Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Michael Zimmer, Leaving Yuma

I was drawn to this recent novel by its theme—a perilous journey into Mexico, which as a subgenre of the western in both fiction and film continues to fascinate me. I already mentioned this a while ago in a review of The Wonderful Country. As a theme, it can be traced back at least as far as Stephen Crane, whose story “One Dash—Horses” (1896) tells of an American adventurer’s scary encounter with Mexican rurales.

Plot. In this nerve-jangling novel, the central character is a Yuma Prison inmate, who gets early release to lead a party of men into Sonora to deliver a ransom. The ransom is in the form of machine guns and ammunition for a brutal bandit, Chito Soto, who has taken over a garrison town during the revolution against Porfirio Díaz. The man is holding a man’s wife and two children, kidnapped from a train. The year is 1907.

J.T. Latham has been doing time at Yuma for smuggling consumer goods across the border. He knows the forbidding terrain south of Nogales from three years as a young captive of Yaqui Indians, who bear a savage intolerance for both Mexicans and norteamericanos. Capture means almost certain death by gruesome torture.

Sonoran desert
Getting the guns to Chito Soto is confounded by the high-handed demands of Davenport, the wealthy businessman paying the ransom; an ill-tempered and distrusting Arizona deputy sheriff; an Irish driver (the novel involves early motorized transportation); and two viciously untrustworthy Mexican indios. Latham is joined by an old friend, Luis Vega, the only man among the lot he can trust not to betray him.

Tension mounts as Latham and Vega deliver the first gun. But all well-laid plans soon begin to unravel as the novel spins into a downward spiral of treachery and sudden death. Before long, the two men are rescuing the remaining prisoners and making a punishing run for the border, pursued by Chito Soto’s soldados.

Storytelling style. While the storyline is not original, Zimmer fills it with so much suspense and so many surprises that he seems to be inventing the form. One of the least predictable is the character of Davenport’s wife, Abigail. In the routine hands of a lesser writer, she would have been sexy and copeless or a weepy, awkward burden.

Instead, Zimmer makes her bravely fearless and the possessor of unexpected skills that get Latham and Vega out of more than one life-threatening predicament. With the introduction of a woman, the novel also avoids the tempting prospects of steamy romance. Intent on saving their skins at all costs, they have no time to waste on hints of amorous attraction, so love does not bloom, not even in the end when safety is reached north of the border.

Sonoran desert mountains
And Zimmer has more than one trick up his own sleeve. There are cleverly ironic twists in the presentation of the story that nearly bend it in the direction of literary fiction. Not satisfied with a simple first-person narrative account of Latham’s adventure, which would have been finely told all by itself, Zimmer invents for it what can be called a rhetorical situation.

Latham is supposedly telling his story some 30 years later to a collector of people’s personal narratives for the Federal Writers Project. What we are reading is a verbatim transcript, with interruptions caused by a power outage during the recording and his comments about the recording equipment. The 1930s feel of the text is heightened by the editorial “bleeping” of Latham’s coarser language (h---, d---d, and so on).

Passing itself off as a long monologue, the novel also rambles believably at times, with flashbacks and digressions. Along the way, there are loose ends, unanswered questions, guesses and speculations, much as there are in anyone’s recollections of the past. There are also moral quandaries as Latham wonders aloud years later whether choices he made were right or wrong. He obviously remains haunted by them. All of which give the story a tone of credibility.

So do the occasional editor’s notes that appear in the flow of Latham’s account and the excerpts from historical records providing background and filling in the gaps in Latham’s knowledge of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s Indian tribes. In the end is a brief obituary for Latham, revealing a surprising life that began as a young runaway in the borderlands of the Southwest before the turn of the last century.

Aranguez, Sonora, Mexico
Logistics. Unlike other writers who can lose me at times in the description of an action scene where the logistics matter, Zimmer expertly sets up the layout beforehand. I felt I was always seeing it exactly as he was. No confusion about where anything was in relation to anything else.

An example would be the physical layout of the garrison town held by Chito Solo. You need a mental map of it to thoroughly enjoy the daring prisoner rescue and escape. Zimmer has that well in place before the action begins. And he has done it seamlessly as part of the flow of the narrative—nothing obviously methodical or deliberate about it.

