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.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Rim of the Desert by Ernest Haycox

 


“He was bold enough for anything, but sufficiently smart to take his good time to read what he saw.”

Mr. Haycox’s 1940 Rim of the Desert is the usual Haycox fare, and that is a very good thing.

We have plot points that are very familiar, but…we have insights into character that can only come from a man of keen observation and deep understanding.

I’ll allow several extracts from the novel to stand-in for my “review.” If you like these, well, you’re in for a treat when you read it for yourself.

Keene watched Aurora disappear beyond the opposite rim of the river bluff, attracted by the shape she made in the sun, in the golden haze of dust. These were the things, though he didn’t know it, his senses forever awaited in eagerness---sounds and blends of fragrance and scenes which took fugitive shape and left their unforgettable impressions: the single moment when a campfire flamed formed a perfect taper against the heart of night; the echo of one word spoken by a women from the depths of her soul; the cold and immaculate deadliness of a diamond-back coiled at the instant of striking; the thread of some strange smell in the spring wind which, caught briefly and by accident, broke every old thread of a man’s career and set him off on strange roads. These were the fragments of a greater mystery, the revealed pieces of an unrevealed puzzle whose answer he sought—yet he knew not what he sought. All the cold ashes of his campfires made an unerring line of search. Some duty, some labor, some love. Somewhere---”

She spoke in complete candor. “It would be that way if I married you, Cleve. A bargain between us, and no love. I don’t love trust very much. I know how it should be but I never really see it. Half of the women in this world marry without it and some of the others lie to themselves when they think they have it. I don’t like that. I’d rather not have any of it than to have a miserable little bit to dole out here and there over a whole life.”

He was flat on his back, long and boneless, soaking in the night’s comfort. He had the ability to seize whatever goodness the current moment offered, to enjoy it before it vanished.

He walked forward, his hand extended, and when Keene took his hand Stewart said, “Well, it was none of my business.” He ran the flat of a palm across his mouth, staring strangely at the blood there. “I didn’t feel you land that blow. Odd.” He wanted to say something to Keene, but he could not bring himself to admit the depth of fear that had been in him—the fear of being afraid. Nothing but the bitterest torture of soul had driven him to this fight, nothing but the insufferable agony of a man who had to know about himself at last. Now he was silently saying: “The worst of it is the thinking of it—afterwards there is nothing to be afraid of,” and a great load rolled off Cleve Stewart’s heart and he was a bigger man than he had ever been.

“I want to tell you something. I followed the trail for many years. When you get to the other side of the hill—remember this, son—the only thing you’ll find there is just what you brought with you.”

He swung to the saddle and for a moment his eyes admired her. She showed no fear and she said none of those things that disturbed a man or tried to take him away from the things that had to be done. She had will, she had composure.

“The harder life is,” she murmured, “the less people ask of it. People who don’t know fear or hunger or pain want a lot. Those that face those things are happy if they have one small break. Terror makes us all very humble. How quickly pride falls.”

“You never worry about the future, do you?”

“No use. All things come in time.”

“So, then,” she said, “it is today you love. Yesterday’s gone and tomorrow isn’t here—and it is just today that counts.”

“Best that way,” he answered. “Feels fine to eat when you’re hungry, to watch the ground turn color when the sun goes down. Maybe to smell water when you’re thirsty, or see lights shining over the flats when you’re tired of riding. If you look too far ahead you miss what goes on now. You never stop to enjoy the present.”

“But pretty soon the present is gone and then you are old and alone and what do you have?”

“That comes too,” he admitted. For me and for you, for everybody. Makes no difference, does it? The thing is, what can you look back on when you’re old? What can you remember?”

He found more in Keene to admire at this moment than ever before. It was not a simple thing to fight. It was not easy to move blindly through snow, playing hide and seek with trouble. It took courage, but it took something more as well—it took a sound knowledge of other men, the ability to read in their eyes the things they would do; it took a hard-gained experience in all the clever tricks of living, an ability to listen into the wind, to read the patterns on the earth, to make a story out of dust and distant motion. As an educated man, possessing the prejudices of education, Cleve Stewart always had felt a certain contempt for men whose lives were confined to action; to him they were half-blind, knowing nothing of the great and gentle philosophies which made life understandable.

But somewhere in the last twenty-four hours Stewart’s world had come down about him; a complete change had occurred in him. The wisdom which came from earthy men, the wisdom of survival and bitter wind beating into a man’s bones, of hunger suffered and thirst endured—this was the real wisdom, gained not from books or the tales of other travelers but personally experienced so that a man got it into his spirit and nerves and blood. A man had to know of what he was made. Knowing that, he knew everything.

