Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Drop Edge of Yonder by by Rudolph Wurlitzer

 


Annie May and Zebulon smelled Broken Elbow before they saw it. What had been a trading post and a few shacks only a year ago was now a long, rutted street dominated by pandemonium and open sewage. Drunken miners shouted back and forth in a dozen languages, a naked Chinaman crawled past them into an alleyway pursued by a screaming whore, halfdead oxen pulled overloaded supply wagons through mud and melting snow, past signs advertising wares at outrageous prices: Boots $30, Flour $35, Blankets $30, Washing $20. Every square foot of ground that was not lived on was cluttered with mining equipment, dead dogs, pigs rooting in piles of stinking garbage, wagon beds, spare wheels, barrels, and stacks of lumber, as well as makeshift corrals where mules and horses stood knee-deep in muck. Farther away, on the banks of a swiftly moving river, hundreds of high-booted men—most of them Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese—squatted beside cradle-like gold washers and sluice boxes while others worked up a canyon in steep pits, hacking at the soil with picks and shovels.

Written with a gorgeous eye for detail, be that detail grit, grime, or a wildflower straining a head through the snow, but…

This novel falls into the Acid-Western genre where the rules of reality are a bit bent. It is not as “out there” as works by Coover or Brautigan but it does exist in this realm of metaphysical shenanigans.

I’ll admit this is not a genre that appeals to me but, I’d be a liar if I did not say that some grounded episodes within are as good as any in many a straight literary western.

Likely an A Western for fans of the acid variety.

The fault is mine for wanting the book to be something the obviously talented author did not intend.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Stagecoach by Ernest Haycox

 


World’s full of small people who ain’t bound anywhere. They’re tied to one spot, they eat and work and die; and that’s the end of it. It don’t happen often that the game changes and a whole chunk of the world opens up and there’s a fresh chance for the small, if they’ve got the nerve to take it. That’s why we’re here—to get land I’d never had in Iowa. Back there you’d have been a poor man’s son and nothing to start with. Now when I die you’ll have a thousand acres, and if you’re smart you’ll leave more than that to your sons. That’s why people will come, but some of them will be the same kind of fools here they were there, thinking free land means they’re free to sit still and do no work, and they’ll waste their days and die as poor as they started.” –Violent Interlude

Here we have nine stories, that were formerly packaged in a volume titled By Rope and Lead.

I have made no secret of my esteem for Mr. Haycox and found these stories to rank in the B to A+ level with only two C’s in the bunch. And we must keep in mind that these “C’s” are comparing a gifted author against himself, not the pack of many that don’t always measure up to his uniform rock-solid excellence.

Haycox, as per usual, limns landscape with an Old Master’s eye, he esteems “can do” like no one, and he exudes a inner moral fiber that is always bracing to spend time with.

His four page “A Question of Blood” deserves reading and re-reading to marvel at the punch in such a slim page count.

Superlative!

Friday, September 9, 2022

The Big Screen: The Professionals

 


“Maybe there’s only been one revolution—the good guys against the bad guys.

The question is, who are the good guys?”

Now, we’re talking!

A seriously entertaining film that holds up to repeated viewings, while not as A-level as The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, or The Magnificent Seven this is of a feather, a “Gather together, Crew, we have a job to do” tale that more than holds its own.

Written and directed by Richard Brooks from the novel A Mule for the Marquesa by the mighty talented Frank O’Rourke, this is a cynical testosterone dripping saga of the sweaty southwest.

The cast features Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance but…

To my eye, what lifts this film, elevates it, is Lee Marvin.

Marvin practically carries this film on his back with an easy lived-in nonchalance.

Don’t get me wrong, the cast is quite good—Lancaster is at his charming “I’m Burt Lancaster” best but, it is Marvin’s almost invisible believability that drives this engine.

Each stance, each step seems to result in a position of “Can do, will do” without ever being a pose, without ever being a performance.

It is easy to point to action scenes to illustrate what works well in this film but, allow me to direct you to a simple scene. At one point, Marvin and Lancaster are made privy to a plot shift that alters their perception of what their mission is all about—Lancaster reacts like, well, an actor whereas Marvin, he takes like a man who is honestly surprised.

A tremendously entertaining film with one of the great closing lines of all time, which I shall not spoil here.

Dial it up—you’ll be pleased.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp in Trackdown

 


Two recent dips into Robert Culp prove the actor is always capable even if the material he is offered is not up to snuff.

This first season episode, “Like Father” penned by John Robinson and directed by John English is in the form of a small moral lesson regarding an outlaw and his loyal son.

It is the sort of thing that the similarly produced Rifleman did often and did well.

