Saturday, June 5, 2021

Short Story Spotlight: Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman”


A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the Church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession…Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only.” And the priest would say, “Do you mean bad women or good women?” And Ruben Vega would say, “They are all good Father.”

Boom! That is how Dutch opens this tale.

Immediately we have a handle on the swagger, the charm, the character of this Ruben Vega.

Not everything Mr. Leonard wrote is gold, but all that is gold, is 24-karat.

His keen eye tells with gestures, observed movement what a man or women is in briefly limned seemingly nothing actions.

His observations on laconic ease could serve as a primer for How-To-Be or How-Not-To-Be comfortable in one’s own skin and not merely a muddled poseur.

She said, “John, look at me…won’t you please sit with us?”

Now it was if the man had to make a moral decision, first consult his conscience, then consider the manner in which he would pull the chair out—the center of attention. When finally, he was seated, upright on the chair and somewhat away from the table, Ruben Vega thought, All that to sit down. He felt sorry for the man now, because the man was not the kind who could say what he felt.

It takes a considered eye to see and weigh such things in day-to-day life. A man of ever-present experience.

It takes a craftsman, no, make that artist, to make us see through those eyes.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Words of Power: Voices from Indian America, Edited by Norbert S. Hill, Jr. [Oneida]


Too often today words are mistaken for deeds so that expressing a fine sentiment is the equivalent of acting in a moral way.

While not a work of fiction, this slim book of American Indian quotations is excellent counter-medicine for most books on “Native American Spirituality” and “Native Wisdom.”

Usually books of this ilk cherry-pick for the touchy-feely, New Agey, feel good messages.

They ignore the bellicose voices and the indignation of people subject to a long series of broken treaties and lop-sided “agreements.”

It clocks in at a mere 56 pages, but there is more pith here than in many thicker volumes full of platitudes.

One more morsel to exit on.

What hurts Indians most is that our costumes are considered beautiful, but it’s as if the person wearing them didn’t exist.”—Rigoberta Menchu, Quiche Maya

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Wide-Ranging Conversation: Richard Prosch & Mark Hatmaker


Crew, a little self-aggrandizement here, as I offer a podcast interview I did with the knowledgeable and good man, Richard Prosch over at The Six-Gun Justice podcast.


We roam over rough and tumble combat, the Comanche Empire, autodidacticism, philosophy, and…well, hell, give it a listen and find out for yourself, it’s only around 20 minutes long.


If you like what you hear, well, view the links below for more in my bailiwick and…


Proceed on with more Six Gun Justice from Mr. Prosch and his stalwart partner, Paul Bishop!


For info on the referenced Subscription Service.


For the whats and whys of The Black Box Project.


For ThisOld Man’s Musings on matters frontier and fictional.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Stories of the Far North, Edited by Jon Tuska


Send me the best of your breeding,

lend me your chosen ones;

Them I will take to my bosom,

them will I call my sons;

Them will I gild with my treasure,

them will I glut with my meat;

But the others—the misfits, the failures---

I trample under my feet.—Robert Service, “The Law of the Yukon

The Western is an expansive territory that encompasses not the just the Great Plains, the dusty trails, the fastnesses of the Rockies, and the desiccated lands of the Southwest.

To authors such as Louis L ’Amour and George Goodchild, and collector Jeff C, Dykes, the definition of “Western” was too constricting, they preferred a descriptor more along the lines of “Novels of the Frontier.” Be that frontier the Alleghenies during the French and Indian War, or the pampas of the Uruguayan gauchos or, as we have here, the frigid Arctic North.

The themes remain—environment as vital character, conflict can be with the land and weather itself or it can be more of the two-legged variety, but the untamed land is always part of the allure.

This anthology gives us nine excursions into the frigid frontier.

It opens with a knowledgeable introduction from the always on point western authority Jon Tuska.

We get a ballad from Poet of the Yukon, Robert Service with his “The Trail of ‘Ninety-Eight.”

Authors included are…

·        Rex Beach

·        Jack London

·        James Oliver Curwood

·        Max Brand

·        Dan Cushman

·        Les Savage Jr.

·        James B. Hendryx

·        Tim Champlin

To this reader, the stand-out was Rex Beach’s tale The Test, with Jack London, Max Brand [a surprise to me as I usually do not care for this author’s brand of purple prose,] and Dan Cushman also showing strong.

As for the other tales…life is short, read well, live well.

For my money, Tuska’s introduction and Beach’s story were worth the price of admission.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Story Spotlight: “The Test” by Rex Beach


Out on the trail, nature equalizes the work to a great extent, and no man can shirk unduly, but in camp, inside the cramped confines of a tent pitched on boughs laid over the snow, it is very different. There one must busy himself while the other rests and keeps his legs out of the way if possible. One man sits on the bedding at the rear of the shelter, and shivers, while the other squats over a tantalizing fire of green wood, blistering his face and parboiling his limbs inside his sweaty clothing. Dishes must be passed, food divided, and it is poor food, poorly prepared at best. Sometimes men criticize and voice longing for better grub and better cooking. Remarks of this kind have been known to result in tragedies, bitter words and flaming curses---then, perhaps, wild actions, memories of which the later years can never erase. It is but one prank of the wilderness, one grim manifestation of its silent forces.”