“Any time you pass my house, now and twenty years from now, there’s a chair at the table.”

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 https://blaxploitationpaperbacks.com/

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.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

 


When they rode out of the Yuma camp it was in the dark of early morning. Cancer, Virgo, Leo raced the ecliptic down the southern night and to the north the constellation of Cassiopeia burned like a witch’s signature on the black face of the firmament. In the nightlong parley they’d come to terms with the Yumas in conspiring to seize the ferry. They rode upriver among the floodstained trees talking quietly among themselves like men returning late from a social, from a wedding or a death.

Undeniably evocative writing. To claim this novel is not a work of art is a bit narrow-viewed.

But…the novel’s stylistic choices that make up a large part of its artistic merit seem to leave the reader at a bit of a remove. In many passages the writing itself is so much the “story” that the reader [this reader, at least] was left admiring the colors on the canvas and less taking in the canvas as a whole.

I am reminded of the noir excesses of James Ellroy, himself a bold stylist of whom I have read much and enjoyed much, but I would be a liar if I did not admit that there is a “learning curve” expected of the reader to settle into what the author has to say.

McCarthy and Ellroy both seem intent and content with “Look at how I do this” which seems to push one a bit out of the narrative.

I enjoyed the novel. I admire the novel. But as an entertainment, I feel it lacks a bit.

Personally, I find James Carlos Blake’s In the Rogue Blood, a similar nightmare-scape, the better novel. It is equally gorgeous in its prose but never loses sight of the fact that “the tale is the thing.”


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weider

 


Word got around after a while, and others began to approach me, asking to help them get some justice. Sometimes they called it revenge, but I guess that depended on your point of view. At first, I only took a few jobs, ones where I was really angry over the circumstances, like the case where a guy forced his young niece to perform sex acts on him. But over time I became less picky, and I took almost any job. I didn’t think too much about it—after all, if the cops wouldn’t do anything, what was wrong with a private enforcer taking action?

The author, a citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation brings us this Neo-Noir tale of a “private enforcer” as described in the offered quote.

This reader is of two minds regarding this novel. The depictions of Rez-Life, encounters with prejudice on and off the reservation, walking the line between being “Indian” and being an “Apple” [red on the outside but white on the inside] and a myriad of other alien points of view are deeply fascinating.

But…to my mind, having this meaty subject placed over the familiar scaffolding of “Noir Crime” tale takes it down a notch. The crime aspect strikes as formulary and as this reader ages I find it harder and harder to read such noir tales no matter how touted the author without thinking this is just comic book fodder for big kids without four-color panels.

Of course, I am generalizing, sometimes these tales can be something more, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is the repetition and familiar that seems to attract many. I find that I am increasingly jaundiced to this repetitive “been-there, read-that” experience.

The author is clearly skilled, but I wanted it to hew closer to the meat and bones human story that he relates and less with the Lee Child punch-by-numbers manner of tale-weaving.

If you enjoy films such as Taylor Sheridan’s excellent “Wind River” and do not suffer from the reviewer’s impatience you will likely find much to enjoy in this first novel.

With all that said, I look forward to the author’s next novel with fingers crossed that he skips the Saturday Afternoon shoot-em-up and tells the captivating stories he clearly has inside him.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian

 


The man in the waistcoat slipped down from the mule and stepped forward, grinning. “That we did friend! Couple of hours back. The poor beast just balked and wouldn’t go another step. I tried reasoning with it, but we were on a narrow cut with sheer rock on one side and a whole lot of nothing on the other---a real awkward place for a mule to go onery. Well, I gave that mule a tug or two, sort of inviting it to have second thoughts about its uncooperative behavior. But, no. The poor old beast had made up its mind that it was going no further. So I did what any reasonable man would do when friendly persuasion fails. I sent a slug into his stubborn head and pushed him off into the ravine. He made a fair splat when he hit the bottom, I got to give him credit for that. As a comfortable ride and a willing companion, that mule was no great shakes, but when it comes to splatting…! Well, that just goes to show that all God’s creatures has their special gifts. Some are strong; some are wise; some possess the ability to comfort and console. And that mule? He was a natural born splatter.” Lieder grinned, and B.J. could tell that he took pleasure in his ability to turn a colorful phrase.

