Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler

 T.W. looked across the table. “Miss Evertson.”

“Am I no longer holding your interest?”

“Let me ask you something—why did you agree to meet me here tonight?”

“I thought it might prove to be an entertaining diversion.” The sheriff frowned.

“People go to the rodeo for a diversion. People sit and talk so they can learn about each other.”

“I think I have learned more than enough about you this evening.”

“Why’s that? Because I’m not allowing you to talk down to me like you did when I first got here? Because I’m not okay with you smirking at me in your superior way? I may not know how to catch a butterfly or anything about wine, but strand me in the wilderness, and I can find my way back. Give me some tools, and I can build a house—I built the one I live in. Tell me to track somebody across any terrain, and I can do it as good as an Indian. Give me a book, and I can read it just the same as you can. And there isn’t a finer lady in the whole world than the one I raised up myself—I know that for a fact.”

“What is your point?”

 “There’s a very big difference between being intelligent and being smart.”

I provide that brief exchange to show that there is an ability to portray heart and humanity from, Mr. Zahler. If I provided only an example of the grim dark deeds that are executed by some very bad men you might leave with a lop-sided view of what this novel is capable of.

This is an appropriate offering for Halloween, not that there is anything supernatural about this novel, but there is horror here. Zahler is the writer/director of both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. Both are fine films and like this novel both have heart and both have extremes of violence that are almost jaw-dropping.

Where producers might rein in cinematic violent excesses, Zahler let’s rip on the printed page. There are some baroque ultra-violent set-pieces that simply boggle. I want to emphasize, that this is not simply violence for violence’s sake, Zahler can write, and the story is important, but do not be fooled, the violence takes no backseat—this is front and center balls to the wall prose.

I’d say it is no accident that the novel has been positively blurbed by both Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee, icons in the extreme-horror field [and both mighty nice men, to boot.]

If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ve got a fine read ahead of you.

If extreme violence in copious amounts limned in vivid prose is not your thing, seek elsewhere.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bill Crider Interview

Mr. Bill Crider is no stranger to Western aficionados. Aside from penning many fine westerns, he has also written widely in other genres, serves as the President of The Western Fictioneers organization, offered countless thoughtful reviews and insights on books, authors, and matters pop in general over at his excellent blog Bill Crider’s PopCulture Magazine. Keep in mind this is just a brief listing of what the man has done. And yet somehow, he found the time to have this conversation.

Mr. Crider, sincere thanks for taking the time to provide us with some thoughts on the Western genre. With that said, I want to get down to brass tacks and offer what I consider one of my favorite first sentences of the past year. You open Outrage at Blanco with this gem: “Jink Howard sat in the shade of a tree and ate tomatoes while Ben Atticks raped the woman in the wagon bed.” That is pure attention-grabbing gold. I heard a fine piece of writing advice years ago “Let your readers know what’s at stake, right up front.” This sentence does that in spades. Is this a philosophy you adhere to as well?

​      I always heard a different version of that advice, which was "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph."  I do try to have something there that will get a reader's attention, but I'd never shoot the sheriff.  Sheriff Dan Rhodes has been way too good to me for me to do a thing like that.​

Staying with your novel Outrage at Blanco, but also staying spoiler-free so that new readers can have the joys of following up on that whip-cracking sentence; the character Ellie Taine goes through a bit of transformation in the course of this novel. It calls to my mind the film Hannie Caulder [which was minor at best, aside from an excellent Robert Culp.] In Hannie Caudler the transformation is a bit superficial and rote, but Ellie has real depth to her. Her actions make sense to me. May I ask what spawned this character?

​     As is so often the case with my writing, I have no idea what spawned the characters or the plot.  I don't do a lot of planning, and sometimes, as in the case of Ellie Taine, a character evolves over the course of the book.  I remember seeing Hannie Calder long ago, but I remember almost nothing about it at this point.​

The Ellie Taine novels also have a strong Spaghetti western feel to them, at least to my mind. I don’t mean that they are cheaply done and sometimes nonsensical, but in the unadulterated grit, the baroque presentation of violence. Are Spaghetti westerns of some influence on this series?

​     It's certainly possible that the spaghettis are an influence on me.  I quite enjoy the Clint Eastwood Dollars movies, and I've seen quite a few other westerns in that vein.​

I’m flogging a dead-horse in that I’ve got one more question about Outrage at Blanco. I don’t want to give anything away, but I find your unintended consequences of a simple accident with a tomato can a stroke of genius. This minor mishap wakes us to the fact that these were harsh times and lacking in practically every amenity we possess today. There was more to be aware of then then gunfights and stampedes. Do you find that these touches of “This is how it was” authenticity add depth and breadth?

​      I like to add a little authenticity when I can, but the accident with the tomato can was just one more thing that evolved in the writing of the book.  I hadn't thought of it at first, but it seemed just right later on as I wrote the book.​

Let’s talk Sheriff Dan Rhodes. While a modern setting, I find these police procedurals fine examples of contemporary Westerns that I have no problem including in my preferred reading stack. What thoughts inspired the creation of this character?

