Thursday, March 30, 2023

“The Clark’s Fork Valley, Wyoming” by Ernest Hemingway


Then there was the winter; the trees bare now, the snow blowing so you could not see, the saddle wet, then frozen as you came downhill, breaking a trail through the snow, trying to keep your legs moving, and the sharp, warming taste of whiskey when you hit the ranch and changed your clothes in front of the big open fireplace. It's a good country.

Here we have something a little different. Not a novel or short-story, or even fiction for that matter.

We have an essay by the inestimable Hemingway that he offered for a 1939 issue of Vogue magazine. [Clearly a different periodical in his day.]

The essay is short but vivid with his telegraph-brief style.

It shows a true love of place.

A love that abides in many of the best works of Westerners.

Brief but beautiful.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

“A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean


Black Jack’s was a freight car taken off its wheels and set on gravel at the other end of the bridge crossing the Little Prickly Pear. On the side of the boxcar was a sign of the Great Northern Railroad, a mountain goat gazing through a white beard on a world painted red. This is the only goat that ever saw the bottom of his world constantly occupied by a bottle of bar whiskey labeled “3-7-77,” the number the Vigilantes pinned on the road agents they hanged in order to represent probably the dimensions of a grave. The numbers are thought to mean three feet wide seven feet long and seventy-seven inches deep. The bar was a log split in two by someone who wasn't much good with an axe, maybe Black Jack himself, but his customers had done a much better job in greasing it with the elbows. Black Jack was short, trembled, and never got far from a revolver and a blackjack that lay behind the greased log. His teeth were bad, probably the result of drinking his own whiskey, which was made somewhere up Sheep Gulch.

Here we have another of “The 100 Best” as chosen by Mr. Lewis. I only speak of the novella having never seen the film.

The offered passage lets us know Mclean has narrative power, it is one of the few sequences that is not centered around fly-fishing.

Much of this story is fly-fishing.

So much of it…

I am not a fly-fisherman, nor a bait fisherman and, initially, I thought my remove from this story was simply I do not share that experience, then I recall, I am also not a concentration camp survivor and have no likewise desire to be one and yet my recent read of Viktor Frankl’s experiences inside several camps was gripping.

This story is esteemed by many, so I don’t think my drop in a bucket minority opinion of, “I kinda wanted a bit less fishing and a bit more coherence in plot when not on the river” will do the story no reputational harm.

If you are a fly-fisherman you may be in hog-heaven with this one.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Concrete Cowboys Starring Jerry Reed & Tom Selleck


Here we have a TV-Movie from 1979 that allows us to ask the question, “What would happen if you took one of John Wayne’s directors, a screenwriter noted for Hammer horror films, Jerry Reed in his Smokey & the Bandit ‘Snowman’ raconteur guise, and added as his Burt Reynolds stand-in, an affable Tom Selleck?”

Well, the answer is this film.

It served as a pilot for a short-lived series that aired in 1981, with Geoffrey Scott taking over the Selleck role.

I’ve not seen the series and can’t vouch for it but…the telefilm is no great shakes plot wise, the duo move through rote Nashville PI machinations but the pair have an undeniable charm and an affable chemistry to them.

I am an unabashed Jerry Reed fan, I regard him as one of THE best guitar pickers who ever lived and am equally charmed by his easy way with a story-telling song and good ol’ boy stage demeanor.

This Southern charisma served him well in his film and television appearances.

Selleck is just as good in a tolerant, level-headed, “Aw, shucks” role.

I’d love to have seen these two work together again in a more solid vehicle.

The film is generic, but the stars work every scene they are in.

Fans of either should find much to admire here.

Friday, March 24, 2023

“The Peach Stone” by Paul Horgan


They all knew, the drive would take them about four hours, all the way to Weed, where she came from. They knew the way from traveling it so often, first in the old car, and now in the new one; new to them, that is, for they bought it second hand, last year, when they were down in Roswell to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. They still thought of themselves as a young couple, and he certainly did crazy things now and then, and always laughed her out of it when she was cross at the money going where it did, instead of where it ought to go. But there was so much droll orneriness in him when he did things like that that she couldn't stay mad, hadn't the heart, and the harder up they got, the more she loved him, and the little ranch he'd taken her to in the rolling plains just below the mountains.

This story, one of Mr. Lewis’s 100 Best is a jewel.

It is essentially four characters in an old car making a dusty trip with a box of sadness on the back seat.

Almost dialogue free we spend time inside the heads of each passenger as they see the road and what led them to this journey differently.