The sole Western penned by the single-named nom de plume Trevanian. The author was more known for two well-written spy satires in the 70’s, The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction. [One of which was turned into a Clint Eastwood film that the author felt missed the point of the satire.]

Those novels are well done, but this is a different breed of cat altogether. It is sly, wise, confoundingly unpredictable and is inhabited by an antagonist of bondafide evil.

It some ways it reminds me of an extended stay in the aptly named town of E. L. Doctorow’s also superb Welcome to Hard Times.

The opening passage may lead one to believe it is a novel that wallows in the less-than-savory side of life as one expects in a work by S. Craig Zahler, but the “evil” aspect is but one of the novels many moving parts. [For the record, I adore Mr. Zahler’s two Westerns.]

It is rife with observation.

B.J. made a dry three-note laugh. “Delanny doesn’t care about people. Dying is a selfish business, Matthew. Ask anyone who’s cared for an aging parent. And Jeff Calder is no one’s friend. He’s a man of prejudices, rather than values; of appetites, rather than tastes; of opinions, rather than ideas. He doesn’t care who’s right, only who wins. There are millions of Calders out there. They elect our Presidents, they fill our church pews, they decide our---”

As I said rife with observation. Observations that resonated in the 1800s, that resonated at the time of the novel’s writing, and that resonate now.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker

 


“Wants it too bad,” I said.

We walked out of the gleaming new office and down the broad corridor.

“Wants everything too bad,” Virgil said.

“Wants to be more than he is,” I said.

“Not the key to happiness, I’m thinking,” Virgil said.

“You’d settle for being what you are,” I said to Virgil.

“I have,” Virgil said.

Another of the late Robert Parker’s dialogue driven marvels.

His style distills the Western essence to laconic exchanges that tell all the tale replete bells and whistles without ever feeling like the clumsy expository writing of many one could name.

Terse and succinct.

It’s as if Parker sought to outdo Elmore Leonard in the “Leave all the parts out that people don’t read” dictum.

This novel also resonates. The stark observations come often and are always welcome.

Pony looked at the dark sky.

“Apache man warrior,” he said. “Apache woman proud.”

“I know,” I said.

Pony grinned.

“In land of Blue-Eyed Devil, not so simple,” he said. “Man can’t always be warrior. Man gets to be cowboy and store man and saloon man. And man who sit in office. Not warrior, I just man who saddle horse. Pitch hay. Pick up horse shit. But I go with you and Virgil, I warrior.”

“Not everybody wants to be a warrior,” I said.

“No. But nobody wants to be pick-up horse shit man, either,” Pony said.

“Some people like it ‘cause it’s safe, I guess.”

“Life not lived to be safe. Safe makes you weak,” Pony said. “Make you slow. Make you tired.”

Superlative!

A Frontier Phrase/Philosophy Worth Resurrecting by Mark Hatmaker

 


[Some kind folk have mentioned how much they dig this bit of bloviating and aim to apply it—Thank you and good on them for that! I’ve tightened the wheels a bit and tacked on a new tail at the end from Arthur Chapman that seems apt and holds with the Warrior-Poet Spirit we’ve been discussing]

Circa, 1830s-1880s, if a friendly [or merely polite sort] asked one “How’re doin’?” You might hear from gregarious hombres,

Well, I’m livin’ in the shade of the wagon.”

To declare that one is “livin’ in the shade of the wagon” is to say, “Life is all right by me, no matter which way she bucks.”

If we pull this gregarious little phrase apart and have a look at the context it reveals more than a quaint colloquialism.

Crossing “The Great American Desert” [The Great Plains] and actual deserts was no easy feat. The Oregon Trail, the Bozeman, the Santé Fe, the Applegate, the Gila, the Upper and Lower Roads of Texas, and all the other lesser known routes for the adventurous, determined, or downright foolish and unprepared to cross were rife with dangers.

All of these early trails were peppered with the graves of the hopeful and the discarded belongings of people who continually lightened their loads jettisoning what they thought they “couldn’t live without” to what they really needed to survive and thrive.

Dangers were incessant. The elements, the indigenous folks, the non-indigenous that had gone rogue, disease, the never-ending struggle for food, potable water, and hardships a bit beyond the grasp of we pampered folk reading this on a screen.

Such challenges and privations spawned a philosophy all its own. A creed with its own informal chapters and verses.

The Texas Proverb [a rendering of a Kit Carson expression] being one of them…

“Cowards Never Started,

The Weak never Got Here, &

The Unfit Don’t Stay.”