​     Once again, I have to give a vague answer.  I really don't know what inspired the character, who started out as a character in a short story that kept getting longer and longer.  I've been told that there was never a sheriff like Rhodes, but that's okay.  I like him, and readers seem to, also.​

Do you find there to be much difference between writing Westerns of the 19th-century time period and those novels of the West written in contemporary settings? Meaning are characters like Dan Rhodes and Walter Longmire really that far removed from characters inhabiting a T.T. Flynn novel?

​     I think Dan Rhodes shares a lot of the same values that old west heroes exemplified.  He never expresses a "code" directly, but I think it's clear that he has one and that it's informed by the westerners of the past.  ​ 

You are a voracious reader and a thoughtful reviewer as anyone who consumes your blog well knows. You have led me to many fine reads over the years, and with that in mind I go to your expertise well again. If you had to make a stack of Desert Island western novels to see you through hard times, what books would you pack?

​     There'd have to be a couple by Harry Whittington, maybe Saddle the Storm being one of them.  A few by Louis L'Amour.  Shane, The Big Sky. Little Big Man, Wild Times.  There are too many to list.​

With that said, are there any Western works that don’t quite make the classic-cut but still provide you with entertainment? These can be minor classics in their own right or what some call guilty pleasures.

​     I don't have any guilty pleasures.  If I like something, I don't feel guilty about it.  As you can see from the above, not all my choices would be considered classic.​

Do you have upcoming novels in the works, Western or otherwise?

​     I just turned in a Sheriff Rhodes novel, That Old Scoundrel Death.  I hope the publisher likes it.​

Mr. Crider, thank you again for your time and consideration. It’s been an honor corresponding with you.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ashes & Dust

“Reason I like animals better than most humans is that they can’t help being what they are. And don’t try to be any different. Or make apology for being like they are.”

This is the 19th novel in the long-running Edge series, which billed itself as “The Most Violent Westerns in Print” or sometimes as the “Roughest Westerns in Print.”

They are violent, but not any more so than many I could name, or perhaps you could name.

The violence is not upsetting [nor is it meant to be] it is always of the grand operatic variety one would find in a Spaghetti Western film. As a matter of fact, George Gilman [aka Terry Harknett] cut his Western teeth writing novelizations of Spaghetti Westerns, it was then realized he had a flair for it and thus the Edge series was born, plus a few others we’ll get to another day.

Spoiler-free as usual, I want to offer that my tastes run to James Carlos Blake and others of that ilk, but I find myself going to the Edge series now and again for a drink of pure entertainment. Gilman has all the Spaghetti Western tropes down and has such creative variation on them I find myself often thinking, “Ah, that is a fine scenario. Give Franco Nero a call and let’s do it.”

Gilman has a way with baroque set-pieces in the Sergio Leone vein that does the genre proud.

I do have a complaint. The author has a tendency to end most chapters with a pun coming from Edge’s lips. Perhaps it’s just me, but this grates. It lifts me out of the grim setting the author has created. But your mileage may vary.

Oe last thing. Shane Black the writer-director of the brilliant film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and of the very successful Iron Man 2, wrote and directed a pilot for Amazon based on Edge. Bang on! Fantastic Spaghetti western feel that captured the tone of the novels nicely. You can tell a fan was at the helm. Amazon passed on the project. A shame.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

News of the World

“The greatest pride of the Kiowa was to do without, to make use of anything at hand; they were almost vain of their ability to go without water, food, and shelter. Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts. The baseline of human life was courage.”
A simply gorgeous novel filled with one affecting episode after another. I offer no more plot spoilers than one may find on the inside of the book jacket. 
Post-Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, travels the towns of northern Texas where he reads from newspapers for donations to a news-starved populace. Newspapers being a scarce commodity he draws quite a crowd. 
He is approached to return a young girl who had been a Kiowa captive to her family. And there our journey begins, this old man and this odd young girl who is not quite of either civilization.
“Her gestures and expressions were not those of white people and he knew they never would be. She stared intently when something interested her, her questions were forthright and often embarrassing.”
As we follow their trail we grow to love both characters fiercely. We watch them mistrust and attempt to understand one another. I will offer no more than that I envy the reader who has yet to encounter this novel.
Well, one more thing, if Mr. Jeff Bridges or Mr. Tommy Lee Jones would be so kind as to snatch this gem of a book up and render it into a film I’d be much obliged.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Conversation with Author Bruce Holbert

Bruce Holbert, the author of the gorgeously written novels Lonesome Animals and The Hour of Lead was kind enough to consent to an interview. Those of us who value the written word should find much to appreciate here.

First, feel free to give us a little biography, let us know who you are, the man, that is.

My dad was a construction worker, so as a little guy, I grew up all over the state of Washington.  We lived in nearly twenty different towns before I turned six and started school.  At that point we returned to the Grand Coulee area, where my grandparents lived.  My maternal grandparents migrated from Wisconsin to work on the dam.  My paternal grandparents were original homesteaders in the area between Grand Coulee and Bridgeport. This is where I grew up, though there were several side trips in between. 

