Monday, August 3, 2015

The Summer of Reading Westerns - July reads

The Summer of reading westerns continues. In July I read 8 westerns (here's the June report card) and a few short stories. 

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 are 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)


Dana King said...

Thanks, Brian. I'm slowly ramping up for my Western--about half a dozen pages on notes in a file, increased reading--and these suggestions will help pint me, as I am woefully ignorant about Western literature. (Better versed in movies.)

I'll put together a blog post of my own when I have a little more to say. maybe we can trade points and perspectives.

Unknown said...

Dana, I'm sure you're not really "woefully ignorant" about Westerns! You could say they're crime fiction in a historical (legendary?) setting. A good place to learn stuff about Westerns you might not find elsewhere is Heaps of info there for both readers and writers, but as someone once said, take your lunch ... you might find yourself roaming the site for hours!

Dana King said...

Chap, Thanks for the heads up on the web site. I'm about ready for bed, but I bookmarked it to take a look at as I have time.

What I am enjoying most right now is discovering how much more diverse the Western literature is than I'd expected. I'm having a great time getting into it.