Here, it is not done badly but there is simply nothing special to distinguish it even with Culp’s efforts.

My vote, watch Hannie Caulder again.

Small Screen Icons: Robert Culp on Bonanza

 


Robert Culp, was no stranger to the genre having been the star of Trackdown, portraying Texas Ranger, Hoby Gilman.

To my mind, and to Quentin Tarantino’s mind, his portrayal of gunfighter Thomas Luther Price in 1971’s Hannie Caulder is the epitome of cool.

Culp always has heft as an easy calm cool presence and on occasion offers some remarkably able gun handling skills.

With that said, I looked forward to seeing his visit to the Bonanza series.

That visit came in “Broken Ballad” a season three offering, written by John T. Kelly and directed by Robert Butler.

Unfortunately, this is a rather formulaic “Gunfighter returns to home town to hang up his guns” trope. The difference here is that Culp carries a guitar rather than a gun.

The guitar allows both Culp and Pernell Roberts show off a bit of musical skills.

The performers are fine, the episode is fine, it is simply hampered by story beats that can be predicted on a minute by minute basis.

All involved have done better work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Small Screen Icons: Charles Bronson on Bonanza

 


I never make a secret of the fact that I am a dyed in the wool Charles Bronson fan. With that said I will make the occasional sojourn into his Western work, particularly his lesser seen guest appearances on television.

We begin with an episode of Bonanza from the 6th season [1964-65] titled The Underdog.

It was written by Don Mullally and directed by occasional Western author William F. Claxton.

As per usual, no spoilers.

Here we have Bronson as Comanche half-breed Harry Starr seeking work on the Ponderosa.

The story is one of apparent prejudice—to say more than that would do disservice to those who choose to view it. I will say, I was caught by pleasant surprise by the turn of events.

The episode really gives Bronson a chance to shine, we have more nuances than we usually expect from the “stoic” actor. We have smiles, we have a bit of cowed behavior, we have virile acting.

I call attention to the many bareback mounts that he makes throughout the episode—some of them one-handed, with an easy lithe agility that tells you, “Yeah, this guy is a Hoss of an athlete.”

Bronson himself is quite good as is the rest of the cast.

The episode has heft and a meat on the bones heart that is seldom seen anymore.

I dialed it up for Bronson alone and wound up enjoying it top to bottom.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

A Texan Came Riding by Frank O’Rourke

 


The fresh smell of mint was in the air. Kearney had crushed some between his fingers as he rose from drinking, and he lingered in the juniper shade with lemon sunlight filtering through the branches across his face, remembering other years when fresh, bright smells brought a surge of fresh joy to life. What was it about mint, and mown hay, and honey and apples and spice, that made happiness grow stronger? Was it the simple joy of living fully, or the senses reacting with typical human greed to rich smells? He did not know and he could never make the spent pilgrimage again; youth’s fine-honed edge of enjoyment was dulled beyond full repair.

O’Rourke is easily one of my favorite western authors, yet I must profess an odd relationship with his work.

The opening passage embodies so much of what I love about his work: deeply and richly observed with full sensory involvement.

Add to that the soul of a wistful poet, a man who seems to always remind us, “This moment is all we got, don’t take it for granted.”

The first third of this novel is simply extraordinary, far above formula fare—the problem, and this holds for many of his novels, there comes a point when the author seems to say, “Well, I guess I gotta speed this thing up and get all about the plot.”

It is this rushed feel that disappoints [this reader at least.] Too bad--he plots well, perhaps he simply required longer than the usual 170 pages to say what he really wanted.

With that said, the novel is a fine one, but I prefer the more measured tone that begins it.

Now, let’s forget my quibbles and close with another of his remarkable passages fraught with insight.

Eating, Kearney saw the blindness in the man across the table. Living was nothing more than making the shift from one kind of existence to another. He’d done it, others had, but it seemed that Malcolm cheated because he carried his own personal being from place to place. And that was worse in many ways than such men as Shaffer who, going broke, just picked up the scraps, moved on to another existence, broke completely with the past and made the best of the present. Malcom’s life was empty because Malcolm brought his own world into the personal existence of others and, instead of accepting and respecting their world at least on the surface, laughed at them and imposed his own while making them dry. Malcolm was cheating the world but, ironically, he was cheating himself worst of all. He always had, he always would, and one day when he was an old, old man—if he survived—he would find life so bleak and thin and lonely that his hell on earth would encircle him, and make him yearn for death. And that was just when nature played her trump card on such a man, kept him dangling by one weak heartbeat, one half-ruptured blood vessel, one soft blood clot, until he felt transparent as glass and received less from life for all his fat years than the saddest, poorest man in the world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Mojave Guns by Roe Richmond

 


They jogged onward in the eerie brilliance of moonlight and starshine, breaking the stillness with the chop of hoofs, the rustling creak of leather, jingling bridles and clinking metal, the grunt of horses and the breathing of men. Alkali dust spiraled up, and shod hoofs struck occasional sparks off the stones. A coyote howled sorrowfully and was answered from afar. An owl hooted and then another. When Raven halted the column, they could hear the faint stir and scrape of small earth creatures. The air smelled of blistered sand and rock, greasewood, sage, and once in a while the pure breath of pines.

