Friday, August 27, 2021

Hellbenders: A Traditional Western Novel by Richard Prosch


The locus of the skirmish was an oversize longhorn calf, its wild neck and shoulders straining against a wooden yoke. It was caught between a long hinged squeeze gate, partially broken and weighted down by the vaqueros, and the far side of the chute. One of the straw-hat cowboys swung a glowing iron back toward a caliche block firepit piled high with ash and glowing embers, and the animal’s hip smoked with a fresh brand. Lin smelled the singed fur and burnt flesh even as he noticed the former bull’s male parts, freshly removed, slick and glistening atop a pile on a canvas tarp. Naturally, they’d be saved for frying.

I’m gonna say a few words and then have you read that paragraph again. It is typical of most any I could have selected. It drips with detail without becoming an exercise in what the author discovered in research.

Many in the pursuit of authenticity turn a bit pedantic, a bit “Look what I read in a history book, now I put it in my fiction.” Such practices mar many a historical entertainment.

Bernard Cornwell educates you easily, painlessly and fascinatingly as we follow his Richard Sharpe throughout the Napoleonic Wars—this author does the same, as handily and effortlessly.

The details are offered in easy offhand observations that smack of authenticity, they “feel” as if the character lives where he is as opposed to simply “And then this happened,…and then this…”

In one paragraph we see the struggle, the straining wild neck.

We see and feel the glowing iron that came from the mighty specific and resonant caliche block firepit.

We smell flesh and fur.

We are even called upon to guess at taste as Lin offers the obvious “male parts” meal that is to come.

Have a read of that paragraph again. Notice that it is chockful of detail and yet it blows by like a breeze.

This is a superlative example of the genre.

If I have a quibble with it, it is this—the four words that follow the main title of Hellbenders.

Those words, “A Traditional Western Novel.”

Now as fans of the genre, we’d be liars if we didn’t admit that much of what can be classified as “traditional” is mere plotting and not crafting the world we are to inhabit as we read.

This novel is more than mere traditional, it’s a bit of a time machine.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Aviator by Ernest K. Gann


Now the pilot glanced down at the terrain and knew again a momentary sense of foreboding. Unless the weather was very fine it was always the same through here. The mountain plateau was high and devoid of human trespass. Here the surface of the earth seemed to be made of roughly cast iron. Bold and barren escarpments served the pilots who flew this way as recognizable markers in a rumpled ocean of rock and desert. It was wild country and there had been times when the pilot wondered if it were possible to fear land itself.

Lest one think that a novel that centers around aviation does not belong in the Western genre, allow me to plead its case.

The novel is set in 1928, thusly the early unregulated wild and wooly years of flying. The days of “do it yourself” repairs and often self-taught fliers taking chances in a brand-new frontier.

Here’s historian Paul O’Neil on these early days.

The men and women who flew the Jennies and later the Gee Bees, the Super Solution and the Wedell-Williams racers were direct descendants and, in many ways, the final heirs of the footloose frontiersmen of an earlier century who had crossed the Appalachians and wandered the West; they risked their lives as a matter of course because that was the only way to reach the next mountain range—or to achieve the next aerial stunt—and the prize still seems worth the gamble.”

Or, consider this, the early airmail fliers [“Flying the mails” as in this novel] were required to carry a side-arm, a holdover from the Pony Express days.

Or, consider this, Western filmmaking legend John Ford saw these early fliers as “cowboys of the sky” we see it in later work but none more tellingly than his own 1932 Air Mail which features some spectacular stunt flying by Paul Mantz.

Viewing this film one can easily feel the precursor of the rough and rowdy camaraderie that pops up in Ford’s cavalry pictures.

John Wayne himself made a few flying pictures, most notably, 1953’s Island in the Sky an adaptation of a novel by the very author we are examining today.

To the book itself, at last.

Is it good?

Indeed, this brief novel [148 pages] packs the heart of middle-period L ’Amour and has that same resonance with the land itself.

Upon its release it was described by some critics as a “True Grit of the air.” There is a young girl in it, but the comparisons beyond that does little justice to either novel—both are exceptional and have their own merits.

Spoiler-free: Here we have a disfigured air mail pilot who reluctantly takes a young girl as a passenger on a dangerous run.

What follows has heart, resonance, depth, perhaps a bit square around the edges but the authenticity smooths that squareness with its humanity.

A fine novel.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Searchers by Alan LeMay


“He made a labored calculation, and decided Laurie was twenty-one. That explained why she seemed so lighted up; probably looked the best she ever would in her life. She was at an age when most girls light up, if they’re going to; Mexicans and Indians earlier. A look at their mothers, or their older sisters, reminded you of what you knew for certain. All that bright glow would soon go out again. But you couldn’t ever make yourself believe it.”

While familiar with the classic film the novel was off my radar. That defect has been corrected. While not the classic the film is, the book still is a fine read within the genre and rife with pungent observations as in the opening quote.