Lest one thinks hard people were hard-hearted, often the early journals are full of robust humor, honest evaluations, and admirable unflagging “stick-to-it-iveness.”

Moving on to our shady phrase.

Many of these terrains had zero trees, bluffs, hills, anything to block the sun.

The wise walked on the shady side of the wagon when travelling.

The wise walked on the shady side of the horse when afoot.

The wise slacked against a wheel in the shade or stretched out under the wagon to provide relief from the sun.

“Livin’ in the shade of the wagon” meant that “Sure, there may not be a shade tree in sight, but I got my own shade right here and she’s just as good.”

It meant, that you were amenable and adaptable.

It meant you kept your sunny-but-shaded disposition wherever you went because you knew how to enjoy what was at hand no matter the circumstances.

The shade was both the actual wagon and the metaphorical cool spirit of the individual who displayed coolness under duress.

Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” waay before Hemingway. The rough ‘n’ ready embodiment of the sprezzatura of Castiglione’s Courtier.

To be a shade enjoying sort also meant that you were a shade provider.

Your calmness of spirit and Yankee Ingenuity demonstrating how to “use what you got at hand” in turn acted as a sort of calming shade for others around you.

The man and woman who was able to stand tall and stay cool no matter what was valued by all.

Livin’ in the shade of the wagon” was not a mere colorful retort.

It was a declaration of intent.

It was a philosophy.

It was a valued goal to shoot for.

May we all live in the shade of the wagon!

Arthur Chapman concludes his poem, “Out Where the West Begins” with these lines…

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying---

That’s where the West being.”

Chapman’s West may be mythical and metaphorical but…seems a worthy goal to sigh less, sing more, buy less and give more gladhanding, and who wouldn’t love to make friends with a singing gladhanding sort?

May we all know such folk, hell, may we all be such Giants.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Tentmaker by Clay Reynolds

 


G ILBERT HOOLEY HAD long since given up the habit of carrying a timepiece. Nothing much happened in his life that required precise timing, and the rhythms of the community had long ago taken shape around routines governed by circumstance rather than time of day. On another account, remembering to wind a pocket watch twice a day required the kind of systemized responsibility that Hooley always tried to avoid. For more than a year, he had reckoned the time by the position of the sun or moon, or, if the weather was cloudy, by the brightness of ambient light.

Gilbert Hooley stands at the center of our novel. Is he our hero, or simply a man to whom things happen?

It is no spoiler to say that essentially the novel is the story of a man whose wagon breaks down and he simply decides to stay put. Gradually things happen around him. Much as a single grain of sand irritates the oyster until it produces a pearl, Hooley’s indolence, marked by similar incessant irritation allows things to accrete around his aggravated center.

This portion of the story is shambling and low-key, but absolutely delightful. Calls to mind the episode “Brown” from the vastly underrated television series “The Westerner.”

Hooley’s frustrations are so trivial and yet beautifully written we feel his impotence to succeed at even avoiding success.

There is a twin narrative. It follows a band of repulsive outlaws that could easily be found in a work by S. Craig Zahler. These interludes are blunt and tinged with extreme cruelty.

The tales do mix. The ending might have a series of deus ex machina coincidences at its core, but by this time the reader has enjoyed these twin tales and Hooley’s eternal bewilderment and we simply bask in the author having a good time with his curtain closing.

A superior novel.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Cosgrove Report by G.J.A. O’Toole

 


We have a mighty intriguing volume here, consider the full title.

The Cosgrove Report: Being the Private Inquiry of a Pinkerton Detective into the Death of President Lincoln.

The conceit of the premise is a recently discovered memoir ala the technique of most recent Sherlock Holmes pastiches that reveals the exploits and investigations of Pinkerton Detective Nicholas Cosgrove.

Here’s the trick of the premise. The year is 1868. Our Pinkerton agent is tasked with hunting down one John Wilkes Booth.

Those familiar with history are more than aware that Booth died by gunfire after a long manhunt for having assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

History tells us Booth has been dead for two years before our tale commences.

Along the way we learn much about the assassination, the dealings of numerous co-conspirators involved in the wider plot—all of which is true, by the way, and, for the sake of the novel [this is not a spoiler] John Wilkes Booth did not die in that barn.

If one considers only that information, the novel is good rousing speculative fun.

But, if one were to also consider just who the author is, the story becomes all the more intriguing.

G.J.A. O’Toole was a former employee of the C.I.A., a Pulitzer Prize nominee and the author of Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and EspionageHonorable Treachery, a history of American intelligence.

