Friday, December 28, 2012

Zane Grey, Nevada (1928)


I’ve had a first edition copy of this book for about 15 years. It was given to me by a friend at work when I was just getting into western history—but not yet westerns. Watching the 1944 movie Nevada based on it (and reviewed here), I got curious about the original story. So it was time to read the book.

How the movie compares to the novel can be summed up in two words. It doesn’t. Besides the names of a handful of Grey’s characters, there’s not the remotest resemblance between the stories. Still, movie posters of the time advertised the film as “Zane Grey’s Nevada.” So much for truth in advertising.

Plot. In its 365 pages, the novel tells a complex story involving a gunman named Jim Lacy who is known to some characters as “Nevada” and to others as “Texas Jack.” As Jim Lacy, he has a reputation that puts fear into the hearts of even the bravest men. As “Nevada,” he is remembered by a California family as an honorable man who won their love and respect before disappearing in the novel’s opening chapter.

Windmill, Arizona, c1920
As “Texas Jack,” he’s a hard-working cowboy for an Arizona rancher, who goes after a gang of cattle thieves called the Pine Tree outfit. In a plot device often used later in B-westerns, he infiltrates the gang to learn the identity of its members. One by one, he then kills them.

Maybe two-thirds of the novel is devoted to the family from California, Ben Ide and his sister Hettie. Both have fallen deeply in love with the man they know as Nevada, and they leave California to take up ranching in Arizona, where each hopes to find him again. Alas, no one knows of a “Nevada” there.

By chance, Hettie learns that Nevada and the notorious Jim Lacy are one and the same. Stunned by this discovery, she decides to keep it from her idealistic brother. His early enthusiasm for Arizona is waning as he finds that he’s been cheated by the man who has sold him a ranch, and thieves are making off with his cattle.

When the paths of the two men finally cross, it is after Ben has become determined to see the man “Jim Lacy” hanged as a cattle thief. Having killed the last gang member, Lacy is being held under arrest when Ben first lays eyes on him. Overjoyed to be reunited with his long-lost friend, Ben learns that Lacy has been working undercover for two local ranchers. Any charges against him are handily dismissed.

Meanwhile, Hettie Ide has been shaken to her boots by this sudden turn of events. She feels unworthy of the courageous man whose true identity she’s doubted. For his part, having always worshiped Hettie, he feels unworthy of her. They finally get past their false assumptions about each other and agree to marry and live happily ever after.

Pictographs, Arizona, 1903
Character. The strongest parts of Grey’s story have to do with the man of three faces, Jim Lacy. A decent and honorable man but given to violence, he is something of a wounded hero. As we learn in the opening chapter, he has killed others in the service of those he respects. But it also isolates him as a fugitive from those who would repay violence with violence.

More than once, Grey characterizes Jim Lacy as a “lone wolf.” Hiding out for a while in a remote canyon, he is swept up by feelings of loneliness and self-pity. There is a melancholy, despairing side of him. He knows shame for his part once in a stagecoach robbery. Yet while he lives at considerable risk, he knows no fear, for he “was not in love with life.”

Before he disappears from the narrative for much of the novel, he is established as a man who never loses his cool. He doesn’t drink, because alcohol affects his judgment and his skill with a gun. He avoids trouble and calmly declines to be lured into a gun duel by a man he scorns. He’s also unmoved by the come-on from a flirtatious saloon girl. But when she is beaten up by her boyfriend, he kills the man.

Cabin, Arizona, 1920s
Themes. The novel is a celebration of Arizona. Whole chunks of it would make rapturous prose poems for Arizona Highways. Zane Grey’s reputed love of the outdoors is in evidence on page after page.

For a western novel, there’s an unusual amount of it devoted to the subject of love and a resulting flood of romantic emotions. Besides Ben’s and Hettie’s frequent professions of love for the absent Nevada, we get Nevada’s lonely yearning for Hettie. There’s also a subplot devoted to the burst of first love that consumes a young cowboy Marvie and his sweetheart Rose.

Mogollon Range, Arizona, 1939
Style. Grey can put together a page-turner of an adventure story, but a stylist he is not. Compared to numerous other writers of western stories of the time, his way with words is often graceless and unimaginative. Often the novel reads like a plot summary or a movie treatment, the scenes described in broad strokes, the details and specifics to be filled in later.