We live more as an outsider than we do in the film, experiencing all through young eyes. It is a nice perspective to view as young grows older through harsh experience.

A fine companion piece to a fine film.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel by Quentin Tarantino


It was sometime around fifteen years later that the reputation of a deadly half white/half Mexican gunfighter named Johnny Madrid reached the ears of Californians. The reputation was that of a scoundrel, but a scoundrel with lightning-fast prowess with a pistola. From the accounts of eyewitnesses and dime-store pulp writers, he had the quickness in killing of Tom Horn, the accuracy of aim of Annie Oakley, the nasty disposition of John Wesley Hardin, and the lack of human empathy of William H. Bonney. He was one of the most feared killers who rode the Mexican side of the border, known by the peons in the pueblos he passed through as El Asesino de Rojo (translation: “The Murderer in Red”), due to the fancy red ruffled shirt he always wore.

Those who enjoy the films of Tarantino, his Westerns in particular, may find this “novel” of interest.

First, let’s get an expectation out of the way. If you enjoyed the titled film, you do get plenty more time with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth but…if you open the pages expecting the book to follow the film, well, that is not Tarantino’s way.

The fiery finale is reduced to a mere single paragraph summary towards the beginning of the book.

So, if the book is not the movie what is it?

Well, it’s inside baseball on filmmaking, it’s film criticism, it’s a primer of on-set behavior, it’s, well it’s many things but what it is not is a carbon copy of the film and that is what makes it interesting [to this reader’s mind.]

I assure readers of the Western Genre, we get lots of insight into how Western film and television is made and the author’s views on his own favorite Western novelists-one will not surprise you, two or three may.

There are entire chapters that seem to be no more than extended plot summaries of Western episodic television.

If your tolerance for Mr. Tarantino’s digressive style is low, well, this might be a skip for you.

If you like his films [and I do] I found myself admiring the chutzpah of choosing not to tell the same ol’ story he already told.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Spaghetti Westerns: The Good, The Bad and the Violent by Thomas Weisser


This encyclopedia volume calls itself “A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography.” I am told by folks in the Spaghetti Western know that this book is rife with errors and they point to other volumes as being more accurate.

I have those other volumes. They are, indeed, compendious, and huge in scope but…

I still find this A-Z treasury the volume I reach for the most in regard to running down a few “guilty pleasure” viewings.

The volume ends with a few Top Twenty Lists from Five Experts, a list of “The Worst Spaghetti Westerns” which is saying much in this genre, and the list I have found most illuminating, “Anglo Counterparts,” US made films that attempt to ape the excessive Italian style.

The experts may be able to tell how rife with error this volume is, but for this casual inexpert viewer of the genre, it fits the bill just fine.

You’ve been warned away or urged to have a look.

As in all things, your call.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Devil’s Wind by Douglas Hirt


He found a shovel in the tack house and the soft ground behind the cabin yielded easily; by the time the sun had dropped below the ragged western horizon Kendell had covered them both and was carefully patting the top of the mound into a smooth hump with the back of the shovel. He put the both of them in one hole—somehow he felt that was the way they would have wanted it. He finished smoothing down the mound, and stood back, knowing he could have done better for them but his heart wasn’t in it. Words should have been spoken over them; however, Kendell could not abide the hypocrisy of such a deed, so he just stood there looking down at the grave for a long time. Darkness had settled in when he returned to the horse and untied his saddlebags.

A rock-solid piece of entertainment. What it lacks in epic heft or subtle character observation it makes up for in lean momentum.

It reminds me of the fare that screenwriter John Grant would craft for Duke Wayne. It has its hard-hitting moments, it has its compassion, it has a substantial stick-to-ribs feel to it despite its brief running time.

An enjoyable way to while an afternoon on a sunny front porch.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Encyclopedia of Civil War Usage by Webb & Cheryl Garrison


Actually the complete title is The Encyclopedia of Civil War Usage: An Illustrated Compendium of the Everyday Language of Soldiers and Civilians.

The title tells all.

I imagine this would be mighty useful to authors who wish to set their tale in the aftermath of the War and ensure that their character spoke the vernacular with credence.

Also useful for the historian or inveterate reader who wants to understand what drips from the lips of folks from this era.

Dry A-Z it may be, I still read it cover to cover as one would a novel and found much to provoke a thought or two.

A few entries to give the flavor…

Confederate gas. A substitute for illuminating gas, such as pinecones or double-distilled turpentine.

Gobble, to. To win an overwhelming victory quickly.

Long taw. A distance beyond the normal range of a weapon.

Possum Beer. A variety of homebrew made from persimmons.

Hellbenders: A Traditional Western Novel by Richard Prosch

  The locus of the skirmish was an oversize longhorn calf, its wild neck and shoulders straining against a wooden yoke. It was caught betwee...