Weapons. Western fiction today, much more so than in the formative years of the genre, gives considerable attention to the make, model, and caliber of weapons carried by characters. To me, this is a habit akin to name-dropping that seems often little more than a nod to the gun enthusiasts among readers. As such it often comes across as window dressing and a distraction that slows the narrative.

Zimmer is the first western writer I’ve read who actually takes the time to let his narrator explain, for instance, why such details matter—why one gun is preferable to another in a given situation. And since situations are not always clear-cut, that moment of calculation adds to the unpredictability of what lies ahead. I liked that.

Wrapping up. Leaving Yuma is one heckuva western novel. It is a well-crafted, well-paced, high-tension adventure by a gifted storyteller. If it were a movie, the excitement at times would have you under your seat. It is currently available in hardcover at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Michael Zimmer

Michael Zimmer has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about Leaving Yuma and his writing. And so I turn the rest of this page over to him.

The perilous journey into Mexico has been a sub-genre of western fiction and movies from early on. What drew you to this material?
I don’t have a simple answer for that. I’ve always been intrigued by transitional periods in history, and certainly the two decades immediately following the turn of the 20th century were rife with change. The industrial revolution was in full swing, automobiles were creeping into places where they had never ventured or been seen before, and war was becoming even more brutal with the advent of powerful new weapons.

It was a time of immense change, clashing cultures, and social upheaval, and that was especially true of the U.S./Mexico border. A fascinating time with a lot going on, and researching a novel is a great way to learn more about an era or event.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
My ideas usually come to me piecemeal. One image that stands out in my mind, and that was instrumental in this story, was a painting I saw many years ago of a 19-teens motorcycle pulled up in front of an adobe trading post. I remember a bedroll and canteen, and there might have even been a rifle in a scabbard hanging off the side.

Another image I had was from reading about automobiles capable of carrying up to a dozen passengers taking over the old stagecoach routes. I also read an article, probably a couple of decades ago, about smuggling merchandise across the border. Not guns or whiskey, but just common trade items like bolts of cloth or lanterns or shoes, to avoid paying a tariff.

So I had a lot of scenes like that just floating around in my mind, along with partial stories that lacked either a beginning or an end, and what I thought were interesting characters but with no place to put them. And then out of the blue, it all starts falling into place.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Backlash (1956)

This is one of those 1950s westerns where a Richard Widmark can haul off and slap down a Donna Reed in the last reel with impunity. It’s also one of those moments like others in the film that seem like western-movie clip art pasted into the story to make up for lack of actual substance you can believe in.

This is a little surprising in a film from the hands of John Sturges, who made Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and many others. Not to mention screenwriter Borden Chase, with a notable list of western scripts that became vehicles for James Stewart.

Plot. Widmark plays a man determined to find and kill the killer of his father, so the plot is a revenge story. It’s also a mystery, because he never knew his father, and he doesn’t know who killed him. There is only a mysterious “sixth man” who disappeared after the robbery of $60,000 in gold that left several men dead.

Donna Reed, Richard Widmark
At the start of the film, Reed encounters Widmark at the scene of the crime. A hardened woman and widow of one of the dead men, she’s after the gold. Sharing a similar objective, she and Widmark develop an uneasy alliance.

The rest of the film is filler as a trip to a trading post to question the Army sergeant who buried the robbed dead men develops into a siege by Apaches. Escaping that, Widmark tangles with a pair of men (Harry Morgan, Robert J. Wilke) whose brother also died in the robbery. They are after the missing gold, too. A saloon shooting puts Wilke out of the picture, and Widmark takes a slug in the shoulder, but Morgan survives to make trouble later.