The man knows his history and he knows the sub rosa machinations behind the scenes of history.

With the author’s bona fides before us one can’t help but wonder while reading, “How much of this is true? How much is invention?” And maybe, just maybe, “Is fiction this author’s way of safely telling a tale?”

Whether read as rousing tale or as eyebrow arching food for thought, I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

Recreational Reading as A Laboratory for Honor by Mark Hatmaker

 


I warn, not a word about tactics or strategical play here. No fodder for the brawn-only warrior.

Now, my thinking Warriors, those who favor Codes of Bushido, the “Cowboy Code,” the ethics of Warrior societies the world over [“Mabitsiar’u Puha” in my case], this is the deep-thinking, soul-searching Warrior I address.

The Warrior who sees all aspects of life as a laboratory of applied focus on the betterment of the self. The unity of forging into one blade the physical, the cognitive, and the all-encompassing world of honor.

Let us make a case for reading choices [fiction or non-fiction], viewing choices, etc. being the modern self-chosen “tribe” of influencers.

Pre-Modern world we existed in smaller bands whether nomadic or a village in stasis where we had an actual tribe. These small bands seldom exceeded more than 200 people in a lifetime of experience. [The Dunbar Number places that number at around 150.]

Within our associations, not all were peachy of course, just like now we had ranges of behavior, temperament, and ability, but that which was worthy of being emulated was well-known and easily recognizable.

These small populations contributed to making codes of conduct and standards of emulation easier. We had fewer fragmentary influences and this quicker association of the desired abilities/behaviors was the order of the day.

Think of today’s elite military cadre or those with extended frontline military experience. These small but intense societies often forge bonds and habits tighter than those that can be formed in casual but even longer-term associations.  Behaviors that persevere.

Think of the contrast of those who spent 90 days alongside one another at an FOB in Afghanistan and those of co-workers you share a break room with daily for 3 years. Likely the smaller but intense tribe is the stronger of the two, no matter how much you like all the folks staring at their phones around the microwave in the breakroom.

With the advent of technology and easy mobility the human animal has far exceeded the Dunbar Number in possible associations. With social media tech we can literally connect with anyone else in the world who has an Internet connection.

On one hand, this is manna, on the other the diverse and diffuse associations coupled with the human propensity to “keep it small” [The Dunbar Number again] we may know far more than our past tribal ancestors, but we may also likely be less deeply connected despite the surfeit of digital connection.

Also, being less deeply connected means we are likely to lack spring-water pure exemplars that we personally know for the formation of our own honor societies.

More Connection—Diffused and Varied Influence

This is not to say that we do not have honorable people in our own lives. I merely state that we may be so diffused and digressive in our habits that the honor/integrity influences do not adhere as strictly, strongly, perseveringly as they may were we to swim more deeply and more often in those waters with the actual exemplars and like cadre.

This is likely why many report feelings of being adrift or a bit unmoored.

This is a bit perplexing in a world of connectivity that more report feeling lonely where infinite connection is possible.

Without the possibility of regressing to former “social load,” and embracing pie-in-the-sky “back to nature” movements, what is one to do?

With no clear-cut tribe or emulatory icons seemingly available, the next best thing seems to be choosing our own exemplars from the vast icons of the past.

These exemplars can be real or fictional.

We can literally, choose from literature, exemplars we would gladly follow were they not fictional.

We may not be able to go on an extended voyage with an actual exemplar but…

Within a novel we spend extended time with characters who are running a laboratory of experiments before our eyes. Showing us possible behaviors. Displaying lessons and conduct we wish to imitate, emulate, or aspire to.

We also see pitfalls that we may learn to avoid in our own lives. Behaviors that repel on a visceral level. Via negativa instruction.

Recreational Literature

This theory of “literature as human laboratory” sees deep reading as recreational in the true meaning of the word. We seek to recreate our own worlds, our own make-up via the fictional tribe with whom we have chosen to spend time with.

The Self-Chosen Hazards of Recreational Literature

If we deem what we do with our “downtime” as formative, whether we intend it to be or not, then we must embrace the fact that our choices likely will inform our world view and in some cases our behavior. [Qanon anyone?]

If we desire a tribe of influencing betters, we may seek that tribe without in the actual world, and inside the interior of our skulls by choosing laboratory experiments that suit our aims.

Literary scholar, F.L. Lucas on the subject.