I went to college in a local public university and had a mediocre academic career.  I did discover I had some writing chops thanks to several writers and visiting writers in the program who took some times scraping off the rough edges instructors.  I ended up with a teaching certificate and four five years taught high school and coached about every sport offered. The school was tiny (less than a hundred students grades 9-12).  Teaching was one of the first things I turned out to be good at.  It was a comfortable gig and I felt successful.  Living in a tiny town was at first comforting and safe.  

Then I applied and was accepted into The University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where I really began to learn the difference between promising work and work that moved toward fulfilling that promise.  By then I was married and my wife and I wanted to start a family, so I opted to return to the certainty of my high school teaching experience rather than the lottery the itinerant college writing instructor offers.  But I cared about my job and my kids and my wife so writing remained in the margins.  The result was I published only sporadically until I finally sold Lonesome Animals when I was fifty-two.  Recently, writing has started to take care of some of the bills, so I left teaching after thirty years and am writing full time.  At this point I am in the middle or just finishing several projects at once, which is how I have worked for years now.

First things first, a gush. I simply love your novel Lonesome Animals. It’s tough, rugged, insightful, human. I could go on and on, which I have in my review here on this very page.

With that said, allow me to ask, in concocting the character of Arthur Strawl, did you have real personages in mind, or is he a whole-cloth imagining?

My father’s father was murdered by his grandfather, Arthur Strahl.  So the book started with me trying to figure out the emotional place a person would have to reach to kill your son-in-law and make your daughter a widow.  At the same time, my dad was beginning to give me bits and pieces history from that event.  It had been forbidden to speak of while his mother was alive.  But after she passed, he began to let me in on some of the details.  Recently, he discovered his father’s headstone in an abandoned cemetery and he and I have plans to add a monument for my grandmother.  But, to answer your question more directly, he is almost all invention aside from the few historical details I had access to.  

Your depiction of the Reservation in the novel struck me as “Yep, that’s about the size of it”; do you have personal knowledge of the sometimes less than ideal conditions of reservation life?

Well, I would say it is, hopefully, an accurate description of the reservation at that time.  The Dawes Act had recently destroyed what little was left of native culture.  I think more recently there is much more hope on reservations and a resurgence of cultural awareness and identity.  Grand Coulee is only a few miles from The Colville Indian Reservation, which is a combination of twelve small local tribes the BIA shoved together for the sake of convenience.

You write violence well. I mean that as a compliment. To my mind, there is a difference between writing/reading an action scene where we get a sort of vicarious “Rah-rah!” feel from whatever is occurring ala a theme-park ride; whereas your grasp of portraying the violent strikes me as both “Yeah, I’m reading this because it is action” but I am also painfully aware of the implications, physical, mental, and moral of what is or has occurred. Do you have any insights into your perspective on portraying violence?

When writing even at the edge of the Western genre, one must always be aware of the familiar expectations of readers regarding violence.  It is often perceived as redemptive or biblical justice.  I didn’t want to repeat that trope.  In fact, I hoped to counter it without rejecting the entire enterprise.  So, the violence that the killer does is in some ways beautiful and mysterious, symbolic, though what it becomes symbolic of is not justice but a twisting of the story in general.  The violence we see on the page concerning the killer is almost always after the deed is done, so we are looking at it as finished work.  The violence in action I wanted to be strange and weird, but to lack justice.  I wanted them to be overkill, or performed for practicality, rather than in defense of some moral ideal. 

I hope you don’t mind the comparison, but your work strikes me in the mold of Cormac McCarthy and James Carlos Blake, and I mean that company as a supreme compliment. Are you admirers of these authors by any chance?

From your pen to God’s ear my friend.  McCarthy was an early influence and continues to be a high bar I try to reach.  It’s a long way up, though.  I would say I was influenced by his care in language most of all.  He is the only writer I know who has been described as Faulknerian accurately.  His vision, though rooted in violence, I think is substantially more developed than mine and it differs in essential ways.  He sees violence as mythic.  Not just American West mythic, but Iliad mythic.  My view is often a response to the ideas present in the America western mythos.  I grew up inside it.  It has damaged me and made me dysfunctional for much of my life.  Myths are designed to guide you through a life in a meaningful, productive way.  The American west offers a myth, that if you follow it, will land you in prison or alone on a bar stool.

Back to the protagonist of Lonesome Animals, Arthur Strawl. Giving nothing away, you build a man that is on one hand iconic and familiar and then pull the rug out from underneath us with a bit of grim honesty that inverts what we think of the man. It’s as if we see Gary Cooper as the benevolent lawman and then discover something diametrically opposed about him, and these two ideas continually collide. We never quite stop empathizing with Strawl, although it might be best if we did. May I ask the evolution of this clash of dark and light within one man?

I think you hit the nail on the head.  I wanted to get beyond the familiar type with Strawl.  But I couldn’t do that without travelling through the type to what’s under it.  It’s strange, people often comment on the level of violence in the book; many object to it.  However, there is a tendency to equate violence with justice in the west, so I was required to go over the top to make certain readers didn’t revert to reading Strawl as a stereotype.

