Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Welcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow

There is no work harder than cutting a grave. Though the rain had softened the ground, it was a few hot hours of taking turns at the pick and shovel before we had the five holes dug. The bodies we had gathered were lying under blankets. When it came time to put them down and rebury Fee I didn’t want the boy there, I shooed him away. We stood waiting while he walked back, turning every few yards to look at us. He finally squatted down at the edge of the flats, not going as far as the town, I suppose, because the buzzards were all down in the street now eating from the dead roan.

That picture of bleakness gives nothing away in this masterful first novel from Mr. Doctorow. The novel starts bleak on page one and only gives hints of sunshine here and there throughout.

In essence it is the story of the death of a town, the titled “Hard Times,” its painful re-birth and aftermath of that re-birth.

It is a spare novel, a mere 200 pages, written in an easy manner that puts many a “literary Western” to shame, but make no mistake, this easy manner is no formula work—this is a piece of art.

I leave us with another extract.

Now the saying is common that Sam Colt made men equal. But if it is true then our town wouldn’t have burned up in the rain; instead that Bad Man would have been buried with due honors and a proper notice sent to the Territory Office. He would have had a hole in his chest, or his back, and the one who shot him would have Avery standing him a drink and maybe redheaded Flo and Molly smiling his way. Colt gave every man a gun, but you have to squeeze the trigger for yourself.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Night Before Chancellorsville by F. Scott Fitzgerald

And in the papers the next day they never said anything about how our train got attacked or about us girls at all! Can you beat it?”

This brief tale from the legendary author may strike some as anticlimactic in that it deals only tangentially with the events of Chancellorsville. Instead the author takes a tack that reminds me of a routine from the acerbic but brilliant comedian, Anthony Jeselnik, loosely titled “Don’t forget about me.”

The crux of “Don’t forget about  me” is the outpouring of “hot takes” from many post any tragic event, be that a celebrity death or a disaster that left the “hot taker” untouched but they somehow still have some fodder that returns the focus to them ala, “I can’t believe David Bowie is dead, I’m so sad he was so influential to me" or, "I was in the region where that tornado touched down just last month!"

These “Don’t forget about me-ers” always relate to themselves and seldom remember to add “Oh, and my best to the families.”

Mr. Fitzgerald has provided us with his version of that solipsistic phenomenon. Some may feel cheated that the battle is not the true subject, but a closer reading reveals an all too human, and all too unflattering observation about prevailing egoism.

An intriguing tale with a bit of a wry sting.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Sundance by David Fuller

“Those were good times, though, weren’t they? I miss ‘em, I do. But the two of us back together? I can’t be famous again. I only just learned to be dull. It’s not so bad.”

Screenwriter/novelist David Fuller takes a whack at the legend of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka “The Sundance Kid.” In his imaginings, Sundance didn’t die in Bolivia, and we are glad for it. 

We follow the charmer in his twilight years as he heads East to New York City to look for the love of his life, Etta Place.

Along the way we encounter the Triangle Fire, anarchists, Charlie Siringo, and a few surprises.

Fuller has the easy-going Redford redolent Sundance charm down cold. The character is a pleasure to spend time with. So much so, I’ll admit that as the novel wore on and leaned on the inevitable mechanics of plot I was a little disappointed as Sundance must react to plot-mechanics rather than simply be the laidback charmer.

Honestly, Fuller could have doubled the length of the narrative and simply allowed Sundance to mosey along. I’d follow that character anywhere.

But, for this reader, the plot become so baroque Sundance must take a backseat in a sense.

Don’t read that wrong. This is a fine novel, constructed with much craft, albeit a timely coincidence or two does mar credibility. But Fuller is to be congratulated to provide such an indelible character.

Sundance’s outward demeanor is one of never flagging charm.

While his inner dialogue is rife with potent observations, as in the following.

Experience taught him that intuition was a weak sense, a shallow sense. Intuition fooled men into thinking they had secret unconscious knowledge ready to tap when in fact it was no more than guesswork, and often poorly informed guesswork, based on past experiences that would never truly align with current conditions. Intuition was to be engaged for frivolous things, never for matters of life, love, or death. Intuition led men to quick judgments, and invited superstition.”

Such observations abound.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Singing Cowboys by Douglas B. Green

The author is also known as “Ranger Doug” of the longstanding western music band “Riders in the Sky.” This lavishly illustrated volume is clearly a labor of love.

We receive an approximate page-long biography of each singing cowboy actor’s career coupled with gorgeous photographs.

As a bonus, there is a 10-track CD song sampler of the genre included.

I came into this book with practically zero knowledge of the singing cowboy phenomenon beyond knowing the names of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. For rookies like myself it is a watchlist generator. For the expert enthusiast the volume may strike one slim as it is clearly aimed at greenhorns like myself.

Lovingly done.

Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee by David Crockett

  This 1834 volume is a fine glimpse into the mindset of a legend.   What particularly strikes, this reader at least, is the well he goe...