My first by this author, and a curious one for me. That opening selection is typical of the excellent renderings of scenery and the punishing feel of conducting campaigns in such conditions.

Yet, most all else is a fairly rote cavalry tale related almost indifferently, that is, compared with the skill shown in the “Men in landscape” sections.

The author shows such skill in some sections, and then seems rushed and detail skipping on others.

Most curious in that the demerits are not from lack of ability.

Not at all.

Another selection.

The sun soared higher in the molten blue, and the heat became barbarous, brutal in its intensity. Drenched in sweat, silted Confederate gray with dust, the column toiled on across the barren broken plains of Hellsgate toward the principal range of the Osages. Girths frothed white, saddle-leather scorched through uniform pants, rifle barrels burned the most calloused palms. Lips were parched and split to the texture of scar tissue, each lower one with its central gash, eased only by leaves of chewing tobacco. Eyes sank ever deeper into blackened, hollow-cheeked skulls of faces. Misery grew in the harassed ranks until death seemed almost welcome, if it could come in one quick flash.

Again, the land lives and breathes in a way that the people within do not.

Most curious.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Robbers by Christopher Cook

 


Ray Bob said, You ever watch westerns? That sounds just like a line out of a western. Outlaw shows up to see his old runnin buddy, and the little woman says, He’s changed. He don’t want your kind of life no more. Why don’t you just go on, leave us alone? And if he’s a good outlaw, he understands and rides off and you feel sorry for him, being all alone again. But if he’s a bad outlaw, he hangs around waiting, playing with his gun, making her all nervous. Ever notice that?

Here we have a Neo-Western complete with outlaws and a dogged Texas Ranger. It is unapologetically violent, but there is no “romance of violence” here. It portrays violence for what it is, stark and senseless.

Even our “heroes” are reflective of real-life, nobody’s perfect and often those we ask to protect and or fight for us may not fit the “shining armor” ideal but…they sometimes get the job done.

“You the first Ranger I ever met, he said. Rule grinned. Well, they say we’re something special. That’s PR mostly. Deep down inside, I’m the same as anyone else. The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt. Nodding thoughtfully at the apparent sagacity of that remark, at its implied candor. I’m a regular sonofabitch, Rule said. Why I work alone. Nobody can stand me.”

The novel is no mere genre piece, it approaches literature without straying into pretension.

It stands in the middle-ground between Stephen Hunter’s elevated noir of Dirty White Boys and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

The novel can be thought of as Hell or High Water without the redeeming motive.

Along the way we are treated to ideas that bring one up short as in this observation from a Texas honky-tonk owner.

Cause you a roots man, Bubba Bear was saying, off on another run, cause you’re not modern, post-modern, avant pop, all that wonka-wonka jive. World’s gone theoretical, friend, vicarious and abstract. Image over substance. Folks bored of the real thing, not that they see it much. They disconnected from the past, their own nature. But not you. Am I right or wrong? Eddie said he reckoned so, one way or the other. Bubba Bear grinned. You’re sharp, Rufus, you got that inborn native intelligence. Comes from having your feet on the ground. All that black Mississippi mud between your toes, the wisdom of the gut. You’re not a spectator, man, you’re a creator. I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house, wherein at ease forever to dwell. That’s Tennyson. I celebrate myself and sing myself. Whitman, another roots man. What I’m saying, friend, is you’re too busy creating the universe to pay attention to the ancillary bullshit. You’re rooted. Otherwise you’d be living secondhand sucking off TV and pop music, reading People magazine, have a soul about as big as my left nut. Know what you’d be? Eddie allowed he wasn’t sure but had a notion. That’s right, Bubba Bear rolled on, a consumer. A corporate subject. Someone whose sole allegiance is to money. Someone who lives within the borders of his debt in permanent exile. Make it, spend it, finance the difference, living on the installment plan. Eats what they throw at him, says yum-yum. Garbage, his only creation.

An unapologetically real journey.