Let’s talk your second novel, The Hour of Lead. I’ve chosen a five-sentence passage from the first page to give the readers an insight into what they are dealing with.

“In this country, loneliness was unassailable law. A man weighted his heart by the number of sleepers under his roof when the lights went out and a woman by the number of eggs in the skillet mornings. The distance between souls, however, remained incalculable. Blood made them kin, yet a heart does not beat solace or joy. One must hunt that in others, and others remained few and far apart.”

That brief passage drips with the reality of homesteading far-flung environments. How much research, historical or location visits do you put in to capture that desolate feel?

I live here.  That’s all that is necessary.  It’s still this way, despite airplanes and automobiles.  The distance is in our heads.

A blizzard plays a large part in this novel. You write weather well. Ernest Haycox has a blizzard scene in his classic novel Bugles in the Afternoon, that I regard as bone-chillingly honest, on-point, and unforgettable. Yours, well, beyond being a lengthier weather event, is downright painful. It makes you want to reach for the thermostat while reading. Again, I ask: good research or personal experience?

I actually was inspired by Ron Hansen’s short story “Wickedness”.  I read it and immediately wanted to write about such a storm.  As things often happened, soon enough there was an opportunity to.

So far, your novels, including the upcoming Whiskey are set in the Pacific Northwest and all employ lush observations coupled with some less than pleasant circumstances. In a sense, you strike me as doing for the Pacific Northwest what Tom Franklin does for the Deep South and Daniel Woodrell does for the Ozarks. What’s the pull of the region and the leaning towards the less than happy side of things?

Well, again, high praise in such comparisons.  I suppose I focus on this place because it is so fruitful for story.  It crawls with metaphors and contradictions and just plain weirdness.  I’ve had editors ask me how I come up with my stories.  Mostly I just sit in the tavern and listen.  I do think when you write about a place as much as I have that the place becomes mostly a geographic location between your ears.  It becomes less and less an actual depiction of the place and more and more your impressions, which are often quite dated, married to what you do to create stories.

Speaking of Whiskey, feel free to pass along any information you’d like regarding it. It’s already in my to read queue upon release.

With Whiskey I am with a new publisher and editor (FSG/MCD) which I am excited about.  It comes out March 8.  The book is more contemporary, though it does take place in the coulee.  It is far less historical and not related to other particular genres like mystery or crime.  It’s About two brothers and a family who can’t quite get it together and often the reason is the rest of the family. 

Influence time. What authors or works inspire you? Who turns your creative crank or simply makes you envious with their craft?

Too many to list.  Jon Berger, Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell, Carver, Chekhov, Jim Welch, Babel, Larry Brown, Robert Stone, Faulkner, William Gay, Alice Munro, Flaubert’s tales. Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth McCracken, John Keeble, Bobbie Ann Mason, The Old Testament, Shakespeare, of course, more so now than when I was in school. James Wood and Harold Bloom’s criticism.  Francine Prose’s great book on writing you mentioned.  The best book I’ve read recently is Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts.  It’s brilliant and new and impossible to completely get my head around which is part of its greatness.  Also, my son is a pretty outstanding poet, and he has introduced me to writers like Anne Carson, Louise Gluck, and Frank Bidart who manage to stuff in a page more than I can in three hundred pages.

I’ll ask another form of the same question. Who or what books do you go to for your guilty pleasures, so to speak? Not necessarily to learn from, but when you look at the page you simply think, “It may not be literature, but I sure do like it.”

Well, my definition of literature is pretty broad.  I’d say history is something I enjoy.  I don’t know if it counts as literature.  The new biography of Grant is on my nightstand right now.  I am enjoying graphic novels, Crumley’s detective books, Peckinpah’s movies.

I want to thank you again for taking the time and providing me with two excellent reading experiences and much food for thought. I look forward to Whiskey and whatever else you cook up in the future.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Call of the Wild

“He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.”

It seems presumptuous to review The Call of the Wild as it is commonly saddled with the baggage of being called a classic. I review it all the same because once you label a book as a “classic,” it become well-known and often little-read.

I get that little-read paradox. Often what someone means by “classic” is important, or influential, or first of its kind. Then what follows in the important book’s wake are several imitations and a few worthy experiments that surpass the originating influence. These surpassing copies then render the original a bit familiar in retrospective readings.

Classic, to be picky, should be a word reserved for books that are both influential and still a pleasure to read.

With all that said, The Call of the Wild is a classic.

Spoiler-free, this is more than a mere man and dog story. This is a civilization versus inner-wildness story. The wildness inside a domestic dog, the wildness that often lies just below the surface of men.

London is careful to not simply make a “Wild = Good, Civilized = Bad” argument. He lays bare the good and bad of civilized behavior and the stark realties of wilderness living.

The theme, at root, is what do we become or revert to when all is stripped away. Yes, we see this in the journey of the dog, but my favorite sequence in the book involves two potential gold-prospectors and their female companion.

Their slide from polite pretense to what they really are is something that I’ll not soon forget. The details are small but so on point, I see London’s point of pretense in daily life in an unfortunate few.