Reed with Bowie
Some kind of steamy attraction builds between Widmark and Reed as he forces a so-long kiss on her, and she gives him a slap. Later, she finds him in the desert and cuts the slug from his shoulder with a Bowie knife, the only realistic part of it his agonized cries as she does the deed. They snuggle with more kissing in the campfire light as he swoons under the influence of a  “Southern painkiller” she has slipped to him. It apparently also is effective as an antibiotic, as he claims to be mostly recovered the following morning.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Now available: How the West Was Written, Vol. 1

David Cranmer over at Beat to a Pulp Press has just announced publication of my new book, How the West Was Written, Vol. 1, 1880 - 1906. Here's a short description from the introduction:

This book began as a question about the origins of the cowboy western . . . how it grew from Owen Wister’s bestseller, The Virginian (1902), to Zane Grey’s first novels a decade later. A reading of frontier fiction from that period, however, soon reveals that the cowboy western was only one of many different kinds of stories being set in the West.

Besides novels about ranching and the cattle industry, writers wrote stories about railroads, mining, timber, the military, politics, women’s rights, temperance, law enforcement, engineering projects, homesteaders, detectives, preachers and, of course, Indians, all of it an outpouring between the years 1880–1915. That brief 35-year period extends from the Earp-Clanton gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, to the start of the First World War.

The chapters of How the West Was Written tell a story of how the western frontier fed the imagination of writers, both men and women. It illustrates how the cowboy is only one small figure in a much larger fictional landscape. There are early frontier novels in which he is the central character, while in others he’s only a two-dimensional, tobacco-chewing caricature, or just an incidental part of the scenery.

A reading of this body of work reveals that the best-remembered novel from that period, The Virginian, is only one among many early western stories. And it was not the first. The western terrain was used to explore ideas already present in other popular fiction—ideas about character, women, romance, villainy, race, and so on. A modern reader of early western fiction discovers that Wister’s novel was part of a flood of creative output. He and, later, Zane Grey were just two of many writers using the frontier as a setting for telling the human story.

Currently available in ebook format for kindle and in paperback. A second volume is in the works for the years 1907 - 1915.

Coming up: Richard Widmark, Backlash (1956)

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Jasmine blooming in the side yard
This being Easter weekend, the ruminations of this lapsed Lutheran lapse a bit into the liturgical. Continued below are excerpts from the journal I've been keeping since leaving the hospital. Weigh what you find lightly. 

3/10/14. There are moments of fear about what lies ahead, but I almost automatically turn back to the present moment. So I write here that it’s another flawless morning, the sun breaking brightly on San Jacinto, the air utterly still after brisk breezes. I open doors and windows, and turn on the patio fountain. True, I can feel a little anxious when I sense something unexpected, like discomfort along the incision that’s supposed to be healing in my scalp. But dismissing alarm comes as easily as turning to another distraction, especially reading or writing. If there’s a heaven, as someone has said, I’ll be disappointed if there isn’t a library.

3/11/14. At yesterday’s visit with the radiation oncologist, she regaled us with stories of med school worthy of a stand-up routine, and again revised upward the window of possible years that a more aggressive treatment may offer me. I welcome this development as a challenge I had not anticipated—a long-term pushback against the cancer that redefines the time to come. Rather than some graceful submission to a fate beyond my powers to avert, life becomes a whole new enterprise. I like the prospects of that.

Our ocotillo
With my Lutheran upbringing, cancer finds me reading books on spiritual matters once thoughtfully read and found now tucked away on the shelves. And then there’s the devotional material that comes my way, intended to be spiritually uplifting—like from the nice folks who leave religious tracts in my screen door.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: P
(piazza – popple)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

piazza = a colonnaded porch. “Conrath’s shadow was thrown up against the side of the house, as he came along the piazza, walking with a heavy, careful step.” Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim.

Piazza, Verona, c1900
pick a crow with = to pick a quarrel with someone. “If you’ve got a crow to pick with me, bring it out in the open, and we’ll pull feathers in daylight.” Dennis H. Stovall, The Gold Bug Story Book.

picket = small detachment of troops positioned towards the enemy to give early warning of attack. “And the riders, front and rear, were in the nature of pickets; for, though it was unlikely that any one would be met at that time of night, it was just as well to take no chances.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

picket house = a dwelling with walls made of stakes or poles driven into the ground. “A picket house is sorter like a Mexican jacal; it’s jest poles driv’ in the ground, clost together, an’ chinked, for a wall; the dirt fer a floor; an’ a roof put over of some sort.” Grace and Alice MacGowan, Aunt Huldah.

