Plot. There’s so much to enjoy in this novel, it’s hard to know where to start. Tightly plotted, it tells the story of two men who travel together from a Texas border town into Mexico. One of them, a lawman Joe Warder, is on a suicidal mission to capture a bandit known as El Tigre. The other, a young tenderfoot Dennis MacMore, is looking for his older brother.
Turns out the brother has been profiting from a close relationship with El Tigre. As soon as Denny starts nosing around town, he gets himself into trouble, and Joe is quick to follow. Much of the story takes place in a single night as the two men are pursued by El Tigre’s henchmen.
A heart-stoppingly pretty local girl, Carmelita, then gets into the action. She is being unwillingly courted by Denny’s brother. When Denny finds her, he falls in love with her himself, and by novel’s end, she has joined the two men in a daring escape from town.
This may all sound hopelessly contrived and clichéd, but Brand tells this story masterfully, as if discovering every element of the plot for the first time. What makes it work is a wry sense of humor that wonders at the incredibility of the story even while it’s being told.
|Rio Grande, Texas, 1899|
Denny is the complete opposite. Young and full of energy, he can’t shoot straight, but he is handsome beyond measure. And he has learned to trust the good luck that always seems to attend good looks. Impulsive, and therefore daring, he is undaunted by obstacles that would stop anyone with an ounce of common sense.
The two men make an entertaining combination. Instead of having their differences keep them at odds for comic effect, Brand bonds them with a mutual respect and affection. And the plot whirls them on, sometimes together, sometimes separated, into and out of one tight spot after another.
|Street scene, Mexico, c1900, photo by trialsanderrors|
Joe’s gentle self-deprecation also wins a reader’s sympathy. He’s aware of his faults and weaknesses and honest in his estimation of a superior man when he meets one. His occasional self-doubts, fears, and apprehensions are underscored by quick flashbacks to bad experiences in his past.
Midway through the novel, Brand pulls off a masterful narrative sleight of hand when he shifts point of view without leaving his first-person narrator. He wants to tell a long stretch of the story as it happens to Denny, though the two men have become separated and Joe is not there to witness what he’s describing.
You’ll have to imagine this along with me, he tells the reader. I know some of this by report, and I’m making my best guess about the rest. Of course, he slips after a time into an intimacy of observation that only an omniscient narrator would have. But by then, you’re not noticing.
|Street scene, Mexico, 1904. Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia|
Another achievement is his ability to incorporate a romance in this novel that contributes to the action rather than works against it. The character of Carmelita is delightfully drawn to begin with. She’s a pistol. And Denny’s sudden infatuation with her drives the plot ahead even more furiously.
|First serialized here in 1930|
I understand that Brand had his ups and downs as a writer, but he was surely at peak performance with this story. From beginning to end, South of Rio Grande is a pure pleasure. It is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, Powell’s Books, and Barnes & Noble.
Max Brand official website
Western Story Magazine cover, FictionMags Index
Others, Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: My Outlaw Brother (1951)