One last observation. This classic is sometimes classified as children’s literature. I have no problem with a child reading this book as it is mighty instructive, but check that language out at the top of this essay and compare it with the children’s literature or young adult fiction of today.  Standards just might be slipping a bit.
London sets the bar high with this one. He’s got a lot to say about humanity, much of it not very nice. Some of it exultantly uplifting.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales

“The unspoken nature of Josey Wales was the clannish code. No common interest of business, politics, land or profit bound his people to him. It was unseen and therefore stronger than any of these. Rooted in human beings’ most powerful urge—preservation. The unyielding, binding thong was loyalty. The trigger was obligation.”

Forrest Carter’s follow-up to the exceptional The Outlaw Josey Wales [aka Gone to Texas] takes Josey and his band South of the Border a few years after the events depicted in the prior novel.

This being the 1860’s post-war period—times were bad.

This being the 1860’s post-war period down Mexico way—times were even worse.

With that said, Josey and crew face bad and worse times in more than a few rousing sequences. The violence is harsh, comes fast, and comes often.

But, the neat trick Carter is able to pull off is this strange loyalty amongst the band. The unspoken affection or at least alliance of simpatico spirits that harsh times sometimes creates.

Carter is able to imbue Wales with that singular laconic iconic persona where a simple “You’ll do” from his lips is high praise indeed.

For my money, this is my favorite of the two novels, but that may simply be because the film has rendered so much of the first novel familiar, where here the reader, even if familiar with the film gets to enjoy an iconic character with fresh eyes.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Interview with Richard Etulain

I am fortunate enough to offer this thoughtful interview from a giant in the field, Richard Etulain. If you’re new to his name, check out this of just some of his accomplishments.

Richard W. Etulain, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, is the author or editor of more than 50 books. Best known among his books about the history and cultures of the American West are Conversations with Wallace Stegner (1983), Writing Western History (editor, 1991), Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996), Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry (1999), Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West (2006), The American West: A Modern History, 1900 to the Present (with Michael P. Malone, 2d ed., 2007), and Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific (2010). He has been president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations. He has lectured abroad in several countries, most recently as a Fulbright Lecturer in Ukraine and at the Basque University in northern Spain. He serves as editor of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series for the University of Oklahoma Press and coeditor of the Concise Lincoln Library for the Southern Illinois University Press. His biography of Calamity Jane, The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, appeared in September 2014 and became a History Book Club Selection in 2015. It was also named a Finalist for the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. He is currently working on a two-volume study of Billy the Kid, the life and legends.

In the discussion below, we corralled the topic primarily to his newest book Ernest Haycox and the Western.

You are a noted historian of the West, a prolific author, and from your writing one can feel a true love for the source material and not rote academic dryness that one sometimes encounters in examining this exciting and interesting period of American history. May I ask was there a defining moment that drew your attention to the area?

My earliest years on a remote sheep ranch in eastern Washington were hardly an intellectual feast.  But I did fall in love with books: the Hardy Boys, sports stories, and children's religious books.  Later, at Northwest Nazarene College (now  University) in Nampa, Idaho, I majored in English and history, double majors.  I continued work in those two fields in  graduate school at the University of Oregon, a PhD in American history with a minor field in American literature. My doctoral dissertation on Ernest Haycox (the source of the new book ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN), which was completed in 1966, was an interdisciplinary work in literary history on the career of a historical novelist who focused on the Western. As I began my research and writing career in the late 1960s, I built on my dual interests in history and literature.  Most of my 54 books deal with the American West, although I've done a bit of other work on Abraham  Lincoln and my ethnic group, the Basques.  I've kept my feet in both fields, having served as presidents of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.

Your newest book Ernest Haycox and the Western delves deeply into one of the best of Western fiction authors. Haycox was once called the Dean of Western Writers, he was published in the best periodicals and yet today, I am hard-pressed to find anyone who knows his work, let alone his name. Why do you think this lapse in memory has occurred?

The highest points of interest in the American West, in fiction and films about the region, were the 1920s and 1950s. Haycox launched his career in pulp magazines publishing on the American West.  His reputation rose rapidly in the  1930s and 1940s and apexed in the 1950s and early 1960s. When traditional Westerns changed dramatically in the  1960s and beyond--save for the spectacular popularity of Louis L'Amour--Haycox's notoriety plummeted. He remained well known to writers of Westerns, but that genre, generally, was pushed off the scene by other other popular  literary types.

Haycox’s work has depth and insight that transcends what can often be formula in a formula ridden genre [as all genres can be.] What do you think contributed to this depth and breadth of perception?

Ernest Haycox was not a brilliant intellectual. Rather, he was a disciplined, energetic, and ambitious person—in everything he did.  He began writing short story Westerns in the early 1920s because he saw that field as very open to his efforts.  By the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, Haycox's drive and pragmatic approach came clearly into focus.  To improve, to sell better, Haycox experimented with his heroes, heroines, and historical  content.  A never-stop-experimenting author, that was Haycox.