Much our criticism, obsessed with pleasure-values and blind to influence-values, seems to me frivolously irresponsible towards the vital effects of books in making their readers saner or sillier, more balanced or more unbalanced, more civilized or more barbarian.”

If you see any merit in the influence of the “recreational” aspect of our choices, we are wise to ask ourselves with each book we crack, each show we binge, each link we click is this making me saner or sillier?

More balanced or more unbalanced?

More civilized or more barbarian?

And for those who think that our recreational choices have little to no effect on our own cognitive interiors or behavioral displays, I offer this anecdote of an unnamed homicide detective who related that one of the first things he liked to do was look at what books were on a victim’s or suspect’s nightstand.

I want to see what someone reads when they don’t have to. Gives me a handle on them.

If the world could peek at our nightstands, our Kindles, our browsing histories, what tale would it tell of our characters?

And for those who have serious doubts about the influences of recreational sources I ask a couple of hypotheticals.

Your grown child is set to marry someone of whom you’ve not made up your mind. You are visiting them for diner. On their nightstand would you rather perhaps see an old Michael Crichton novel, a book of Kantian ethics, maybe a Bible?

Or..

A well-thumbed copy of Mein Kampf, a biography of Ted Bundy, and a suspect book of bondage confessions?

Admittedly, these are not deal-breakers. My library is chockful of suspect titles. I have a tattered pamphlet on breaking necks by an Old West hangman, several unpublished memoirs of turn of the last century mob enforcers and sundry nefarious things.

Now, some of you know me for my day job and are not surprised at those shelf-items, and assume, “Ah, it’s research.” But if you didn’t know me, and found no leavening volumes like Plutarch and an entire run of Seneca also on those shelves, would you not have a value judgment?

So, saner or sillier?

Balanced or more unbalanced?

Civilized or more barbarian?

I close here. The post-script is merely a handful of quotes I excerpted from some of my more recent recreational reading. A few dribs and drabs from the imaginary tribe-members I chose to spend time with and learn from recently.

POST-SCRIPT

Perfect sangfroid. Exceptional address. Etiquette, Seward had once told Jamison, was all that mattered. Ideologies waxed and waned, religions developed and eroded, political parties rose and fell from power. Only courtesy remained one of the few things valued by all civilized men.”- All Through the Night by Connie Brockway

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.’”—rode Thomas Fox Averill

One lesson which I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it. Is not every hour a fresh point of view?” The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle

 

When a brave man has done his utmost, and has failed, he shows his breeding by the manner in which he accepts his defeat.” Ibid

“The guts to beat down every obstacle in the way, not ever counting the cost, so’s to have some of the damn little happiness and peace granted to man in the span of his days. You think that doesn’t take courage? Most of us drift because that’s easiest....If a little of what’s happy comes our way we’ll take it, but we won’t work for it. Most of us don’t know what we want to make us happy; that’s part of the reason we sit tight, hoping whatever it is will show. And selfish. Strange partners, maybe, but there they are, courage and selfishness. I like people who know what they want, right off. I like you, but you don’t know what you want any more, do you?” A Time in the Sun Jane Barry

How good it seemed to all of us to be out thus in the freedom of the night and the sea—not least to the great noble-headed hound sitting up on his haunches, keen and watchful by the steersman's side. What a strange waste of a life so short to be sleeping there on the land, when one might be out and away on such business as ours!-  Pieces of Eight  Richard Le Gallienne

Son, it’s no good to go back where you already been. It ain’t the same. Other people own it, and it ain’t yours no more.”—James Lee Burke Two for Texas

 

Others think much less about us than we believe or fear, because they are almost always thinking about themselves.“—Gabrielle Burton, Impatient With Desire

We don’t judge a man by the blood he was borned with. We measure him by the blood he’s got in his veins now, ‘cause we figure he made it whatever it is—good or bad.”-Caddo Cameron “Gunman’s Christmas”

 

Words may be but a mask upon our thoughts; deeds are ever the expression of them.”-Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood

Adversity had taught him to prize benefits however slight and to confront perils however overwhelming.”-Ibid

A way would present itself. He was watching, and would miss no chance. "And if no chance should offer?" she asked him. "Why then I will make one," he answered, lightly almost. "I have been making them all my life, and it would be odd if I should have lost the trick of it on my life's most important occasion."-Ibid

For every bastard that runs out on you in a fix, there’s three good men who won’t.”-Steve Frazee He Rode Alone

May we choose our tribes well.

All the best, Amigos!

[Excerpted from The Frontier Stoic by Yours Truly.]

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 ...