Thursday, January 29, 2015

Elmer Kelton, Texas Showdown

This book is actually two short novels by Elmer Kelton, first published in the 1960s and reissued under one title by Forge in 2007. Pecos Crossing, originally titled Horsehead Crossing (1963), appeared under Kelton’s own name, while Shotgun, originally titled Shotgun Settlement (1969), was published under a house pseudonym, Alex Hawk.

First off, Elmer Kelton is one of my top-10 favorite western writers. He wrote with a strong sense of history and an informed awareness of the West Texas terrain, its flora and fauna, and its weather. I find it easy to believe in his characters. They are not just convenient types but possess an emotional depth that makes them three-dimensional.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adverts from McClure’s Magazine (1907)

Every work of fiction tells us something about the audience and the times it was written for. Today, however, we may have trouble picturing the readers of early frontier fiction. For many of us, they were the parents of our grandparents—or even their parents—adults before the end of the 19th century, dependent on a horse-drawn technology and an agrarian economy.

From the movies and TV, we know what the Old West itself is supposed to have looked like, but it’s harder to imagine that period of time around 1900 when frontier fiction emerged as a genrethough they were clamorous years, as the Gilded Age dissolved into the Progressive Era (imagine the white-haired Mark Twain morphing into Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt).

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Aerial ballet (more pics below)
Turns out the dread I felt about my first infusion as I started into the drug trial at UCLA was unnecessary. Though the procedure lasted 90 minutes, it was mostly a nonevent. Dripped into my bloodstream by way of an IV was not chemo but something called a monoclonal antibody (Avastin), developed to restrict blood flow to tumors and discourage them from growing.

Already approved by the FDA for treatment of cancer, it has been shown to be effective after 6 months in 45% of cases like my own. So while the odds are roughly the same as the flip of a coin, they’re not actually that bad when you consider the alternative. Other trial participants, randomly selected as I was, receive the test drug(s), so they will fare better or worse than me—hopefully better, for the sake of all concerned, current and future.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I guess you’d call this creative nonfiction. A former colleague recommended this book to me after reading some of my thoughts on the life-affirming and health-inducing aspects of listening to jazz as I deal with a visitation of brain cancer. The great irony is that the joyous practice of improvisation in smoky clubs of the bebop era was so virulently self-destructive for its musicians.

In Dyer’s evocative and impressionistic character sketches of several of its iconic figures (Lester Young, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus) we witness mostly downward trajectories, as drugs, prison, racism, alcoholism, mental illness, and violence take their toll. Whether or not you think of them as survivors, you come to understand that the music they invented and played was an act of defiance and subversion in the face of demons both internal and external.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Now available: How the West Was Written, Vol. 2 (1907-1915)

David Cranmer over at Beat to a Pulp Press has just announced publication of Vol. 2 of my book series, How the West Was Written. It continues the chronology of western writers that began in the first volume with Mary Hallock Foote's The Led-Horse Claim (1883). Here is a short description of the new volume from its introduction: 

During the years 1907–1915, frontier fiction boomed with new writers, and the success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) began to make itself felt in their work. That novel had made the bestseller lists for two years running. With the continued popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and the appearance of one-reeler westerns on movie screens, many featuring the adventures of Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero was becoming an established mythic figure in the public imagination. 

New writers capitalizing on this interest begin to emerge in numbers and include Zane Grey, Dane Coolidge, Charles Alden Seltzer, William MacLeod Raine, and Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Fans of cowboy westerns will find this book's discussion of these storytellers of particular interest.

Meanwhile, for writers of popular fiction, the frontier was also a subject for exploring ideas drawn from current public discourse—ideas about character and villainy, women’s rights, romance and marriage, democracy and government, capitalism, race and social boundaries, and the West itself. With each new publication, they participated as well in an ongoing forum for how to write about the West and how to tell western stories.

Taken together, the chapters of this book describe for modern-day readers and writers the origins of frontier fiction and the rich legacy it has left us as a genre. It is also a portal into the past, for it offers a history of ideas as preserved in popular culture of a century ago that continues to claim an audience today.

Currently available at amazon for kindle and in paperback. Also in paper at Createspace. Order both volumes from amazon here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
Frank E. Schoonover

Frank E. Schoonover
Born in New Jersey, Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972) was a painter and illustrator, who studied with influential American artist Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. A creator of more than 2,000 book and magazine illustrations over most of a century, he helped to organize what is now the Delaware Art Museum.