John Ford translated Haycox’s 1937 short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” into the classic film Stagecoach. Having read much of Haycox’s work I am struck that Haycox and Ford both do the small human moments well. The formal dance at a remote cavalry outpost, the meeting of community for barn raisings, in short, the small moments of humanity in these far-flung places. Do you think Ford was influenced by Haycox in more than that single film, or was Haycox influenced by Ford’s handling of Western material? Or, perhaps were two skilled craftsmen influencing one another?

John  Ford's purchase of Haycox's short story "Stage to Lordsburg" and its subsequent use in the Ford-John Wayne blockbuster movie Stagecoach (1939) was an amazing breakthrough for Haycox's career. I do not know of any other Ford-Haycox connections.  Haycox was not an inveterate reader of western fiction, thinking he wanted to avoid the influences of other authors writing about the West, and he was not much of a movie-attender, despite spending short times in Hollywood working on film scripts.

Haycox often pits East versus West, with the West a clear preference. Was this mere literary device or are we seeing a true point of view that existed off the page?

Ernest Haycox was a clear-cut chauvinistic westerner.  Born in Oregon, gone for a short military stint during World War I and in New York for publishing connections, Haycox married an Oregonian, and together with their two children, they lived in the Portland, Oregon, area until his death in 1950.  The Western generally depicted the western region as free and masculine, as much superior to an effete, over-civilized East. Without saying so explicitly, Haycox personally identified with these popular ideas. For example, in Haycox's first novel, Free Grass (1929), leading male characters  must return to or move west to find their positive, refreshed identities.

He wrote weather very well. By that I mean, man versus the elements. I call to mind the blizzard scene in his classic Custer novel Bugles in the Afternoon or even the short-story “Deep Winter.” I could also point to the story “Grasshopper Dance,” one can practically feel the heat baking the flesh and parching the skin. Do you have insight on personal experiences he may have drawn upon for this accuracy?

Haycox traveled widely in Oregon, studying the climates, terrains, and families of the Oregon subregions. Later, he also visited the Southwest and other places to see first hand those sites he would describe. Anyone raised in the state of Oregon, with its mild, very rainy climate, would be clearly aware of the shaping impact of climate.

Haycox was able to pull off a rarity, to my mind, in that he does the interiors of men and women rather well. His women don’t feel like mere pawns, they possess their own motivations and even when they are flawed they are not stick-figure “bad women.” I call to mind the women he draws in The Adventurers as being occupied by these full-bodied female characters. Do you know if he took pride in this ability, or to what he attributed this even-handed insight?

Haycox's career was a journey toward improvement and achievement.  Early on in his pulp stories and serials, he had trouble showing the personalities of his characters, too often telling readers what those figures believed or were.  At first, his men were stylized heroes of Westerns, patterned after the types that Zane Grey depicted or John Wayne played. His first women in pulp fiction were minor, wooden types.  In the 1930s in his Collier's short stories and later in his serials, he experimented with what was termed his "Hamlet heroes," meaning more reflective rather than entirely active men. Concurrently, Haycox began to employ two types of heroines: dark, brunette, and alluring women and virginal, blonde women. In his final historical novels, Haycox moved well beyond the earlier, more stereotyped men and women, and peopled these fictional works with full-bodied and more believable central characters.  Especially was this the case in The Earthbreakers (1952) and The Adventurers (1954). 

The author also does horses well. Not simply the namechecking of breeds, I refer to how it feels to ride, how it feels to be jarred by a bucking, stiff-legged, arch-backed animal. Did the author have a great deal of experience with animals or is this yet another example of talent drawing well?

Haycox knew farms much better than ranches.  As a boy, he lived on farms, and in his teenage years planned to be a farmer. Even after he built a huge 30-room mansion in Portland's elite Council Crest area, he followed his farming interests with a large garden, many trees, and other plants and bushes. So, Haycox had to learn about horses through his research.  True enough, he became a skilled delineator of horses and riders, an achievement the came via his reading rather than through his personal experiences.

You being the expert, do you have personal favorites among Haycox’s work?

I have three different favorites among Haycox's writings: (1) my favorite traditional historical Western: Bugles in the Afternoon (1944); (2) my favorite historical novel, The Earthbreakers (1952); and (3) among his short stories, the so-called Mercy family stories that appeared in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. 

You have also provided insightful commentary on authors such H.L. Davis, Jack London, Wallace Stegner and others. What other authors besides Haycox would you guide Western enthusiasts towards. By all means, assume ignorance of the genre and be as obvious or as obscure as you desire, just who moves you and repays re-reading?

You have mentioned important western writers in H. L. Davis, Jack London, and Wallace Stegner.  I have a high regard for the writings of these authors.  I would add to that list the writings of Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Ivan Doig, and Larry McMurtry.  All are superb novelists dealing with the American West.

You have written a staggering amount of Western history and other non-fiction on the subject. I know our focus here is fiction, but if you had to provide a single title of your non-fiction to introduce readers to this aspect of your work what would it be?

