Thursday, July 23, 2015

July western reads

The Log of a Cowboy by Andy Adams (1903) - Andy Adams was actually a cowboy for many years. He didn't like the romanticizing of the West that was, and remains, prevalent. He advocated for a more realistic depiction of the west and his fiction demonstrated that philosophy. The Log of a Cowboy is his best known work and it succeeds in the author's goal. It is a cattle drive novel, written by cattle man, about a cattle drive, written in a direct style that contains a lot of details about driving cattle. It's a dry novel that is important to the formation of the genre that is both interesting at times and boring as hell at times. It's also a novel that was published in 1901 so there is some, shall we say, un-PC language used. Recommended. Ish. (In the public domain so is available for free online)

The Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter (1936) - This is a novel about one of a few central topics that western fiction deals with, the cattle baron and cattle man vs. the settler. The Sea of Grass is a western written before the boom horse-opera westerns and the rise of the hard-boiled westerns of the 50's and 60's so it has a different feel to it. It's a lusty, melodramatic novel with big characters making bold statements. It's an entertaining, if dated, novel. Side note: I did find the love interest to be a character potentially worth further exploration in another story. She leaves her husband, children and lover behind for a better live in the big city. I wanted to get into her head as it could have been interesting, but Richter never delves into it. Recommended.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Henry Neider (1956) - The Authentic Death is the fictional re-telling of the life of Billy the Kid reset in California. It's told in sparse impressionistic language that emphasizes the mythic while also trying, at times, to balance the reality. When people talk of modern revisionist westerns they often forget that revisionist westerns aren't anything new. This is an original take on the genre and a book that does not deserve to be out of print. Side note: This is the earliest usage that I have found, by far, of the word "fuck" in a western. If there is an earlier novel that uses it chime in below. Highly Recommended.

The Hell Bent Kid by Charles O Locke (1957) - I really liked this one. It has a tragic story whose ending is locked in place pretty early on but never feels redundant or, interestingly given the year it was written, gives fully into it's potential noir impulses. This novel also serves its characters well by isolating them, and bringing them into a stark clarity. Highly Recommended.

Tragg's Choice by Clifton Adams (1969) - I have conflicting reactions about this book. I enjoyed the hell out of it but also found it frustrating. The focus here is on a small group of characters with conflicting and overlapping motivations, so it's interesting to see how it all shakes out when the time comes for battle lines to be drawn. But some of the motivations could have been mined deeper. With passages like this Adams shows his comfort in classic noir territory (which he also wrote around the same time):

"When it was over Morrasey stood panting, the heavy .45, still smoking, dangling carelessly in his hand. Well, he thought with a bleakness that was just bearable, that's that. And then he waited for something to happen. He wasn't sure what he expected, but for the past several hours, which had seemed like an eternity, the point to his whole existence, and the hope of rest for Delly, had been centered in the act of killing Omar Jessup."

But nothing changed. Jessup was dead, but so was Delly. And then, slowly but with a fearful thoroughness, it came to him. It was never going to change. No matter what he did, it was never going to change."

Tripwire by Brian Garfield (1973): Tripwire is an action filled revenge story as the protag is screwed out of his part of a big score and goes after the men who left him for dead. Tripwire moves a long at a fast clip before setting up the big finale. Of note is that the protagonist is a black man, something not too often seen in westerns. This one is a lot of fun. Recommended.

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout (1975) - Swarthout should be having a mini-renaissance with the recent success of The Homesman, but that doesn't seem to be happening. Shame really as he's a hell of a writer. The Shootist was made into a notable western because it was John Wayne's last role before he died. This is the story of a renowned killer who finds out he has cancer and a short time to live. When news gets out he's got a lot to contended with as the dark side of the town emerges and everyone wants a piece of him and his legacy. This is a psychologically dark novel that delves deep into a dying gunfighter's mind and last days. Highly Recommended.

Haxan by Kenneth Mark Hoover (2014) - A weird western where the "weird" elements are played very subtly (arguably too subtly). I enjoyed this novel but also have some nits to pick. Namely that the first person narration doesn't do the main female character any favors. She is shown to be a capable woman, who loves the protag, and has a vested interest in seeing the primary case solved. I would have liked to see her be more central to the action instead of being confined to the hotel. The second book in the series was just released and I look forward to checking it out. Recommended.

I also read the following short stories in June. When I finish the anthology/collection I'll offer my thoughts on it as a whole.

"A Man Called Horse" - Dorothy M Johnson (1949)
"The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" - Dorothy M Johnson (1953)
"Lost Sister" - Dorothy M Johnson (1957)

From the collection Westward the Women an Anthology of Western Stories
by Women
edited by Vicki Piekarski:

"On the Divide" by Willa Cather (1896)
"The Last Antelope" by Mary Austin (1909)

From the anthology The Best of the West edited by Joe Lansdale:

"At Yuma Crossing" - Brian Garfield (1986)
"Take a Left at Bertram" by Chad Oliver

From the collection Western Stories: A Chronological Anthology edited
by John Tuska:

"Hank's Woman" - Owen Wister (1892)

Four types of westerns

Read a piece that suggests that Westerns can be divided into four major categories: traditional Westerns, anti-Westerns, elegiac Westerns and experimental Westerns. Together, these four categories reveal not only common themes but also the extent of the diversity of Western movies, especially since 1960.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"But the western as a literary form left us with another legacy. No other region of the nation produced a comparable genre of formulaic, relentlessly aggrandizing whitewash--and it has stigmatized all subsequent writers from (and those writing about) this part of the country. To say one is a "western writer," or that this is a "western story," is to automatically raise a doubt as to its long-term merit as literature."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Half-baked article that starts off making a false assumption, that Stephen King is the father of the weird western.