Schoonover's work ranged from illustrations for Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 westerns to pirate tales (click here) and science fiction/fantasy by Edgar Rice Burroughs (click here). Below are examples of his illustrations for frontier fiction appearing in books and magazines, 1905-1918.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Uneasy alliance

Another day
So now I am officially lending my body to medical science. Last week we made a trek to the neurooncology department at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, and I signed onto a drug trial, which may or may not halt the progress of the tumors in my brain, but there isn’t much in the way of an alternative. The oncologist was not in favor of more radiation.

It’s an uneasy alliance between me and Big Pharma. It will require trips to LA every 2 weeks for long infusions, and the list of possible side effects is daunting, ranging from nausea to death itself. But there’s a chance we will both profit in some way from this gamble. Whatever the outcome, there will be something to be learned for others in the future. Because it’s important for me to feel useful, this is one way to be doing that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Robert J. Randisi, ed., Livin’ on Jacks and Queens

This is an entertaining anthology of 14 stories about gamblers and gambling in the Old West. Editor Randisi has assembled a notable gathering of western writers, providing an array of storytelling styles and imaginative treatments of the subject. The names of several contributors will be quickly recognized: Johnny Boggs, John D. Nesbitt, Matthew P. Mayo, Nik Morton, and Chuck Tyrell.

To these he has added a story of his own, plus the yarns of two women writers who may be new to some readers: Christine Matthews and Lori Van Pelt.

My favorites of the bunch include Ms. Matthews’ “Odds on a Lawman,” which tells of a succession of sheriffs who each assumes a tenure of service to a frontier town, before dying or disappearing for various reasons, on which the townsmen place bets until the turn of events claims one of them the winner. It’s an amusing and well-written tale that brings its Dickensian cast of characters to entertaining life, while we wait to see the fate that befalls each of the town’s series of sheriffs.

For a colorful portrayal of the daily life and business of a riverboat gambler, Nik Morton brings that world vividly to life in his story, “Hazard.” In “Acey-Deucey,” John D. Nesbitt’s central character is hired by a woman to retrieve an emerald pendant once given to her by a paramour. Finally locating the current owner of the gem, he has to win a game of cards before he can take possession of it.

Robert Randisi
Randisi’s story, “Horseshoes and Pistols” is so quirky, I kept thinking that it qualified as Twilight Zone material. In it, two men are forced to bet their lives on a game of horseshoes. Matthew Mayo’s “Pay the Ferryman” veers off in another direction, as a man on the run escapes into what might well be called “the heart of darkness.”

My favorite story in the collection was penned by a favorite storyteller, Chuck Tyrell. His “Great Missouri River Steamship Race” evokes a period of river travel from the point of view of a youngster working as a fireman aboard a steamship with a regular route between St. Louis and Fort Benton. Tyrell brings his gifts for characterization, dialogue, and suspense to this story with its echoes of Huckleberry Finn.

Livin’ on Jacks and Queens is currently available in ebook format at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Shamelsss plug: For an in-depth survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain acopy, click here).

Image credits:

Coming up: Illustrators of frontier fiction, Frank E. Schoonover

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
J. N. Marchand

J. N. Marchand, Outing Magazine, 1906
J. N. (John Norval) Marchand (1875-1921) was born in Leavenworth, Kansas. After high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, he worked for the Minnesota Journal, and later was a staff artist for the New York World. A painter and sculptor, he provided numerous illustrations for magazines, such as Munsey's and Outing Magazine (see more examples here), and for as many as 35 books, mostly featuring western themes and subject matter.