I suppose my most important book--at least for general readers--is Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West (2006). It is an overview of western history from earliest human settlement up to the twenty-first century.  My book that has attracted the most attention among specialists in western literature and history is Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996).  It won the book-of-the-year award from the Western History Association.  Besides the Haycox book, which appeared in September 2017, I have a coauthored another book, with leading western historian Glenda Riley, Presidents Who Shaped the American West, forthcoming in February 2018.  I am currently at work on a two-volume biography of and reader's guide to the famous western outlaw  Billy the Kid.  I hope to complete that project in early fall 2018.

Sincere thanks to Mr. Etulain for taking the time to offer such considered answers. I heartily urge all interested in Western fiction and/or Western history to plunge into his work, the time spent is enjoyable and repays greatly.

And by all means, if you’re not already an Ernest Haycox admirer, I envy you in reading him for the first time.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


“His mother had once told him that though he’d find many kinds of people in the world, each could be sorted into those who help and those who hurt. ‘I don’t tell you this to make you suspicious of others,’ she said, ‘but so you might steel yourself against hurt. The hurt others inflict on you, but also the hurt you might inflict on others. You must always be the one who helps.’

This poetic [and at times grim] novel is an exercise in transferring a story from one genre to another. Here, Thomas Fox Averill takes the folk ballad “Tennessee Stud” and composes a tale of a young man, the titular horse, and the long-winding road they must take to escape troubles back home.

Spoiler-free as usual, this road allows us to experience many episodes and many characters, some good times, some mighty bad times, all with a tinge of been there, done that authenticity.

The authenticity comes from both Averill’s skills as a writer and his diligent preparation. In putting this novel together he visited race tracks, historic missions, national parks and other such locales to get a feel for the land and the people along the route he has his characters travel.

This preparation, this care shows. It reminds me of the immersive authentic work that Phillip Meyer put into his novel The Son.

This novel is well worth a look for those who value authenticity and might easily appeal to fans of James Carlos Blake.

rode as a novel is a good read along a long road, with more than enough wisdom along the wayside to be a bit more than mere entertaining fare.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Impatient With Desire

Others think much less about us than we believe or fear, because they are almost always thinking about themselves.”

This little gem from Gabrielle Burton tells us the story of the tragic Donner party from the midst of the woes; the books is subtitled “The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner.”

Mrs. Donner, did exist, she was the wife of George Donner and the mother of five daughters, and all were present that fateful winter. It has long been presumed that Tamsen kept a journal that was never found, here Burton puts her creative skills to work in fleshing out what might have been inked in those pages over the long cold months.

We all know the outcome and Burton is in no hurry to get there, she knows that we know the outcome as well, so she takes the position of a character who does not have this foresight and we see the small breakdowns in human dynamics along the way to tragedy.

There might be to some eyes a meandering tone here and there but it strikes me as essential and wise to build this realism of the character and the situation.

Tamsen’s thoughts, as we can see from the above quote, are just as concerned with the human interactions as they are with the ever-dwindling sources of nourishment.

This one is a prime recommendation for thoughtful readers.

Eagle Man

[To a young man who left the farm because all he got out of it was callused hands.]

“Let me see those big hands of yours,” Cutler said.

Taylor held them out. “They ain’t so bad now.”

Cutler looked at them. “That’s right. They’re beginnin’ to look white as a baby’s. Look at mine.” He held his own hands out to the firelight. “There’s a scar from a beartrap that zigged when it should have zagged. This is where a bullet went through, here in this tender part next to the thumb. These callouses are from just, plain, dirty work. But ugly as these hands are, they got experience written in ‘em. And without experience, your hands and you are gonna keep lookin’ like a little boy.”

This brief novel by H.V. Elkin, is the third in the John Cutler series currently re-published by Piccadilly Publishing.

The series was started by the formidable John Benteen, who delivered the 1st two John Cutler novels before his death.

Vernon Hinkle aka H. V. Elkin picked up the torch with this short novel and easily captures Benteen’s quick authoritative style.

Cutler, the character, is a trapper of men and beasts who is called upon to look into a series of killings that takes him among an Indian tribe that he formerly knew quite well.

I’ll proceed no further for spoiling or over-explanation kills a bit of the fun of reading, but I do want to say that, while this is without a doubt a formula novel that was probably knocked off lickity-split, that opening extract shows that uncommon consideration was put into this swift work.

The Log of a Cowboy

My admiration for the generals on our side survived wounds, prisons, and changes of fortune; but time has tempered my views on some things, and now I don’t enthuse over generals when the men of the ranks who made them famous are forgotten. Through the fortunes of war, I saluted Grant when we were surrendered, but I wouldn’t propose a toast or take off my hat now to any man that lives.”

This 1903 novel about a cattle drive rings with such authenticity that there are a few sources that take it as fact, or at least fact mingling with fiction.

This verisimilitude is due in part to the author, Andy Adams, having experienced cattle drives himself and he folds his own experiences, observations of others, and trail drive hearsay into the narrative.

Fans of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove saga cannot but assume that McMurtry studied this novel hard as it captures that same laconic telling, and rambling pace that one finds especially in the first of the Dove series.

We follow Tom Quirk and his fellow trail-drivers through episodes that highlight both the hardships of the trail and the camaraderie which fosters growth in these finely-drawn human beings.