The descriptive sections get listy, as when he mentions every species of wildlife to be found in an area of landscape. Sections can be heavy with exposition, usually relayed through conversation between characters. The melodrama also gets cranked way up in some scenes, where characters succumb to implausible excesses of emotion.

In the love affair between Marvie and Rose, they must meet secretly in the woods because her older half-brothers are violent and apparently degenerate thugs. One has already given her to another man, whose attempt to “ruin” her was happily thwarted. When the same half-brother finds the two lovers in each other’s arms, he attempts to kill the boy and gets shot dead for his trouble.

Grey often writes with what seems like a 14-year-old’s understanding of the adult world. Motivations are simplistic. With the exception of Jim Lacy, his characters are flat and two-dimensional. Complications for his ranch-owning characters are smoothed over by what seems to be a bottomless supply of money, and a lack of concern for financial reversals.

Wrapping up. Grey’s place in the history of the western novel continues as something of a mystery to me. He arrived after scores of other writers had published mainstream novels set in the American West. He came a decade after Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and finally duplicated that success with a top-ten bestseller The Lone Star Ranger (1915).

His popularity continued year after year following that. He had married the dime novel western adventure of the nineteenth century to the mainstream popular novel of the early twentieth. The result lacks the more complex themes and narrative styles of his predecessors. Instead, he stripped away the literary aspirations of previous writers and wrote simply for plot and escapist entertainment. 

You can argue that in doing so, he did much to invent the western genre as it emerged and thrived in the decades that followed. Missing are the actual West itself and its history. In their place is a generic West, with references to its myths, as in this novel’s frequent mention of the Lincoln County War and its most memorable figure, Billy the Kid. For a novel set in Arizona, there is little or no mention of Indians or Mexicans, or of the actual work of cattle ranching.

Grey's timing was perfect for the sudden growth of the movie industry, with its appetite for stories with strong visual content. His novels lend themselves agreeably to the new medium. Whether in setting, character, or action, he wrote for the eye.

Nevada was published as a serial in The American Magazine (1926-27) and then as a novel in 1928. In 1927, an adaptation was first filmed with Gary Cooper in the lead role. A remake in 1935 starred Buster Crabbe. Another in 1944 starred Robert Mitchum. The novel is currently available at AbeBooks and for the nook. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.


Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday music, Elvis

22 comments:

  1. When you say that Grey's place in the history of the western novel continues to be something of a mystery to you, that just about sums up my opinion also.

    I think he was popular simply because he was lucky enough to write westerns during a time period when they were extremely popular. The general fiction and adventure magazines were full of westerns and then when WESTERN STORY started in 1919, it was obvious that the reading public loved western fiction. During the twenties and thirties especially, the newstands had many magazines that specialized in westerns.

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    1. Walker, I've read modern-day readers who praise this book. My review fails to mention that it's a sequel to Grey's FORLORN RIVER, which is loved even more. The character of "Nevada" seems to be the chief appeal--and for the same reasons that people like Shane. He's a gunslinger who comes to the aid of a family, but whose use of violence to right wrongs makes him a lonely outsider. There's a melancholy undertone to that, which seems to augment the romance and excitement for many readers.

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  2. A book titled Nevada and not at all about the state!

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    1. Yeah, there's no connection whatsoever.

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  3. I have this one, haven't read it. I'm not a particularly big fan of his, though he had some interesting narrative drive. I hadn't thought before that he might have hit just when Hollywood was starting to look for those simplified stories of the mythic west. Interesting.

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    1. Narrative drive is an interesting term, Charles. I think it's hit and miss with Grey. Something needs to be at stake to compel a narrative forward, and there is a long stretch of this novel that has none at all. I had to force myself to keep reading.

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    2. I recall my father saying years and years ago about a Zane Grey novel that he was reading (I think it was 'Twin Sombreros')that Grey tired him out with his descriptions of flora, fauna, and topography. He said that he would finish that one but he didn't plan on ever reading another Grey book.

      I have read several of the novels (I kept looking for one that I could like) and I have to agree with both you and my father. It is an effort to stay with his stories. With so many good Western novels that I have not yet read I do not plan on tackling another Grey novel.