Highest marks for this reader.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Finding Nevada by Frank Roderus

 


Now he thought that the position in the bank was a nice position for a man to have. He enjoyed the work and he enjoyed the people, and if the officers of the bank did not really understand that Harrison’s popularity with the patrons came not from his efficiency but from his genuine liking for them, well, that was the bank’s problem. Harrison did not truly care all that greatly how they perceived him. The fact was that he thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.

This novel is a fine example of what I can enjoy about the genre—despite the pictured gunfight on the cover [my cover, at least], there is not a gunfight to be found within.

It is a novel of amiable, loping charm. Most genres exist for the mere sake of the plot itself no matter how skillful people maybe limned along the way. A crime novel with no crime is no crime novel. A mystery with nothing to solve is no mystery. A horror with no shudder is, well…

The Western can be rife with gunfights [and I’ve enjoyed many of that variety.] It can also be one of seeming slightly plotted nothingness and yet still survive because of the caliber of the people we spend time with.

This novel is no rafter-shaker but I am mighty refreshed by having spent a few hours in such amiable unargumentative company.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Leaving Cheyenne by Bill Brooks

 


“I counted the graves of my friends and it was like ticking off time, each one representing a memory, a good time, a shared glass of liquor, a laugh, a sense of indescribable loss.”

The above is a gorgeous representation of what one finds between these covers. It is part of the Quint McCannon series, and I’ll be honest, series usually rate low for me as the very fact that something is a series means that absolute jeopardy is not on the table. The author must continue the character to maintain the income. That foregone conclusion often leads me to never fully involve.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many fine reads within series tales; I simply point out that we all kinda, sorta know the end before we start.

With all that said, this novel has the heft and beauty of a single piece of literature. Mr. Brooks peppers the tale in the fashion of the late Mr. McMurtry where we come across actual historical personages, which allows McCannon/Brooks to proffer his judgment of the figure in question.

A gorgeous tale I enjoyed thoroughly save for the foregone conclusion of “All will be right in the end” before I even left the first page.

I shall return to Mr. Brooks and Mr. McCannon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Branded West, Edited by Don Ward

 


Here we have a 1955 anthology sanctioned by the Western Writers of America.

We are treated to 14 solid tales from the pens of men as able as Elmore Leonard, Stephen Payne, Kenneth Fowler and other practitioners from the early ‘50s.

The volume opens with “The Builder of Murderer’s Bar” by Todhunter Ballard, a story that was selected as one of the 100 Best Western Stories of all time by Jon Lewis.

Usually I concur with Mr. Lewis’ opinion, but I’ll split here—it struck me slight. Likely my error and not Mr. Ballard or Mr. Lewis.

The remainder of the fare is solid, with one easily taking high honors to my taste, that tale being “The Marshal and the Mob” by Will C. Brown—stick to your ribs stuff.

While not essential, I am a sucker for anthologies as it gives one a chance to sample bite-size appetizers of many authors to see if you’d like to delve deeper into their longer works.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Murphy by Gary Paulsen

 


Murphy edged in the saddle so his gun was handier. He hated shooting off a horse. One of the times he’d been hit he’d been on a horse; he’d fired a shot and the damn horse had gone hog-wild on him. While he was trying to stop it and get another shot off, the man he had been shooting at used a rifle and put a .44-40 bullet through his right thigh. The bullet had gone on through and killed the horse—broke his back. Even though Murphy had been able to get a shot into the man’s pump and put him down, he still hated shooting off a horse.

Primarily known for his Award-Winning young adult novels, Hatchet being a notable example, Paulsen turned in a string of mature Westerns featuring a character by the name of Murphy, this novel being the first in that series.

So, how does a “children’s author” fare in this adult world?

Mighty damn good.

Murphy is a real flesh and blood human being. He is no cardboard cutout hero. He has doubts, unacted upon desires, he suffers the pangs of everyday living and yet he still rises to the job of being a lawman in a small mining town.

Here Murphy is confronted with the rape and murder of a young child, adult fare indeed.

The outrage is handled well, as is the stab at early crime scene investigation.

Handled even better, and the heart of the novel, is Murphy’s affairs of the heart with a local widow.

This is all done with easy assurance.

But…what makes this novel less than an A [for this reader] is the plot resolution. It feels hurried. It feels as if Paulsen enjoyed the widow and Murphy and the time with them so well that he rushed to get past the incident that set the entire novel in motion.

I get Paulsen’s rush, I too, wanted more of Murphy and the time spent inside his experienced skull is akin to spending time around a fire with an old hand wise to many ways and honest to those he does not know.

The shoot ‘em up ending feels out of place in such an assured work.

