Thursday, June 9, 2011
Edward A. Grainger, Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles
Add to that a 21st century sensibility about race relations and social justice, and you get a powerful mix of narrative elements. Grainger stories are in the forefront of what I take to be the reinvention of the western. They pump life back into the old conventions, but with a fresh point of view – as the western has periodically done from its beginning.
White hats. The western hero has often been a marginal character, not quite a member in good standing of the social order. Think of Shane as a classic example. His use of the gun to maintain order on the frontier makes him socially useful, but it also creates a past that haunts him. Once his work is done, he has to move on.
But the men caught up in this kind of scenario have always been white men. The western novel emerged at a time when notions of racial purity intensified in the U.S. following the end of slavery. Expressions of contempt for blacks and “half-breeds” were routine in turn-of-the-century western fiction. The all-white westerns pouring out of Hollywood further reinforced this bias.
Now, Cash Laramie is white all right, but raised by Indians, and Gideon Miles is black. Whether working solo or together, this makes them marginal men of another sort. Though lawmen, they are also in a sense outlaws themselves. While their badges make them representatives of duly constituted authority, their experience of a corrupt world has them enforcing their own code of ethics.
If what Richard Wheeler says is true, the traditional audience for western fiction is not interested in stories with black and Indian-raised heroes. But there are plenty of younger readers (and some older ones like myself) ready to welcome them. And a Grainger story has its author’s finger squarely on the pulse of that audience.
Black hats. Villainy has its own conventions in the western. From the start, villains were predictably cattle rustlers and stagecoach robbers. Add to that ruthless cattle barons and hired gunmen. The villains in Grainger’s stories are typically racial bigots, child abusers, and rapists. Their victims are the vulnerable and marginalized.
Particularly sensitized to this kind of injustice, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles are the righters of wrongs. In a Darwinian world, where the strong rule, Grainger’s two heroes defend the weak and punish those who cause them suffering. For readers really tired of this kind of bullshit in the real world, a Grainger story makes for gratifying reading.
A related theme that runs through the stories has to do with mistaken impressions. The turn in a story can be our discovery that someone wanted by the law is less guilty of wrongdoing than those in pursuit of him. Or it may be the cunning of an outlaw so gifted a liar that we ourselves are fooled. Or the discovery may be that someone we took for a "simple, chatty hombre" is really a lawman in disguise.
Wrap up. Some will probably classify these stories as “adult” westerns, because our two heroes are not celibate. Plenty of erotic steam is released in some stories, whether they involve congress between more than willing partners or merely the suggestion of it. For me, I’d call them adult because they deal honestly with issues that matter to adults. And that’s much of what makes them interesting.
Having said all that, the appeal of a collection of Grainger stores is not that they're about the Old West of the 1880s. That Matt Dillon and Chester make a brief appearance in one story is a clue to what makes the whole series so entertaining. They are, for me, reminiscent of 1950s TV westerns. Familiar characters return in each of them and new characters are quickly sketched in. Tension and conflict quickly develop and then are quickly resolved.
In fact, the narrative style is much like episodes of the early Gunsmoke. The dialogue is easy and conversational; the characters’ motivations and feelings are modern. Yet there’s enough grit to situations and human behavior to give it all some realism. It’s an imperfect world without easy answers to its problems. When all is said and done, you recognize it as a metaphor for the world we live in every day.
I’ve been a fan of the Cash and Gideon stories ever since I first came across them. It’s a pleasure to see them gathered together in this single volume. What I’m hoping for is a whole lot more of them. Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles is currently available for the kindle at amazon.
Coming up: Cowboys in the news, 1883-84