Friday, December 10, 2021

Renegade Westerns by Kevin Grant & Clark Hodgkiss

 


The full title of this gorgeous volume is Renegade Westerns: Movies That Shot Down Frontier Myths.

The volume is an intelligent guide to “adult” westerns that sought to break from standard fare, starting with a detailed look at 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident and ending with 2017’s Hostiles.

The authors delve into 100 films over decades, many of which are favorites of this author so the high regard should be no surprise.

It also has two Appendixes of Additional Films well worth a delve:

Shadow West: Noir Westerns & Gunning for Peggy Castle: Female Fronted Westerns.

A superlative resource for those who prefer a bit of grit in their Westerns.

Story Spotlight: “First Kill” by Will C. Brown

 

Louise, when a man gets thrown off a horse he’s breaking, the first thing he ought to do is get up and get back on and ride that horse. It’s not the horse he’s got to master—it’s his own opinion of himself. The horse that bucked him, it just represents something. He’s got to do it then and there, not the next day or the next week. A man’s got to get on top of his trouble, or it’ll get on top of him.”

Oh, this 1959 honey from Mr. Brown stacks so much good work in its brief page-count. He inverts the romanticism of the gunfight, and gets the ear-ringing and remorseful trembling feelings right.

If I had a complaint, and I don’t, it’s that I don’t have enough of Mr. Brown on my shelf.

Solid fare for readers who enjoy a moral compass in their leisure reading.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Rio Grande Death Ride by Terrell L. Bowers

 


“You have come to die?"

"No. I've come to kill a sleazy snake, a yellow rat that hasn't got one grain of sand in his craw. You wanted me-well, you sniveling butcher, here I am!"

I was led to this by a recommendation from a Good Man who as a source for good reads fits me well 90% of the time, well, this is one of those 10%ers.

It is a serviceable if formulaic read, a less-skilled “Josey Wales” and ragtag crew tale. My tolerance for such things can be higher but……and this may just be me, but our protagonist displays a casual violence to women that is seemingly portrayed as admirable that I find hard to stomach or justify with “heroic.”

Readers of this blog know that my taste can lean to well-limned violence and this negative reaction is less about the violence and more the admiration of “This is how you court a lady, a little slap here and there and call her brat.”

If the level of the opening prose works for you and this reader’s qualms with “Women love to be slapped” does not worry you, well, you may find something here, but honestly, there is simply better fare up and down the line.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ragtime Cowboys by Loren D. Estleman



That’s the danger of living alone. You get a dumb idea, nobody calls you on it, you get a dumber one later, nobody calls you on it, and before you know it you got a head full of dumb ideas and you run around like a blind horse till you smack up against the side of a barn.”

Reliable teller of tales, Mr. Estleman gives an historical what-if? He takes two former real-life Pinkerton agents, Charlie Siringo and Dashiell Hammett and puts them on a case involving the estate of the late Jack London, with a visit with Wyatt Earp and Joseph Kennedy thrown in to boot.

A crackerjack idea, the marriage of the western with the early hard-boiled.

It is full of such clash of ages/cultures exchanges as…

I hope you’re right and he follows me instead of you.”

“I know a trick or two if he don’t. The Agency didn’t start when you joined.”

“It didn’t stop when you quit.”

Estleman is an author I have enjoyed a good deal, much of his work is superlative, but it may be the fault of this reader in that I found much of what was between the covers a bit, well, rote. Oh, it is skillfully rendered, but I did not settle in easily for the ride.

Now, that may just be me, if the premise sounds aces to you, I would heartily encourage you to make your own estimation.


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Plumb Drillin’ [aka Gold Fever] by David Case

 


Sure, things like bravery. It’s normal, you see a brave man, you reckon him to possess character. And maybe so. Then again, maybe he’s just afraid to be a coward, if you see what I mean?”

Horror writer David Case wrote a trio of Westerns in the mid-70’s. I have enjoyed his horror work, so I tracked down one of this trio—reportedly it was optioned by Steve McQueen but never made it to the screen.

A brief look at the premise reveals why McQueen was likely so interested. A man returning from a stint in territorial prison is sought to lead a blind man and his wife in search of a lost gold seam.

The plot summary, which might be a bit generic, does not do justice to Case’s work. He takes his time with languid character building, and one is all the more sure why McQueen wanted to embrace this role.

It has a wise yet cynical edge that reminds me of upper-tier Frank O’Rourke, which is a good thing indeed.

Well worth a read and a ponder of the film that might have been.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Seven Devils Road by Richard Prosch

 


Tom Baldwin’s card table was nothing, but rough-hewn planks of weathered pine wood nailed together, and it balanced on two wobbly saw-horse legs. In the center, a pot of fifty double-eagles, a silver pocket-watch, and a German meerschaum pipe waited for a winner.

That is the opening paragraph for the second volume of The Hellbenders Trilogy.

[See this blog for the estimation of the first volume.]

But…I surmise that you’re ahead of the game. Why would I dip into Volume 2 if I didn’t already enjoy what I encountered in the first outing?

I did, and I do.

That opening is precursor of all the cinematic turns I could have cherry-picked throughout the volume.

Where many authors seem to rest on, “And then this happened, and then this and then…” at the expense of the wood smoke smells, the textures of the wood, the creak of leather, the squeak of a hasp—the living breathing details that set a scene in the mind’s eye. This author puts us in the middle.

Now some can overdo the scene setting I just praised, spending pages to limn seemingly every detail of a panorama.

Not Mr. Prosch. He’s our sommelier of the senses. He narrows down the details to the redolent few and then gets each scene going in the midst of the sparse vibrancy.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

A Dorothy M. Johnson Twofer

 


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Dorothy M. Johnson

The swamper’s job at the Prairie Belle was not disgraceful until Rance Foster made it so.

This brief tale was the inspiration for the film. I’ll admit the film is one of the few Ford/Wayne team-ups that leaves me a little cold. Likely my fault.

I always found Jimmy Stewart’s resentment hard to reconcile, but the source story has no such issues. Interior motivations are clear, adult, unromantic and make for fine reading.

If you’d asked me,” Barricune mused, I could’ve helped you. But you didn’t want no helping. A man shouldn’t be ashamed to ask somebody that knows better than him.”

Sparse writing from a keen observer.

The Hanging Tree by Dorothy M. Johnson

Now I wonder who got strung up on that tree,” remarked his partner. Wonder Rusell was Joe Frail’s age—thirty—but not of his disposition. Russell was never moody, and he required little from the world he lived in. He wondered aloud about a thousand things but did not require answers to his questions.

A wonderful novella full of human truth and the brooding uncertainties inside the facades most of us assemble each morning for the world.

The ending may be a bit pat and abrupt, but it works.

What works even better, the ride along the way inside the skulls of real-life humans uncertain in their own skins no matter what they present to the world.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Hellbenders: A Traditional Western Novel by Richard Prosch

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We smell flesh and fur.

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

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

This is a superlative example of the genre.

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

Those words, “A Traditional Western Novel.”

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

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

Superlative.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Aviator by Ernest K. Gann

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the book itself, at last.

Is it good?

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

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

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

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

A fine novel.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Searchers by Alan LeMay

 


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

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

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

A fine companion piece to a fine film.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

As in all things, your call.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Devil’s Wind by Douglas Hirt

 


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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Encyclopedia of Civil War Usage by Webb & Cheryl Garrison

 


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

The title tells all.

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

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

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

A few entries to give the flavor…

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

Gobble, to. To win an overwhelming victory quickly.

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

Possum Beer. A variety of homebrew made from persimmons.

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.

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...