Still, I look forward to spending more time with Murphy in the next volume.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest, with a Few Observations by Frank Dobie

 


Nobody should specialize on provincial writings before he has the perspective that only a good deal of good literature and wide history can give. I think it more important that a dweller in the Southwest read The Trial and Death of Socrates than all the books extant on killings by Billy the Kid. I think this dweller will fit his land better by understanding Thomas Jefferson's oath ("I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man") than by reading all the books that have been written on ranch lands and people. For any dweller of the Southwest who would have the land soak into him, Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," "The Solitary Reaper," "Expostulation and Reply," and a few other poems are more conducive to a "wise passiveness" than any native writing.

That title tells you right up front—This is a Reference Work.

What that title does not tell you is that it is beautifully written and full of pith and trenchant observation.

It is, essentially, a list of historical and non-fiction works on the West, with a heavy focus on the Southwest. There are fictional works sprinkled here and there.

Mr. Dobie has apparently read it all, has an opinion on all, and is a wise guide with an observation ever at hand.

Most books of this sort are meant for browsing, but this reader was charmed almost immediately, and I read it cover to cover as if it were hot-off-the-presses fiction.

The volume is manna for historians and researchers, or fiction writers looking to add authenticity to their tales, and simply those who love good writing and mature opinions voiced in a frank manner.

Easily one of the best reference works of its kind.

Friday, March 4, 2022

The Diezmo by Rick Bass

 


As it was, he died on the fifth day—in his last hours, he changed his mind and asked Sinnickson to remove the legs, though by that time he was too far gone and we had begun digging his grave even before he passed. We had him buried by that evening, still more bloody and fevered seed for that contested soil.

This brief novel of a godawful early expedition along and below the Border is rife with suffering all elegantly rendered by Mr. Bass.

There is much of the actual history intertwined with fleshing out from the author, and piquant observations such as the following abound.

 “Regardless of your beliefs in a hereafter, or a merciful God, we are flesh but once, and our choices must be made wisely.”

Or this example…

Charles McLaughlin was seated on one of the stone walls, sketching the scene before him quickly, and by the time Wallace and Cameron had the men and their stock rounded up, he had finished his sketch. Those of us who cared to look at it agreed that it was almost realistic, but we were a bit surprised that it had come from his hand, and from his eye. He had made the scene appear almost idyllic, with very little of the squalor. In that regard, the picture was false, but in the sense that it presented ourselves the way we would have liked to be seen, it was true.

Brief, well-observed, if a realistically unpleasant experience.

A superior work.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Wait for Signs by Craig Johnson

 


Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.—Louis L ’Amour

Usually, we open with a quote from the volume we are examining, but this L ‘Amour quote qualifies as it is the epigraph used by Mr. Johnson himself to open this anthology of short-stories.

To my mind, it sums up the strengths of this very talented craftsman.

He has an eye for people, places, and small acts that tell a character.

These strengths are in fine form here but…

And keep in mind, this is likely only for this reader, I have an impatience with crime stories these days. Between decades of having read primarily crime novels and where seemingly every other television show is a variation on Law & Order, the tropes of a crime story must be stuck to apparently, in most cases so closely there is little room for surprise or legroom for wider expanses of story.

In the case of Mr. Johnson, I find it a shame as his skill is extraordinary, so much so that I hate to see it run in the ruts of, “Now let’s figure out which meth addict held up the diner.”

The Longmire series is popular, and justly so, and I wager my quibble will do nothing to lower that estimation for fans [nor should it.]

It is just the observation of a man who would love to see this author really stretch his legs and surprise from top-to-bottom without having to provide a compulsory “Aha!” denouement.

In the spirit of the quote, he has clearly seen much, I would love to read more about sights I’ve not seen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

“House Made of Dawn” Washington Matthews

 


Washington Mattews was an American anthropologist and historian of Native Americans. He recorded and translated many Navajo stories, tales, and poems for the American Museum of Natural History. In 1902 he offered a “Navajo Night Chant” which was traditionally sung/chanted as part of a nine-day ceremony.

Matthews’s collection deserves to be read by the open-hearted. I offer a brief extract below, that reminds us that gratitude and not supplicating requests are a lovely window through which to view the world. And to clarify in context, “It is finished in beauty” refers to the World being “finished in beauty”—finish as in the decorative touches as one might see added by a Master Craftsman.

With beauty before me, I walk.

With beauty behind me, I walk.

With beauty below me, I walk.

With beauty above me, I walk.

With beauty all around me, I walk.

It is finished in beauty,

It is finished in beauty,

It is finished in beauty,

It is finished in beauty.

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...