Monday, June 6, 2011

Max Brand, South of Rio Grande (1936)

This exhilarating adventure south of the border first saw light as a serial, “Tiger’s Den,” in Western Story Magazine in 1930. The author, John Frederick, was of course one of the many pen names of Max Brand.

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
Characters. Joe Warder, the first-person narrator, is something of an anti-hero. He may represent the law, but he’s done time himself. He’s 42 years old and has a busted up face, with no prospects for a life headed anywhere but a dead end – assuming he even gets back to Texas alive.

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
 Narration. Joe is an engaging storyteller. Though he refers to himself as writing this story some time after it all happened, his style is conversational. He regales, shifting easily sometimes between past and present tense.

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
Storytelling style. Brand’s mastery of the craft of storytelling is downright awe-inspiring. His skill is an ability to write in a headlong style with lots of action verbs. Sentences tend to be short and punchy, but he salts them now and then with long ones. The resulting mix gives a ramped up intensity and immediacy. He doesn’t often stop to take a breath.

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
Joe’s reaction to their romance swings between delight and dismay. He is half-charmed by the total suspension of rationality in both boy and girl as youthful hormones take over. He is half-terrified that Denny’s determination to leave town with her will get the three of them into far deeper trouble.

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

Image credits:
Western Story Magazine cover, FictionMags Index
Others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: My Outlaw Brother (1951)


  1. Always enjoy a tale that sounds rife with cliche, but turns out, in the hands of a master storyteller, to rise above expectations. I'm usually not a fan of Frederick/Brand's heavy prose --might need to give this one a try.

  2. I've liked a lot of Max Brand's stuff. I even read one recently on my Kindle.

  3. This is one of the best Westerns by Faust that I've read so far and would be a good starting point for somebody who hasn't sampled his work yet.

  4. Spot on review, Ron. And I second Mr. Reasoner's thoughts for newcomers to the Brand style.

  5. I haven't read this yet - it sounds like a good one. I really like Brand's use of first-person narrators. And he used that trick of describing action that the narrator didn't witness in other books too, including one of my favorites, Trouble Trail. Great review!

  6. I see you are aware that this novel was filmed in 1951 as MY OUTLAW BROTHER. I have not seen the movie yet but it is available on dvd. Brian Garfield in his book WESTERN FILMS calls it "feeble". I cannot imagine Mickey Rooney as the star.

    But I do have the 6 issues of WESTERN STORY and I've set the serial on my teetering "to be read" pile(March 15, 1930-April 19, 1930).

    I also see that Jon Tuska likes this novel alot and discusses it in his MAX BRAND COMPANION.

  7. Richard, I didn't expect this novel to be so good. The control of tone and the steady pace are perfect.

    Charles, there are more of his short stories in my TBR pile.

    James, you're right. The book is just masterful.

    David, if I edited a fiction mag, I would point to Brand as a model to learn from.

    Elisabeth, that trick of narration is not easy to pull off, and Brand makes it look effortless.

    Walker, a review of MY OUTLAW BROTHER goes up here tomorrow. Rooney plays it like Andy Hardy south of the border. Doesn't work.

  8. Don't remember reading this one, but I like Max Brand.

  9. I've not read a single Max Brand book, but this sounds like a good one to try, if only I can find a copy.

  10. I did enjoy it a lot. It was very vividly written with colourful and interesting characters.