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    3. Thanks, Stormy. I think Grey is probably fine for readers who naturally skim ahead when they hit a slow patch. I can't do that.

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  4. Tom Horn comes to mind when Jim Lacy starts working for the good guys, but can't say there is any connection. Like you say, Grey sometimes gets carried away with the descriptive landscape and stuff and gets boring, but I have enjoyed the novels I've read. especially now that I'm older. I read the U.P. Trail in high school and thought it was pretty boring.

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    1. U.P. TRAIL was an early bestseller for Grey. I have a copy and will give it a go one of these days, just out of curiosity.

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  5. There's a fascinating recent biography of Grey, worth reading. He was the ultimate ladies man. He wrote a lot of mediocre books, but his grand-niece gave me a copy of one called The Drift Fence that was quite good, and featured a heroine, Molly Dunn. I think Grey reached readers who didn't normally read fiction, and were not impatient with his many weaknesses.

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    1. I'm going to give it a read. Thanks, Richard.

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  6. At one time I read a great deal of Zane Grey's work and to me he seemed to epitomize a style of writing that was popular in many ways precisely because of his descriptive prowess. Remember that the audience for his work did not have access to the plentiful video and movie selections of today which enable a modern reader to mentally picture the physical scene without the necessity of the elaborate descriptions in Grey's books. Today's readers have seen it all, not so for those of earlier times.

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    1. You make a good point, Ron. I'd add that movies "describe" in a way that's different from mere words on the printed page (although many books at the time also had illustrations). The setting in a movie is a backdrop to the action and observable in a general way. In a novel, the action comes to a stop while the setting is described. So what we "see" in each case can be very different. The written word also allows a writer to get really detailed if he/she wants.

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  7. And what about his classic title: Riders of the purple sage? Definitely worth the read in my opinion! I never liked him as much as Max Brand but so many people can't be wrong. He far outsold most Western writers of his or any time. Very informative blog. Thanks!

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    1. I think you can safely say he outsold just about every writer, period. He was also incredibly prolific. When he died (I hope I remember this right), his publishers had a backlog of unpublished novels.

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  8. A lot of food for thought here especially since I haven't read a Zane Grey novel for a long time. I actually like descriptions of places and landscapes in westerns and it's one of the things that makes this genre attractive to me. Not long ago, I downloaded a Dell comic-book called "Nevada" based on Zane Grey's Stories of the West: The Cattle War and other adventures. I'll have to check the novel and the comic-book for similarities. Many western novels of early and mid-20th century have been adapted to comics and they are available online.

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    1. Grey traveled in the desert Southwest before his first published novel. He was apparently deeply affected by what he saw, and you see him trying to capture that experience in words. Sometimes he comes pretty close. You are the comics expert; I'll look for a post on Zane Grey comics some day at your blog.

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    2. That's an idea, Ron, except I should like to read some of Grey's novels and then compare them with their comic-book versions as they exist. The comic-book version of "To The Last Man" was pretty much close to Grey's novel. The last century also saw a lot of adaptations of western novels and western films and actors into comic-books, and Dell played a big role there.

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  9. According to Brian Garfield in his book, "Western Films," over a hundred movies have been made based on Zane Grey stories, and no other writer comes close. However, in many cases the only thing that the films and the stories have in common are the titles, with Mitchum's "Nevada" film being an example.

    But because of Grey's reputation and name recognition, even among people who had never read one of his novels, linking his name to films had promotional value.

    My own personal favorite Zane Grey-based movie is "Western Union," released in 1941, starring Robert Young and Randolph Scott. It is based on Grey's novel of the same name which was published in 1939, the year the writer died. I've never read the book so I don't know how faithful the movie was to it. But I think the movie is a classic, with Scott giving one of his best performances.

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    1. Thanks, Stormy. You could add that Grey's name was a "brand" that extended well into the television age with the CBS series, ZANE GREY THEATER (1956-1961). I have WESTERN UNION on my to-see list. Scott is a favorite western actor.

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  10. I like a few of his shorter novels. But there are many I couldn't finish. Prefer Luke Short or Max Brand.

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