Passages with such verité resonance can only be written from experience. The author, Rex Beach, had that. Beach joined the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the last century and took his chances with pick and spade, but it turns out his fortune was to be found in the tales of what he saw while there.

Beach was no mere Jack London knock-off, although he is accused of that. Some of his tales do descend into melodrama, but there is always a tincture of hard-earned verisimilitude that mere legwork or “good research” cannot replicate.

His plots may veer to melodrama, but his protagonists exist in a real world of hard-effort, sometimes drudgery, and living on the knife-edge of existence.

In his autobiography, Personal Experiences [1940] he refers to the writer’s responsibility that “however fertile may be his inevitable genius, it seems to me that he owes it to his readers to respect the realties of his environment and, if he proposes to make use of facts, he should see that they are accurate. All of which is perhaps another way of saying that I’m a sort of longhand cameraman.”

Such clear-eyed pragmatism strikes me as useful [and appealing] in fiction, but far more useful in actual life. How many plans, dreams, resolutions, goals are composed of one one-part reality and two-parts assumption of “wishes”?

The “lived-in” “been there, done that” approach of this story seems to be a microcosm of Sebastian Junger’s excellent non-fiction work, Tribe, which details how very often it is the hardship shared that creates the strongest bonds and forges individual character more than any creed, sermon, or copiously consumed “wise” pages of philosophy.

One more extract from the story. On its face it is about a rare commodity in the Yukon—women. But the final five words can be applied to all desires.

Beach argues that living starkly can remind one of what you didn’t do when you “didn’t know you had it so good.”

Now it is a penalty of the Whie Country [The Yukon] that men shall think of women. The open life brings health and vigor, strength and animal vitality, and these clamor for play. The cold of the still, clear days is no more biting than the fierce memories and appetites which charge through the brain at night. Passions intensify with imprisonment; recollections come to life; longings grow vivid and wild. Thoughts change to realities, the past creeps close, and dream figures are filled with blood and fire. One remembers pleasures and caresses, women’s smiles, women’s kisses, the invitation of outstretched arms. Wasted opportunities mock at one.

If we are wise, we are spurred by all longhand cameramen and seize dreams now, reward kindness now, embrace outstretched arms now.

If we are even wiser, we will seek the occasional rough-hewn, razor-lived hardship that will bring all we take for granted into stark counterpoint and return from that experience with grateful eyes and appreciative hearts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Penrock Covenant by J. Lance Gilmer


You see, I have been forced to defend myself for no other reason than because of the color of my skin that the good Lord decided to wrap around these bones. I never sought trouble or asked for it. I have even backed down. But people see backing down as weak and that ain’t so. It takes more strength to walk away if it means someone losing his life. All I have ever asked is to be left alone and allowed to live free in this country. Nothing less and nothing more.”

This is exactly the sort of novel that makes exploratory reading a joy. The road to this title began with me reading the author’s 1976 crime novel, Hell Has No Exit.

I was tipped to that novel from the site

I enjoyed the crime novel and then tracked down this sole western from the author and am only disappointed in the fact that Mr. Gilmer has penned no more in this genre.

It plays like a mash-up of two good takes on the genre: Quentin Tarantino’s westerns and the beautiful dialogue interplay and easy friendship of equals we find in Robert Parker’s Virgil & Cole novels.

The dialogue is easily on par with Parker’s and one can hear two experienced hands such as Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson give voice to the conversations that range from the affable and laconic to the cold and necessary. [Try it yourself, re-read the opening passage with Mr. Jackson in mind and tell me that don’t cook.]

A delight to discover, and a joy to read.

One more from Mr. Gilmer to exit on.

Your skin is thin and your head is thick. Now that is a bad combination. Change the way you view life, boy, or it will be taken away.”

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Hopscotch by Brian Garfield


Living is something most of us postpone isn’t it? We sell the present for a chance at a future where we may do our living when we’re old and have lost the talent for it.

First things first, this novel it is not a Western, it is a novel of espionage. I have included it here as the author is a fine Western author [many of his titles are reviewed here] and this novel strikes me as a riff on his Western novel Tripwire.

In both, we have a lone protagonist take on a much larger force than himself. He does so with foresight, meticulous planning, and much cleverness along the way.

It strikes me the two could be read in tandem for a comparison, hence the inclusion here.

The novel is also rife with Garfield’s sardonic pragmatism. Small riffs on humanity.

Her laughter was mocking but not unkind. He didn’t respond but he couldn’t share in her contempt for Jayne’s compassion: he couldn’t deceive himself any longer into mocking anyone else’s convictions. He could only envy them.

Or this…

And he’d long since given up the athletic challenges. They’d all got to looking the same way---the way bowling had looked when he’d been a college freshman. As soon as he discovered that the object of bowling was to learn how to do exactly the same thing every time, he’d lost interest.

A beautiful reflection on formula living, hell, even formula reading—if the goal is simply to repeat what has been done, no matter how skillful the repetition, it strikes me, and perhaps the late Mr. Garfield, that there may be more to the world than wearing out the skillful groove.

A fine novel from a fine author—one redolent of his western sensibilities.

Short Story Spotlight: Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman”

  A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the Church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest,...