I will not tip what is in the box.

The story is magnificently human—Mr. Horgan clearly had an eye that saw humanity in detail and could render it three-dimensions.

Superlative adult fare.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

“Sixty Acres” by Raymond Carver


He cleaned his teeth with his tongue and squinted in the late-afternoon winter half-light. He wasn’t afraid; it wasn’t that, he told himself. He just didn’t want trouble.

Another choice from Mr. Lewis’ “Best Western Stories of all-Time.”


Without a doubt.

Evocative of mood, place, and character?

On the money.

But…this reader has a low threshold for elliptical endings, stories that just paint scenes in a few broad strokes and simply end.

Yes, much of life is that way, perhaps all—we stop any story at any moment and there are unanswered questions.

But I must admit when I sit down to read I have a plot-trained Pavlovian desire for resolution. For endings that one does not necessarily receive in “real” life.

This reaction to the story is more about me than Mr. Carver’s craft.

Mr. Carver writes with incisive precision; I would have followed it more happily to an ending.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Run, Simon, Run starring Burt Reynolds


This 1970 TV-movie is a contemporary Western starring a pre-superstardom Burt Reynolds.

I am an unabashed early-Reynolds fan and I must admit I had never heard of this film.

Reynolds plays Simon Zuniga, a Papago Indian just released from the Arizona State Pen.

He returns to the Reservation and confronts the changes there and via a quiet stoic remove from the changes, instigates changes of his own.

This film is reflective of the AIM movement [American Indian Movement] and is sharply written, sensitive, low-key and works quite well. Reynolds is all quiet charm here, more reflective of a brooding Steve McQueen or Charles Bronson than the noted wisecracker that he would become.

I sought it out of curiosity but wound up getting far more out of it than I expected.

Dignified and strong with a fine score by The Orphanage.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stranger in Galah by Michael Barrett


They drove on. The atmosphere began to oppress Deane more heavily. Nothing in sight, bare earth and the groups of cattle standing, motionless. The harsh sun poured down over the plain, a white ball of light. When they were close he saw the beasts were mere skeletons, filthy hides draped over their scarecrow backs. They stood gaunt, legs splayed out, unmoving: specter-like symbols of doom and destruction. Only their horns were smooth and unchanged; their great eyes had a glazed, vacant stare. They did not see, they did not hear the car pass. They just stood, trance-like. The woman glanced at Deane. She stopped the car, switched off the engine. Then the silence was something frightening. Absolute, utter silence over the vast paddock and desolate earth. No wind, no movement, no life. The dying animals with the empty eyes. Time stood still, waiting for death. Deane shifted uneasily. One of the cattle nearby went down with slow finality into that long-promised death. It sank to its knees, rolled over with the same complete silence to the bare earth. A nightmare, death-watch quality hung over the scene.

Here we have an “Outback Western” or “Bush Western” or more simply a novel of the Australian Frontier.

Written in 1958 the offered passage tells the power of one aspect of this novel—it has the pervasive punishing drought down pat. The baking heat, the red grit in the teeth, all hold center as characters in the tale.

Also strong, the opening—I will not give it away, but it calls to mind the ruthlessness of the opening of Elmore Leonard’s superior Valdez is Coming.

The opening third held this reader in thrall and then…well, then it seems to spin its wheels in the femme fatale/noir land of the Fawcett Gold Medal Line circa 1950s.

Yes, there were superior authors working in those hallowed paperbacks, but much, if one is honest, is merely rote pushing of sweaty passions around pat checkerboards of repetitive plots.

This plot deals much with race and to do so portrays some characters as callous bigots, which is necessary but…even our protagonist does not come off much better.

There is something patronizing and dismissively paternalistic about the novel. If it had hewed to its opening toughness, it might have weathered these difficulties better, but as it becomes more formulaic the patronizing becomes merely lazy and possibly indicative of true attitudes which is…a bit uncomfortable.

In short, I thought I had an undiscovered classic in my hands for the first two thirds of the novel and then…well, there is still skill here. There is power.

A power that fails in the end for this reader.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Trackers [1971]


This ABC TV-Movie was conceived as a pilot for a series starring Sammy Davis Jr. that proceeded no further than this film.

The premise is prejudice in the Old West. Davis plays a Deputy Marshal with prime tracking skills in a Post-Civil War era.

Ernest Borgnine’s ranch is raided, his son is killed, and his daughter abducted—he sends for what he assumes is a Marshal of the “preferred” race but what he gets does not set well.

The importance of the task means the men must work together despite differences.

There is growth along the way.