I spoil, hopefully not much, in supplying that there is a mishap at a river-crossing that culminates in a homey impromptu graveside eulogy. I would love to include the eulogy verbatim here, but then that would deprive the reader the joys of the context and having followed these men and boys along the way. I have no trouble admitting that tears came to my eyes readily upon reading it.

This novel has heart.

In a world where much reading is surface, that says a lot.

Bill Crider's Generosity

Author/reviewer/blogger-on-mighty-interesting things, and most importantly a kind and generous man, Bill Crider, was so good as to mention this humble blog on his own page that I have been following for some time.

By all means, give it a look-see if you haven't already.

Lonesome Animals

His adult life, he had watched people turning the same day over and living it again for years at a time, and he thought himself happy it was not his lot.”

Two words come to mind in regard to this neo-Western: Wicked & Poignant.

Unusual combination that, but Holbert is able to nimbly walk that tightrope over what is usually Cormac McCarthy or James Carlos Blake territory.

On the surface we have a retired lawman called on to hunt a serial killer on an Indian Reservation. If that plot sounds familiar, and distressingly hackneyed, allow me to reassure you that the author has other plans in mind for us.

There is a grim tone in this novel as we live inside the skull of lawman Arthur Strawl. Inside his skull is not necessarily a pleasant place to be. He’s a man with regrets, and he has a lot be regretful for. The moments of revelation regarding past sins are truly shocking coming in the wake of a character we have come to respect.

As usual, we’ll keep it spoiler-free here and allow the authors room to do what they do and plead their own cases, which Holbert does with poetic and dark precision.

I will say, there is a scene involving an uncooperative Bureau of Indian Affairs office that will stick long after the reading is done.

Lonesome Animals is full of lasting scenes and observations. Just as the opening quote alludes, there is a lifetime of varied experience in lawman Strawl and the peek we get is compelling stuff.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Last Chance

He could not stomach a settled country where man’s worst trouble was combating small fears.”

One views the cover of this 1956 gem and might assume they’ve got yet another predictable formula novel in their hands, but au contraire there is magnificence inside.

In the first chapter O’Rourke has three strangers arrive in a small town. They are strangers to the town and strangers to each other. Over the course of the novel we follow them as their lives sometimes intersect and sometimes veer away from one another as they each seek their chances in life.

The strangers are a young man, a young woman, and an older man with some experience of the world behind him. We get to view the same town through the perspectives of these three disparate minds and be awake to things that some see and blind to things that inexperience or callowness renders us blind to.

Along the way O’Rourke drips authentic world experience on practically every page. Try the below samples on for size.

“It was still bitter cold but the wind had died and the sky was clear, that huge blue-bowled liar above them, smiling down with its innocent sun face while below four feet of snow lay a multitude of unknown tragedies. He had taken the worst the land could offer and lived.”

“A man’s best recourse from sour memories was working mind and body, doing something that took all his time, exhausted him physically and mentally.”

O’Rourke seems an endless fount of incisive comment. It is for these comments and the realness of the humans involved that keeps us turning the pages. This little gem is easily one of my favorites of the past year’s reading.

Let’s end it with yet another one of O’Rourke’s priceless observations.

Time could not stop, time changed all things, all thoughts and ideals, all ways and manners and living, so that remembering the past as the best was a foolish gesture offered to the wind. You might recall the past with fondness and some regret and a little thanks for all it had given, but you could not live in the past and do justice to the present. Time offered its gift of days to spend, you used the days and hoped for more, hoped you might live your fair share in good health and good luck and happiness.”

Amen to that!

Wildwood Boys

He stares at the utterly uninterested stars and berates himself in a howling silence, curses himself for an irresolute weakling and for being the sort of pathetic fool who wishes he could have a moment back again so he might use it properly. Fool! A man takes an action or he does not-and then the moment is fled to wherever all moments in relentless succession do irretrievably flee.”

Blake is an astonishingly able author who writes with true craft, depth, skill, and poetry. The only mystery to me is why he is not better known.

He has written many novels in his saga of the Wolfe family, but much of his career has been in offering fictionalized accounts of true personages, and these are uniformly excellent.

In Wildwood Boys Blake takes on “Bloody Bill” Anderson and gives us full-blooded humanity that never shirks the fact that much blood was spilled to earn that nickname.

There is violence here, as there has to be, because Anderson’s life was one of violence; to downplay that would be a bit of hypocrisy. Blake pushes our faces into the violence but it never feels exploitive, more immersive as in a stab at verisimilitude. In a manner of “This is how it was, so this is how it must be told.”

Anything less would be a lie.

But within the gouts of blood there is much poetry, much humanity. A never-ending grasp on humans struggling through their existences.

The opening quote demonstrates we are not in the hands of a formulary writer, but one who has a deep rich interior life and is able to provide that same interior for real-life personages so that they live and breathe for us.

A Frontier Phrase Worth Resurrecting: “He Bubbles Pure"

  [Excerpted from our book The Frontier Stoic: Life Lessons from Those Who Lived a Life.] “ He bubbles pure .” ·         Said of a man w...