Picketwire = a river in southeast Colorado, called La Riviere-de-la-Purgatoire (River of Lost Souls) by early French explorers. “When the cowboy followed the pioneer, knowing neither French nor Spanish, he onomatopoetized the last appellation into ‘The Pick Wire,’ which was as near as he could come to the pronunciation of Purgatoire.” Cyris Townsend Brady, Web of Steel.

picture hat = an elaborately decorated, broad-brimmed hat for women. “Her figure was perfection, her gowns of the quiet elegance of ultra-refinement always harmonious, as now, from the tip of the jeweled aigrette in her picture-hat to the points of her aristocratic shoe.” Hattie Horner Louthan, This Was a Man!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bertrand Sinclair, Big Timber (1916)

Looking for a theme song to go with this novel by Canadian writer Bertrand Sinclair, you might pick Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It’s a story set in the old growth woods of British Columbia, where a one-sided marriage of convenience leads to a good deal of heartbreak and disappointment.

Character. The central character is 22-year old Estella Benton, suddenly thrust on her own by the accidental death of a father who has left her penniless. Unprepared for the cold, unpredictable world, she is summed up by the narrator as “a young woman who had grown up quite complacently.” She has been “wholly shielded from the human maelstrom, fed, clothed, taught, an untried product of home and schools.”

As for the future, she has had no more than a vague notion of eventual marriage to a Prince Charming who would come along to sweep her off her feet—and maintain her in a life style to which she has been long accustomed.

Plan B finds her on a long train journey to remote British Columbia, on the banks of a lake north of Vancouver, where she joins her brother, Charlie, who has a start-up logging company. Obsessed with becoming wealthy, he has little regard for his sister’s personal welfare and puts her to work as camp cook, a grueling job that exhausts her and brings her to near despair.

Movie still, Wallace Reid, center, as Jack Fyfe
Romance. A rescuer and prince by almost any standard shows up in the manly form of Jack Fyfe, who has a well-run logging operation of his own. He partners with Charlie to deliver on a timber contract and befriends Estella, who discourages what she interprets as his unwelcome attention.

Any reader can see that he is filled with a gentle compassion for her and has fallen quite in love. But she will have none of this rough, handsome man of the woods. Nevermind that he has a fine intelligence and tender sensibilities. He frightens her, and for no apparent reason than her unwillingness to consider meeting him on equal terms, as a caring, considerate friend and potential life mate. For love to be true, she has to feel it as a delirious infatuation, and it’s not there.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Rage at Dawn, (1955)

A Randolph Scott western rarely gets a lukewarm review here at BITS, but this will be one of those times. Rage at Dawn is a fictionalized account of the Pinkertons’ efforts to bring to justice the Reno Brothers’ gang in southern Indiana shortly after the Civil War.

Precursors of the James and Younger gangs, they had a large outlaw following and gained notoriety as the nation’s first train robbers, operating over a large area of the Midwest. Some were put to a stop by vigilante citizens, who hanged them before they could face trial.

Plot. The film focuses on four of the Renos, including the leader Frank (Forrest Tucker), Simeon (J. Carrol Naish), and Clint (Denver Pyle). Another sibling, Laura (Mala Powers), is their put-upon sister, who shelters them at her farm. Pyle plays the only Reno brother who is a law-abiding member of the community, where the Renos dominate local politics by intimidating voters to put their own men in office, notably the judge (Edgar Buchanan), the chief prosecutor, and the sheriff.

The gang's last robbery (Scott at right)
We don’t meet Randolph Scott until well into the film as a Pinkerton man assigned by the agency to infiltrate the gang and set them up for arrest. The scheme is improbable at best, and it involves his befriending the Renos’ sister Laura, who falls for the handsome, amiable Scott in a big way. The brothers are finally tricked into a train holdup that ends in a lengthy shootout. The citizens of their hometown take the law into their own hands, breaking into the jail where the brothers are being held. Scott arrives too late to save them from hanging.