The story is not new but solidly presented. The show here is Borgnine playing worried agitation well, and Davis’s stoic reactions to prejudice on all sides.

Davis, who was quite a hand with gunplay in real life, features none of that here. Likely aiming for a more serious bearing than a show-off gun hawk.

No classic, but this viewer would have liked to see how the series would have developed—what is presented had promise.

Friday, March 10, 2023

“The Thousand Dozen” by Jack London


David Rasmunsen was a hustler, and, like many a greater man, a man of the one idea. Wherefore, when the clarion call of the North rang on his ear, he conceived an adventure in eggs and bent all his energy to its achievement. He figured briefly and to the point, and the adventure became iridescent-hued, splendid. That eggs would sell at Dawson for five dollars a dozen was a safe working premise. Whence it was incontrovertible that one thousand dozen would bring, in the Golden Metropolis, five thousand dollars.

This story, by London, one of the 100 Best according to Mr. Lewis, is a mini-marvel.

It is one of his tales of the North and it packs a lot of territory in its brief 21-pages.

We have wide-eyed dreaming and those dreams making contact with reality again and again.

We have endurance, harsh conditions, survival and hardship as can only be described by a man who has lived it and seen it.

Is this an adventure story? Yes.

A cautionary tale? Yes.

A black comedy? That, too.

Easily one of the best I’ve read by London.

An impressive 21-pages indeed.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

“Hell Command” by Clifton Adams


“I wouldn't send out any patrols tonight, Sergeant,” he said.

The sergeant looked at him. “Why?”

That was one bad thing about scouting for the army, somebody was always wanting to know the reasons. And a lot of times there wasn’t any reason, except for that vague intangible thing called hunch or intuition that most white men mistrusted blindly, and wild animals and Indians and some few white men, very few, stake their lives on. And a lot of times even the tangible things were ignored, or never seen.

A solid novella of a cavalry operation selected as one of the 100 Best by Mr. Lewis.

It hews to “lone patrol in the desert” form and offers a “B-plot” on the true value of the fairer sex.

It resembles a mix between James Warner Bellah and Ernest Haycox, and that is a fine hybrid to be.

No new ground is broken, but what ground covered is welcome earthy soil.

Monday, March 6, 2023

The Drifter starring Buster Crabbe


Film Critic, Ted Reinhart compiled a list of the “Western Series Stars and Their Career Best Movie.”

The 1944 film The Drifter is the Buster Crabbe pick.

I’m a mighty big Tarzan fan, and even have a fondness for the creaky 1933 Tarzan the Fearless starring Mr. Crabbe, so it pains me to say this low-budget affair in which Crabbe plays dual roles [one dressed in black, the other in white—guess which one’s the bad guy] makes that bit of creakiness look like a well-oiled machine.

Crabbe is square-jawed and looks both parts but hampered by a silly script, clumsy staging and a love-interest with only a passing familiarity with line readings, well, this is a delve into the past that provides little reward.

Al St John does offer some rudimentary stunt bicycle work but…that does not equal a recommendation.

Friday, March 3, 2023

“Yaqui” by Zane Grey


Love of life lulled Yaqui back into his dreams. To live, to have his people around him, to see his dusky-eyed wife at her work, to watch the naked children playing in the grass, to look out over that rolling, endless green valley, so wild, so lonely so fertile-- such a proof of God in the desert--to feel the hot sun and the sweet wind and the cool night, to linger on the heights watching, listening, feeling, to stalk the keen-eyed mountain sheep, to eat fresh meat and drink pure water, to rest through the solemn still noons as sleep away the silent melancholy nights, to enjoy the games of his forefathers--wild games of riding and running--to steal off alone into the desert and endure heat, thirst, cold, dust, starvation while he sought the Indian gods hidden in the rocks, to be free of the white man--to live like the eagles-- to live-- Yaqui asked no more.

Another from the 100 Best Roster. This 1920 story from Grey took me by surprise as my only exposure to him is his much-touted novel Riders of the Purple Sage, a work that, in all honesty, I have never finished despite numerous attempts.

Where that novel, at least the third I’ve read, bores me, this story kept me surprised with its distinct tone shifts.

We begin with a well-researched account of the Yaqui Indians.

We go through a harrowing conflict and then a description of the henequen industry, shift to a subplot of love amongst the Dons and end with a Gothic revenge worthy of Poe.

The style kept this reader at a bit of remove but the tone shifts and surprising brutality kept me reading to see where this tragic tale was going.

It may not make my “Best of…” list but, impressed I was.

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...