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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Posse from Poison Creek by Lewis B. Patten

Dolan was silent a moment before he spoke. He sensed that he was on uncertain ground, and he wanted what he said to be just right. “I won’t change. I guess I don’t know how to convince you—not with words. But I won’t change.”

She didn’t answer him. But the silence was companionable, and he knew that she had accepted his words at face value. At least for now.

This brief novel by the solid Patten, while saddled with a formulaic name, is a bit more than a mere action tale of “Go get ‘em and bring ‘em back.”

It is that action tale, but it is more than that—it reads as a posse-procedural where we are privy to the interior considerations of Sheriff Webb Dolan and his weighing this or that contingency. He is plagued with a form of on-the-trail bureaucracy and the varying logistical planning of a long haul not often given voice in formulaic fiction.

These mature considerations make this tale a cut above. A worthy afternoon whiler.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

“When the Children Cry” for Meat by Noel M. Loomis

Ikamosa drew a sudden deep breath. “I was raised a Kiowa,” he said, “but I have never lost the Comanche’s love of coming and going as he wishes.”

Mr. Loomis uses his deep knowledge of Indian ways to construct another tale akin to his award-winning effort “Grandfather Out of the Past.” [Also covered in this blog.]

This one follows a band of Kiowa led by their half-Comanche chief during a long lean time. 

Steeped in tribal politics and wise to Indian ways, it has this aspect of verisimilitude going for it, but I found it less successful than “Grandfather Out of the Past” as this one seems a little too respectful, a little too “Majestic Noble Savage” heavy to feel realistically immersive.

Undoubtedly a gifted taleteller, I merely express a preference for the other.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

“Red Sand” by Will C. Brown

Red sand whipped men’s faces and clogged their eyes and nostrils. The wind, the constant, yammering wind, battered the walls of lonely nester houses, and pried into every crevice to lay its gritty hand. And if a man was weak, not made for it, the red grit could grind itself into his reason, as well as into his clothes, his teeth, and his bed.

Brown was a force in the genre in the 50’s and 60’s and the prose here shows good atmosphere in the Caprock Country. A tale of redemption with the discovery of love thrown in. 

I’ll admit, while not a bad tale, it seems a bit too formulaic to merit a slot as one of the 100 Best Western Short-Stories. 

I look forward to sampling more of Mr. Brown. As I said, well written just a little bit predictable.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Bitter Grass by T. V. Olsen

Each night saw an all-night dance where the younger people stomped and swayed barefoot (for shoes would not have survived a single such night) in superb rhythm kept by chanting hand-clappers on the sidelines. It was a wild and beautiful sight that Alex watched for hours on end and never tired of, a highly improvised, life-pulsing promenade somewhere between Africa and hoedown country, with the fireplay of red light on quick lithe bodies and shining black faces. 

This is a curious novel. It is so full of incident that it has enough story for a McMurtry length epic and yet the page count keeps it in standard novel range. Olsen, is a mighty capable writer but here he seems to wish to leave nothing out of his sprawling story and often we simply have crammed episodes “And then this happened, and then this, and then this…”

When he takes the time to pause and slow down and dig in on a scene, we get a view of what might have been, a deeply realized epic. Instead, what we have here is a bit rushed and perhaps too surface for a man with such obvious talents.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Alaskans by Keith Wheeler

The labor assigned to the Chinese was the foulest sort—“the kind of work” Hawthorne confessed, “we didn’t want to do ourselves.” They asked little in return. “All they expected to get out of life,” said Hawthorne, “was hard work and the promise that when they died their bones would be shipped back to the old country to be buried in the graves of their ancestors. And even that wasn’t done until they was buried over here long enough for the flesh to waste away. It saved expense and shipping space to dig them up, pack each man’s bones in a little metal box, and send them back home in a sizable consignment.”

Another stellar volume in the Time-Life series titled The Old West. Full of personal vignettes, curious detail, and inspiring stories. 

This volume will take you from cheechako to sourdough in no time flat.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Best of the West: The Horse Soldiers Edited by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg

A volume in the multipart anthology series published by Fawcett. It is a mighty useful set of books allowing Western readers to dip into shorter works by beloved authors and less familiar scribes to see what strikes the individual fancy and what might be less to one’s palate.

This volume of cavalry tales includes…

Verse by Omar M. Barker.

Short stories by Frederic Remington, Jack Schaeffer, James Warner Bellah, Bill Gulick, Gil Brewer, Dorothy M. Johnson, Bryce Walton, Brian Garfield, Elmore Leonard, Clay Fisher, and a grueling excerpt from the Elmer Kelton novel The Wolf and the Buffalo. 

While not all gold, more than enough nuggets to merit a panning session or two.

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...