Below are his illustrations for several novels set on the frontier. My favorite is the faro scene from Alfred Henry Lewis's Faro Nell and Her Friends, where players cluster in a hubbub around the dealer, and in the foreground is the relaxed figure of a cowboy in leather chaps and boots, smoking a cigarette, long legs crossed, his big hat beside him on the table.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bump in the road

Winter sunrise
I don’t feel much like posting today. It’s a gloomy, drizzly day in the desert. Mostly I’m dealing with the news this week that my oncologist believes my tumor is showing signs of growth, and we’re looking at a change of treatment. She wants me to get a second opinion from a specialist at UCLA. As the day for that appointment draws closer, a handful of CDs with all my MRIs in a shoulder bag ready to take with me, I feel a little apprehensive. I continue being positive, but I’m not as strong as I’d like to feel.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café (1974)

Bit of a change today at BITS, from West to Middle East. This short novel by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is a sadly melancholy story of the crushing of youthful hope. Set in the 1960s around the time of the 1967 war with Israel, it describes how a generation of young Egyptians, the children of the revolution of 1954, were betrayed and lied to by their government, while being subjected to interrogation and imprisonment by secret police.

Their story is told by an older man (and stand-in for the author), who befriends a gathering of them who are regulars at a Cairo café, Al-Karnak. There they talk of politics and express their idealistic aspirations, both for themselves and their country. Abruptly disappearing for periods of time, they return shaken and demoralized. While in police custody, kept in windowless cells, they have endured harsh treatment and false accusations.

Eventually it’s revealed that they have been coerced into becoming informants, which corrodes their trust in each other and eventually leads to the death of one of them. Two, a loving couple at the story’s start, are driven apart by their guilt and shame.

Karnak Café is a troubling vision of life in a modern police state, and it sheds light for Westerners on the recent struggles in Egypt for freedom and justice. Novella-length, it takes a stand somewhat distant from political events, while clearly throwing its sympathies to the young people who speak on its pages. It is currently available in paper and ebook format at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Coming up: Robert Randisi, ed., Livin’ on Jacks and Queens

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Richard Prosch, Devil’s Run

If there’s such a thing as comic violence in the western, Richard Prosch is a gentle master of it. There is shooting and fighting enough in his Devil’s Run—and work for the undertaker—but it’s a story told with a wry and barely suppressed grin.

The central character is Prosch’s “Peregrine,” John Coburn, a gun for hire who’s taken the job of escorting a man improbably named Tie-Down Sam Gustaffson, from Missouri to Nebraska, where he is to appear as a witness in a murder trial.

Family ties, however, produce an obstacle as the two men stop overnight at a river town called Bindlestick, and for a while it looks like they won’t make it out alive. They are joined in their attempt to escape by Margo Blaze, proprietress of the town’s hotel and whose bed was warmed the previous night by our man Coburn.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Illustrators of frontier fiction:
W. Herbert Dunton

Taos Society of Artists, 1915 (Dunton, 3rd from left)
William Herbert "Buck" Dunton (1878-1936) was born in Maine. An outdoorsman from an early age, he travelled frequently to the West. After working in New York as a magazine and book illustrator, he eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico, which had become a thriving artists colony. There he gave up a career as an illustrator and took to painting and hunting. He was an original member of the Taos Society of Artists.

Like the writers Zane Grey (1872-1939) and Will James (1892-1942), Dunton had a nostalgic regard for the Old West, preserving and celebrating in his work and pastimes the mythology of frontier scouts, cowboys, and other singular figures who lived independently off the land as it was before westward settlement. Here are a number of his book illustrations from the years 1904 - 1919.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quoth the raven

Wind farm at the foot of San Jacinto
This will be a little short. I have been having too much fun to get serious about posting to this journal today.

About the nicest thing that has happened to me during this whole past year is the receiving of two greeting cards signed by colleagues from the department where I used to teach. Such warm and generous comments they made, I must’ve had a grin from ear to ear. On top of that, they passed the hat and sent me a very generous gift card from Amazon. I’m totally touched. Writers, artists, and musicians who teach writing are the best on Earth.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Francis Lynde, Empire Builders (1907)

There are train spotters and railroad enthusiasts, but so far as I know, no one today writes fiction for this particular market. Anyway, not since Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1933). Travel by railway was still novel enough at the turn of the last century, however, to keep writers like Francis Lynde (1856–1930) selling books with plots about railroading.

This one is typical of his others and concerns a young superintendent of a line running from Denver into the Rocky Mountains. Stuart Ford is an ambitious fellow, who hatches a plan to extend the line to eventually connect Chicago and the West Coast. His chief competitor is the Transcontinental with its eye on hauling freight to and from the same regions of the West, profiting from the mining and crop-raising industries. In other words, there is a lot of money to be made for the railroad that can first lay its tracks there.