Random thought

I had been thinking the modern western had, as a kind of crossroads, the fiction of Andy Adams and Zane Grey at the start of the 20th century. One representing the notion of realism and the other a more romanticized notion of the west. The latter won out. But this goes back even further, at least to the fiction of Caroline M Kirkland and James Fenimore Cooper, both of whom represented the same ideas and again the more romanticized notion won out. Be curious to see if it goes back even further. Imagine a world where Andy Adams became hugely successful and Zane Grey did not.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

" would seem that Wister's personal values constantly interfered with his objective to describe the West and its people as they really were. Romance and marriage in his novels, as in some of his stories, serve only to emasculate his cowboys, to make them docile Easterners concerned more with personal ambition, accumulation of wealth, and achieving what by Eastern standards could only be considered social standing, rather than luxuriating in their freedom, the openness and emptiness of the land, and the West's utter disregard for family background. To make his cowboy's acceptable heroes to himself, as well as to his Eastern readers, Wister felt compelled to imbue them with his own distinctly patrician values. For this reason his stories cannot be said to depict truthfully the contrasts and real conflicts between the East and West of his time and Western readers of his stories have always tended to scoff at what he was presenting as the reality of Western life.

"Wister in his political philosophy was a progressive and what has come to be termed a social Darwinist....He believed in a natural aristocracy, a survival of the fittest -- the fittest being those who measured up best to the elective affinities of his own value system. ...Yet privately (and this is wht his journals are so illuminating), he lamented the sloth which he felt the West induced in people, and it was his ultimate rejection of the real West that brought about his disillusionment with it and his refusal, after 1911, ever to return there."

Monday, July 6, 2015

More on The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones

The Neglected Books Page has a page for The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones

Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.

First western to use "fuck"?

Reading a western from 1956, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider, and one character says "fuck you" to another.

This seems pretty early to me.

Does anyone know when the first F-bomb was used in a western? Could this be a contender?

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones was filmed as One-Eyed Jacks in 1961 (starring Marlon Brando), was also published under the title Guns Up, Was last reissued was 1993, and is currently out of print.

Quick thoughts on June's western reads

.44 by H.A. DeRosso (1953) - It's easy to see why so many crime folks recommend this one. It's basically a classic, mid-20th century noir dressed up as a western. It can be a little tough to continue buying the protag's continued staying in the town but, recognized as the noir that it is, this is an easy enough hurdle to cross and the doomed ride becomes fun in it's own way. Recommended

The Searchers by Alan LeMay (1954) - This is one of those books that is hard to talk about without mentioning the movie. If you put the race issue aside for a moment, I've always thought the movie had its problems. Part of that is that Ethan (Amos in the book) dominates the movie so much. The book is told in a tight 3rd person pov from Martin's perspective, so the Mart character in the book is a far better character, with a lot of nice character growth, and worth the price admission alone. There's also some scenes that are gripping. One in particular is Amos and Mart trapped in a gulch by a blizzard for 60 hours. Just a fantastic scene. Is Ethan/Amos racist? and Is The Searchers racist? are two questions that have surrounded the movie for years. Is The Searchers (book) and it's author racist? I'm punting and will say that is thoughts for another day. Highly Recommended.

Death of a Gunfighter by Lewis B Patten (1955) - Good book that deals effectively with the idea of the aged gunfighter and his place in society as it progresses. In this case the town gave the gunfighter the Sheriff job to clean up the town, and then told him he could keep it for as long as he wanted since he did such a good job. Now they want him out, and he doesn't want to go. Patten explores both sides of this issue and swings the reader's loyalties from one side to the other. Recommended. 

Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer (1963) - Schaefer's Shane always gets the praise but Monte Walsh may be the better book (I read Shane year's ago and will be re-reading it this summer). Schaefer wrote some short stories about Monte Walsh that were then collected together and tied up together as the novel Monte Walsh. So the novel has a very episodic feel. Monte Walsh is an intimate epic, where one man's life represents the entire old west. Not only is the book a rousing story and very moving at times but Schaefer can actually write, so Monte Walsh utilizes a number of different literary techniques and modes by which to tell the story. Monte Walsh is an unheralded great American novel. Highly Recommended.

Gospel of the Bullet by Chris Leek (2014)
Gunmen by Timothy Friend (2015) - Straight forward westerns. My only observation of note (not a criticism) is that they both feel like the beginnings of larger stories rather than full stop stories. Maybe the authors will revisit these stories and characters at a later date. Recommended

Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale (2015) - Lansdale's tribute to the black cowboys that rode in the west. This is a big old Texas yarn that is at times funny, harrowing, moving, goofy. Recommended.

Pig Iron by David James Keaton (2015) - What the hell is Pig Iron? Part absurdist western, part goof, part homage to western movies, part fleshing out of a Marty Robbins song. Sure, all of that and more. Some part of Pig Iron work better then others but it is a highly imaginative, highly original, highly fantastical western that is, at its best, a lot of fun. Recommended (but may not be for everyone).

Haints Stay by Colin Winnette (2015) - Haints Stay is a dark, moody, modern, revisionist western that is tonally related to the Sisters Brothers. Chances are if you liked The Sisters Brothers you'll be inclined to like this one too. One of the problems with revisionist westerns post Blood Meridian is that they all think that they are the first one to try and turn the genre on it's head. Revisionist westerns continue to trickle out, a couple a year or one every couple of years, and each occurrence is treated as if it's the best thing since...well... the last time it was done. And I say this as someone who likes a good revisionist western (which, btw, first started getting published as far back as the 50's). Recommended.