzatura of Castiglione’s Courtier.

To be a shade enjoying sort also meant that you were a shade provider.

Your calmness of spirit and Yankee Ingenuity demonstrating how to “use what you got at hand” in turn acted as a sort of calming shade for others around you.

The man and woman who was able to stand tall and stay cool no matter what was valued by all.

Livin’ in the shade of the wagon” was not a mere colorful retort.

It was a declaration of intent.

It was a philosophy.

It was a valued goal to shoot for.

May we all live in the shade of the wagon!

Arthur Chapman concludes his poem, “Out Where the West Begins” with these lines…

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying---

That’s where the West being.”

Chapman’s West may be mythical and metaphorical but…seems a worthy goal to sigh less, sing more, buy less and give more gladhanding, and who wouldn’t love to make friends with a singing gladhanding sort?

May we all know such folk, hell, may we all be such Giants.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Tentmaker by Clay Reynolds


G ILBERT HOOLEY HAD long since given up the habit of carrying a timepiece. Nothing much happened in his life that required precise timing, and the rhythms of the community had long ago taken shape around routines governed by circumstance rather than time of day. On another account, remembering to wind a pocket watch twice a day required the kind of systemized responsibility that Hooley always tried to avoid. For more than a year, he had reckoned the time by the position of the sun or moon, or, if the weather was cloudy, by the brightness of ambient light.

Gilbert Hooley stands at the center of our novel. Is he our hero, or simply a man to whom things happen?

It is no spoiler to say that essentially the novel is the story of a man whose wagon breaks down and he simply decides to stay put. Gradually things happen around him. Much as a single grain of sand irritates the oyster until it produces a pearl, Hooley’s indolence, marked by similar incessant irritation allows things to accrete around his aggravated center.

This portion of the story is shambling and low-key, but absolutely delightful. Calls to mind the episode “Brown” from the vastly underrated television series “The Westerner.”

Hooley’s frustrations are so trivial and yet beautifully written we feel his impotence to succeed at even avoiding success.

There is a twin narrative. It follows a band of repulsive outlaws that could easily be found in a work by S. Craig Zahler. These interludes are blunt and tinged with extreme cruelty.

The tales do mix. The ending might have a series of deus ex machina coincidences at its core, but by this time the reader has enjoyed these twin tales and Hooley’s eternal bewilderment and we simply bask in the author having a good time with his curtain closing.

A superior novel.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Cosgrove Report by G.J.A. O’Toole


We have a mighty intriguing volume here, consider the full title.

The Cosgrove Report: Being the Private Inquiry of a Pinkerton Detective into the Death of President Lincoln.

The conceit of the premise is a recently discovered memoir ala the technique of most recent Sherlock Holmes pastiches that reveals the exploits and investigations of Pinkerton Detective Nicholas Cosgrove.

Here’s the trick of the premise. The year is 1868. Our Pinkerton agent is tasked with hunting down one John Wilkes Booth.

Those familiar with history are more than aware that Booth died by gunfire after a long manhunt for having assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

History tells us Booth has been dead for two years before our tale commences.

Along the way we learn much about the assassination, the dealings of numerous co-conspirators involved in the wider plot—all of which is true, by the way, and, for the sake of the novel [this is not a spoiler] John Wilkes Booth did not die in that barn.

If one considers only that information, the novel is good rousing speculative fun.

But, if one were to also consider just who the author is, the story becomes all the more intriguing.

G.J.A. O’Toole was a former employee of the C.I.A., a Pulitzer Prize nominee and the author of Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and EspionageHonorable Treachery, a history of American intelligence.

The man knows his history and he knows the sub rosa machinations behind the scenes of history.

With the author’s bona fides before us one can’t help but wonder while reading, “How much of this is true? How much is invention?” And maybe, just maybe, “Is fiction this author’s way of safely telling a tale?”

Whether read as rousing tale or as eyebrow arching food for thought, I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

  When they rode out of the Yuma camp it was in the dark of early morning. Cancer, Virgo, Leo raced the ecliptic down the southern night and...