His first flaw is a nearly fatal blind spot in his choice of friends. The second is his unshaken belief in his superiority to all other men. His becomes a soul-purging lesson in humility and brotherly love.
Plot. Forget the plot of the movie. At nearest, Destry Rides Again (1939) is a sequel to Brand’s novel, with James Stewart as a lawman who has given up the use of a gun. The idea may have been sparked by the final sentence of the novel:
But, as Ding Slater said, the whole county should have been present, because it meant the end of the old days and the beginning of a new regime in Wham, for Harrison Destry had put away his Colt.
There’s no evidence that the screenwriters had read any of the preceding pages.
Character. Max Brand’s Destry is a man that other men live in fear of. He is tougher and stronger and faster with a gun, and he knows it. When a train is robbed of $72,000, the crime is wrongly pinned on him, and a jury of his peers, tired of his bullying, happily finds him guilty.
Released after serving six years of a ten-year sentence, Destry determines to take vengeance on each of the 12 men who put him away. Two he kills in self-defense, and the rest live in terror or flee for their lives. Meanwhile, he is unaware that the true villain is a man he believes to be his best friend, Chet Bent.
By the end of the novel, only four jurymen are left, but Destry has learned the error of trusting the murderous Bent. A boy, Willie Thornton, has been witness to Bent’s skullduggery and gets word of it to Destry, who then confronts the villain. The final chapters are a revelation of self-knowledge that throws Destry into an identity crisis. At the end, marriage to a long-time sweetheart marks the start of a whole new life.
The pleasure in a well-told western is in the gifts of the storyteller. Brand is just so good at what he does. Writers who attempt to imitate him have picked a master of the genre to learn from. But matching him requires a mix of intelligence, inventiveness, sentiment, risking-taking, and a sense of humor that even a competent writer can fall short of achieving. A Brand novel is not just about plot.
To pick just one of many examples, I was struck by this riff on the death of a man who had attempted to bushwhack Destry:
Only the living blood remained to tell of him, dripping down into the silence of the old shack, drop by drop, softly spattering, like footsteps wonderfully light and wonderfully clear. Hank Cleeves was ended, and his long fingers and his hairy hands would never again do wonders with hammer and chisel, with saw, and wrench. The boys would no longer stand around and admire the mechanic. They would no longer yearn to grow up to such a man. The chips would no longer fly, or the nails sink home for Hank Cleeves, nor the rafters ring under his hammer.
The novel is also about hero worship. In the character of the boy Willie Thornton, it presents an exaggerated version of readers who revere their western heroes as superhuman and without fault. Boys, of course, need role models, but what Billie admires in Destry—his invincibility—is open to question.
Brand’s experiments thinking out of the box don’t always work. But there’s hardly a false note in this novel. He gets you suspending disbelief in ways you don’t expect. His stock characters are often pushing themselves into three dimensions. In the case of Destry himself, we get a basically decent and nonviolent man who does not realize he has also bullied others all his life.
Destry Rides Again has been frequently reprinted and must be one of Brand’s most popular titles. Amazon lists a printing history covering 55 editions and formats, and it remains in print today. It is currently available in paper, audio, and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell’s Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbot’s blog.
BITS reviews of other Max Brand novels:
Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction