Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gordon Shireffs, Trail’s End (1959)

The journey into Mexico is a frequent storyline used in western fiction. Its origins no doubt go back to mythology and stories like Orpheus’ trip into Hades. Countless examples exist from Dante’s Inferno to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Mexico is a land of death and danger, a dark terrain like a nightmare that won’t let the dreamer wake up.

Mexico in western fiction is a proving ground and a right of passage. There, without the protection of the law, a man survives by his wits and his weapons. More so than in the Wild West north of the border, he is truly on his own. As the Mexican police detective says in answer to Sean Penn’s protests in The Falcon and the Snowman, “This is not America.”

Plot. Trail’s End by Gordon Shireffs (1914-1996) takes its central character, Clint Buell, into that same world. Not quite in pursuit of a kidnapped lover, he’s looking for a younger brother once stolen by Apaches. While twelve years have passed and everyone tells him the boy is surely dead, he will not be satisfied until he knows for sure.

His journey takes him from Texas to New Mexico to Tombstone. Finding men who still remember the bad old days of the Indian Wars, he determines that his brother was taken by an Apache chief, Coletto Amarillo. That band of Indians now inhabits a forbidding region in the deserts of Sonora.

But an obstacle prevents Buell from finding the chief, who can tell him the fate of his brother. The band is now being led by the chief’s son, known as El Fiero, who is even more murderous than his father. He rules a wide territory where he exacts a heavy toll on peaceful villagers, who must provide him with food, horses, and women.

With the help of a proud young villager, Yndelicio Madera, Buell plots to locate El Fiero in his stronghold. When the man orders up a wedding feast to observe his pick of the village’s women, Buell and Madera follow the departing wedding party into the hills. There, after a chase on foot, El Fiero meets his end and Buell learns the fate of his brother.

Returning to civilization, Buell is met by a prospector he’s befriended along the way and a persistent young woman who has followed him to Tombstone. Now that he’s put his past to rest, she is happy to learn that he is ready for marriage.

Women. In a story that is about a test of manhood, the women seem pasted into the plot as if required by formula. Ellen, the girl Buell leaves behind, comes across as a tag-along little sister who won’t go back home no matter what he says. She has a nagging manner that cancels out any possible appeal she might have for him.

Madera’s half-sister is the tempestuous Teresa, who hangs out with the boys at the cantina, drinking and dancing. She throws herself at Buell in a desperate attempt to get him to take her away. Rubbing up against him both figuratively and literally, she is the stereotypical hot tamale.

Wrapping up. This is a straight-up western without embellishments. It does little to keep a reader from guessing long before Buell that his long-lost little brother has become the depraved Indian, El Fiero. While you wait for that recognition scene and get curious to know what will then happen between the two men, the novel leaves that aspect of the story undeveloped. The brother who shares a bed with Buell in the opening chapter has become a “good Indian,” i.e. dead. That seems to be enough.

Max Brand, in South of Rio Grande (1936), reviewed here a while ago, tells a similar story of brother searching for brother in Old Mexico. The twists and turns of that plot, the suspense, and the romance, show a masterly hand at work. Shireffs writes with a steady hand, for sure, but to compare the two writers beyond that would be unfair. So I won’t.

For a short bio and an appreciation of Shireff’s prolific output as a writer of western fiction, read Jon Tuska’s essay in Twentieth Century Western Writers. Tuska commends Shireffs for his his attempt to draw characters more believably human in their strengths and failings and for his historically informed portrayal of the West. This novel was apparently inspired by the disappearance of a boy in an 1883 Apache raid and the discovery in Mexico years later of a band of Apaches led by a blue-eyed redheaded chief.

Tuska recommends a series featuring a man hunter, Lee Kershaw, beginning with Showdown in Sonora (1969). He has high praise for a trilogy about Lee’s Indian grandfather, Quint Ker-shaw, which includes his “masterpiece,” The Untamed Breed (1981). Two of his novels were made into films, Oregon Passage (1957) and A Long Ride From Hell (1968). Trail’s End is currently available at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks.

Geoff Sadler, ed., Twentieth Century Western Writers, 1981

Coming up: Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West (1908)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Gun Duel in Durango (1957)

This straight-up western stars George Montgomery as the leader of an outlaw gang who wants to settle down with his sweetheart (Ann Robinson) and become a law-abiding rancher. The gang isn’t happy to see him go and tries to spoil his plans. The only way for Montgomery to put his past life behind him is to eliminate the gang—which he does.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, and there are few surprises along the way. Montgomery shows his true character by rescuing an orphan boy (Bobby Clark), and he comes to the aid of several Texas rangers who’ve been ambushed by the gang. Though he’s been AWOL for two years, we also see there’s still some magic in the old charm as he persuades a reluctant Robinson to take in the boy.

In a nearby town, Durango, the local sheriff (Frank Ferguson) and the banker are also taken in. They consider Montgomery trustworthy enough to give him a job at the bank. This arrangement suits the gang, whose leader (Steve Brodie) engineers not one but two robberies. Montgomery, however, has agreed to a 30-day truce with Brodie and gets himself called a coward for not taking a shot at the gang when he has a chance.

Ann Robinson, George Montgomery
Brodie ups the stakes when he kidnaps the boy. Montgomery cooperates with the gang to get the boy back, but the sheriff is now onto him. He has to dive through a window in Robinson’s ranch house to avoid arrest. There’s a final confrontation at the gang’s hideout, where shots are fired and Montgomery turns what’s left of the gang over to the sheriff.

In the last moments of the film, Montgomery has received a governor’s pardon, the bank’s money has been returned, and the boy has been adopted by Montgomery and Robinson. All is well. A sheriff sees a lot of things in his job, Ferguson says with a smile, but “some are fine, mighty fine.”

Wrapping up. As a western this one is not above average. Montgomery gives a serviceable performance, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. To his credit, he looks comfortable on a horse, a skill that first got him into movies in the 1930s as a stunt rider.

Ann Robinson is a pleasant grace note, though given a wardrobe that first puts her in tight dude ranch-style Levis and a work shirt over a 1950s brassiere. Instead of looking like she just stepped from a dusty corral, she’s looks like she just stepped off the cover of a pulp fiction paperback. But once she is installed as a romantic interest for Montgomery, she softens, wearing a long dress that’s more feminine and 1880s.

Montgomery (on the roof) shoots it out with the gang
The supporting cast includes Denver Pyle as a likeable Texas Ranger. Frank Ferguson plays the sheriff with warmth and depth of character. The outlaw gang has its share of screen time, and Steve Brodie shows an irritably nasty streak, but they never quite find the villainy in their roles. Don (“Red Ryder”) Barry may turn in a better performance elsewhere, but in this film he seems flat and lost.

Shot in Simi Valley, this black-and-white film looks like it was made in a hurry. Director Sidney Salkow did a lot of TV work, and the production may well reflect a TV-scale budget and shooting schedule. The honor-among-thieves ethic that the script has Montgomery’s character upholding is an interesting twist that might have been believable in other hands. But time and talent seem not to have been in ample supply for this western.

Gun Duel in Durango is currently available at netflix and at amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Forgotten Movies, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog.


Coming up: Gordon Shireffs, Trail's End (1959)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 47

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner, about domestic affairs in a Colorado mining camp, Adeline Knapp’s The Well in the Desert, about a fugitive who comes to the aid of a widow, and Frederick Niven’s The Lost Cabin Mine, about a tenderfoot’s friendship with a robber. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “Indian fire,” “cinch game,” “stock lantern,” or “your name is Dennis,” leave a comment below.

Alcantara = a Spanish breed of horses. “‘I raised him myself,’ he went on, ‘and he’s standard bred, too, Daystar, out’n an Alcantara mare.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

arrowweed = an evergreen shrub native to arid regions of the Southwest and Northern Mexico, where it often forms impenetrable thickets. “Lacking boards, or the means to manufacture them, he wove his table-top of arrow-weed and tough grasses from the cañon.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

barranca = a deep ravine or gorge. “They were traveling along the edge of a deep barranca that yawned in the desert.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Barrel cactus, c1904
bisnaga = a barrel-shaped cactus with large spines and small flowers, native to the Southwest and northern Mexico. “Gard explained the nature of the bisnaga. If he had cut off the top he would probably have found a quart or two of water.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bite it off = to restrain oneself, stop talking. “‘Got it staked and located, too, I suppose,’ the lawyer said, with a sneer. ‘Bite it off, Broome: what are you driving at?’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

black willow = a western variety of salix nigra, the tallest willow found in North America. “The mesquite grew here, too; with manzanita and scrub oak, arrow weed, and black willow.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Salix nigra, 1913
bring to book = to reprimand or require a person to give an account of themselves. “Not a man he had brought to book moved. They sat like men dazed, until the door had closed upon Gard.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

bucking strap = a device worn by a horse to prevent it from lifting its hind-quarters to either kick or buck. “‘I can’t think what got the fellow, or me either,’ he added, with a look of chagrin. ‘I never thought I needed a bucking-strap; but it seems as if I did.’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

choker = a clerical collar. “We could go to a man in a black coat an’ a white choker, an’ perhaps, a good many of us found out that was all there was to his spirituality.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

continental cuss = something worthless. “As things stand I don’t think he’d care, to use the language of the country, a continental cuss.” Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine.

crucifixion thorn = an intricately branched shrub with thick, rigid, sharp branches and no leaves. “A great spike of the long, tough crucifixion-thorn had somehow become imbedded in the flesh, and the whole surface of the shoulder was swollen and inflamed.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

faille = a slightly ribbed, woven fabric of silk or cotton. “I’ve had things ’most as fine as Lutie’s. Satins, brocades, failles, grosgrains, taffetas, all kinds, anything I wanted.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

float = gold in the form of flakes and dust washed down from the hills; the gold obtained by placer mining. “The piece of float was freshly severed and the flecks of yellow showed plainly in its split surface.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

glim = a candle, lantern. “‘I’ll have to douse the glim,’ he explained, ‘since I’ll be out around town, and someone might wonder who’s here.’” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

gosh (all) hemlock = a mild oath. “Gosh-hemlock! What funny things you see when you ain’t got a gun!” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Grosgrain ribbon
grosgrain = a closely woven silk fabric with narrow horizontal ribs. “I’ve had things ’most as fine as Lutie’s. Satins, brocades, failles, grosgrains, taffetas, all kinds, anything I wanted.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

hair mattress = a beard. “Have you seen that there feller up ’t the casa? Him with the hair mattress on his face?” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

headpiece = brain, mind. “‘I suppose you know, anyway,’ the latter finally said, with a very good assumption of contempt, ‘Anybody with a headpiece might, whether he’s a lawyer or not.” Adeline Knapp, The Well in the Desert.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday music: Everly Brothers

For anybody who can remember 1957. Don and Phil, introduced by singer Julius LaRosa.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 47

Friday, October 26, 2012

Genre vs. literary fiction

Artist: Norman Rockwell
The old genre vs. literary fiction debate is like a zombie that doesn’t know it’s dead. Like most political debate these days, it amounts to little more than people taking pot shots at each other. And for someone like me on the sidelines, I find neither argument persuasive or even interesting.

Arthur Krystal in a recent New Yorker has once again tried to pump life into the ongoing discourse. To clarify what makes genre a lesser form of fiction, he says simply that it’s “commercial.” And he draws an analogy to Christmas. Genre is like getting presents from Santa, while Literary is more like going to church. Fun vs. worship.

The problem with this kind of either-or thinking is exactly that. The pleasures of the text do not exist chiefly on one side of that false dilemma or the other. And more to the point, I think, they are best measured under the skin, not somewhere outside it.

You may find me carousing on Saturday night and fervently pious on a Sunday morning, but I’m not going to give up one for the other. So enough with the arguments, OK?

Coming up: Saturday music, Everly Brothers

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Pauline Wilson Worth, Death Valley Slim and Other Stories (1909)

Title page, first edition
Pauline Wilson Worth (b. 1887) is one of those walk-ons in the early days of western fiction, who appears briefly and then disappears without a trace. This book is an artfully illustrated collection of six stories, first published in magazines. Most are mining camp stories, and each has a sentimental twist. Here are four samples:

“Death Valley Slim, His Love.” Set in an Oregon mining camp, this story is narrated by a pipe-smoking man with an unpolished dialect. The title character, Death Valley Slim, is described as a “homely” man.

He was six foot two in his stockin’ feet, he had one game eye thet stared at ye while t’other one looked around, and he had a long, droopin’ mustache. Awful awkward, Death Valley Slim was; seemed like his big hands and feet was allus in his way.

Over a period of time, he walked across the continent to get to the West Coast and got his name working in the mica mines of Death Valley in California. With “big, honest eyes” and a heart “true as steel,” he makes a modest living by playing guitar and singing songs in saloons.

He’s also a wealthy man. With $20,000 from striking it rich in the Colorado gold fields, he is able to smooth the way for a wedding between a girl he loves and a silver mine bookkeeper. On her wedding night, he entertains at the saloon and his songs are so sweet there’s not a dry eye in the place. As this idealized portrayal of camp life draws to a close, the narrator observes that “underneath all this roughness” one can find true hearts and friendship.

“The Race for the Sun Beam.” The get-rich-quick mania during the gold rush years gets a curious maternal interpretation in the opening pages of this story. Gold, the narrator says, is a “wonderful gift of Mother Earth.” For hard-working prospectors, it is the “reward of years of privation and hardships and the realization of long deferred hopes.”

The story itself is a lesson in how sudden wealth can pave the way for friendship. Two prospectors, Price Howard and Hank Bashford, start out as partners but have come to distrust each other. Howard is an upright fellow, but the short and shifty-eyed Bashford has once even pulled a gun on Howard.

When they finally hit pay dirt, each agrees to sell his share of the claim to whichever of them is able to put up $10,000. Howard walks 30 miles to town and easily borrows the money, but then loses it all gambling. Borrowing another $10,000, he races back to the claim with a friend who has an automobile. There he finds Bashord waiting, but empty-handed, unable to raise the money.

Howard then takes pity on him, and before long they have made up their differences, agreeing to joint ownership of the mine. All ends happily, proving that in the West, “it ain’t what a man once was—it’s what he is now.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gun the Man Down, 1956

Like Good Day for a Hanging, the title of this western promises a good deal more hard-boiled roughness than it delivers. As interested in character as it is in action, this film brings together the talents of a screenwriter, two actors, and a director at the beginning of long successful careers.

In 1956, James Arness was about to begin his 20-year tenure as marshal Matt Dillon in TV’s Gunsmoke. Angie Dickinson had her first feature role in the film. And the director was Andrew McLaglen, who would go on to direct John Wayne westerns, TV’s Have Gun, Will Travel, and 96 episodes of Gunsmoke.

The script was from the talented hand of Burt Kennedy, who would become a director himself after a series of classic westerns working with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher. A Hollywood veteran, William Clothier, also deserves a nod for the film’s handsome black and white cinematography.

Angie Dickinson
Plot. A gang of bank robbers makes off with $40,000 in a holdup. When an exchange of gunfire leaves Arness wounded, he is left behind as the posse closes in on them. Dickinson has been Arness’ girlfriend, but she is persuaded to ride off with the remaining gang members (Robert Wilke and Don Macgowan).

Captured, Arness refuses to name his accomplices. He has his own plans for settling scores and doesn’t want the long arm of the law to find them first. A year passes and he is free again, having served his sentence. With the help of a lone gunman (Michael Emmet), he traces the gang to a sleepy town where Wilke, Dickinson, and Macgowan are running a saloon.

Observed by the local sheriff (Emile Meyer) and his deputy (Harry Carey, Jr.), Arness sends Wilke into a panic. He hires Emmet to kill Arness, but the gunman isn’t fast enough to outdraw Arness. The gang decides to get out of town, with Arness in pursuit.

The sheriff and his deputy follow along behind, letting revenge take its course and planning to arrest whoever comes out alive. Events arrange themselves in such a way that two gang members are gunned down by one of their own. Arness then turns over the remaining one to the sheriff.

“You did right,” the sheriff says.

“Finally,” Arness answers and rides away, a free man.

James Arness and Michael Emmet
Character. After all those years of Marshal Dillon, you expect Arness to look awkward playing an outlaw. He doesn’t. And not for any great acting skill on his part. The character he plays in this film could very well have been the same man who took the job in Dodge. There was always a shadowy side of Dillon anyway. You sensed it was there without seeing any real evidence of it.

The moral center of the film is the sheriff. He does his job with an understanding of human nature and a regard for keeping the peace that Dillon later brought to his job. His deputy has a similar innocence about the world that Dennis Weaver found in his portrayal of Chester. The goings-on at the saloon, Harry Carey, Jr. says, would make a man blush all over.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 46

Here’s another set of terms gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Edgar Beecher Bronson’s frontier memoir, Reminiscences of a Ranchman, and Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner, about domestic affairs in a Colorado mining camp. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “red-sasher,” “loose-tail,” “pea-warmer,” “gun bluff,” or “saucer pie,” leave a comment below.

Mexican peso, 1869
adobe dollar = an object of little value; the Mexican peso. “Hits ’dobe dollars t’ tlacos we’ll either stampoodle that bunch ’thout throwin’ lead or else get t’ dance on their graves.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

brush splitter = a cowboy skilled at rounding up cattle in brush country. “For an outfit of thoroughbred Texas brush-splitters a tenderfoot owner was bad enough, always the object of ill-concealed distrust and contempt.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

maguey with carajo stem
carajo pole = a goad or walking stick made from the tall, upright stem of the maguey, a type of agave. “Th’ boss music-maker on a perch in th’ middle of th’ bunch, shakin’ a little carajo pole to beat hell at any of th’ outfit that wa’n’t workin’ to suit him.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Cocky-Locky = one of the fowl who join Chicken Little in raising the alarm that the sky is falling. “The four, in a somewhat cocky-locky, goosey-poosey procession, set out for the home of Silas Evans.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

cold blazer = a bluff. “There was nothing for it but a cold blazer, so I remarked, with a struggle for a grin that made the muscles of my face ache: ‘Well, Mac, you are a flour-flusher!’” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

d. f. = damned fool. “Air you a-jumpin’ on us ’cause Marthy Thomas is a d.f.?” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

dilberry = a stupid, dull, or obnoxious person. “Fine bunch o’ dilberries, we-uns, a lettin’ him fetch us out ’n’ set us afoot th’ first ten days!” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

dope = grease, lubricant. “I’ll make that d—d or’nery Con Humphreys kill the biggest maverick in the bunch ’n’ write yu on th’ inside o’ hit’s hide, wi’ wagon dope fo’ ink ’n’ his pinted ole nose fo’ a pen.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

funk = to shirk, fight shy of. “On a less heroic horse than ‘Stocking’ I day say I should have funked running squarely in the lead of the bloody, heaving, hideous mass hard upon our heels.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

galley west = askew, crooked, scattered in all directions. “Young bucks lit all over each offered horse like flies, only to be kicked or tossed galley west.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Chicken Little characters, 1915
Goosey-Poosey = one of the fowl who join Chicken Little in raising the alarm that the sky is falling. “The four, in a somewhat cocky-locky, goosey-poosey procession, set out for the home of Silas Evans.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

gum = a long rubber boot. “Let me help you off with your gums, Missioner.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

hell-a-ta-tilt = at full speed. “Here came the Brulés, hell-a-ta-tilt, quirts pounding on straining shoulders, moccasined heels drumming on heaving flanks.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

june around = to become restless. “Ef that bunch gets t’ junin’ ’round when yu jumps ’em, ’n’ yu caint eat ’em up fast ’nough by y’ur lonesome, Cress ’n’ me’ll jest nachally lie in ’n’ he’p yu chew up th’ hull passle.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

lally/lolly cooler = someone or something successful or admirable. “An’ she was a shore lally-cooler all right! More prittys about th’ fixin’ up o’ that house than I’d allowed anything but a woman could pack.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

light-o’-love = a woman inconstant in love. “‘His palace,’ came the arresting, accusing, stern tones of Campbell, ‘the palace that he built for his light-o’love.’” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

listeners = ears. “His listeners ’peared t’ be workin’ all right, fo’ sometimes he’d loosen up t’ th’ extent o’ a ‘yes’ o’ ‘nop,’ but that was all.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Walt Whitman, c1887
long brown path = reference to Walt Whitman’s “the long brown path that leads wherever I choose” from Song of the Open Road. “She was one of those restless, variable beings to whom the ‘long, brown path,’ with its thousand possibilities and surprises, makes an irresistible appeal.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

mint and anise and cumin = reference to Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees: “Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” “Mrs. Landvetter sighed with relief. She had paid her mint and anise and cumin to Mrs. Grundy.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow’s The New Missioner.

mossback = a longhorn whose horns have wrinkled with age; an old wrinkled cowman. “Here’s two mighty slick ol’ long-horn mossbacks you wants to be po’ful shy of.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday music: Hank Williams & Anita Carter

Great Hank Williams song. "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love WithYou)." Makes a great duet.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 46

Friday, October 19, 2012

Josh Garrett-Davis, Ghost Dances

This memoir of “proving up on the Great Plains” will have lightning strikes of connection for anyone who spent their early years in what was for them a place of remote isolation. For such a young person, life is elsewhere. Moving out to find where they belong is a mission that has to wait for the independence that comes with adulthood. Yet, once having escaped, there is the unexpected yearning to return. Among many things, this book is about that.

For Garrett-Davis, South Dakota is that place. Traversing it in memory from Hot Springs to Pierre to Sioux Falls, he revisits the stages of discontent that any punk rock-loving kid would have endured there in the 1980s-90s. Now, living in New York, he finds himself haunted by the plains and prairie. And he reimagines the story of his young life as part of a pattern of coming and going that has marked this land since its first inhabitants.

Survival. Forty years his elder, I’m no punk rocker. And the 1950s strategy for survival for a Nebraska farm boy was not resistance to authority and social convention, but accommodation. Yet the results were the same. I became bicoastal at the first opportunity, with many years in New York, and many in Los Angeles.

Sandhills, Nebraska
Yet the plains of Nebraska do not stop haunting me. While I’m writing this, the wallpaper on my laptop is a photo of a deserted stretch of Sandhills highway with a scattering of black angus in the middle distance. The particular story of the Plains, home of cowboys, ranchers, Indians, homesteaders, and bison, remains a personal frame of reference fifty years after I left.

Garrett-Davis retells a similar story, blending it with an account of his own brief span of years, because that seems to be what a person from out there does. The land is too vast, the sky too big, and frontier history too recent to leave you untouched. He finds a kindred spirit in Willa Cather, the New Yorker from Red Cloud, Nebraska, whose years in that small town on the Republican River appeared again and again in her best fiction.

Six Grandfathers (later Mt. Rushmore), 1905
Illusions. Drawing an analogy to the ghost dances of the western tribes, he observes how the Plains have generated such profound illusions about the West. The outpouring of western fiction, movies, photography, and art over the last 100 years has tried to fix those illusions in words and images. But the subject won’t hold still for its picture. As Garrett-Davis points out, it’s always in motion, coming and going.

There’s the myth of the homesteader, for instance, who got his 160 acres and proved up, eventually becoming a successful participant in the vision of a Jeffersonian extension of the East. As the myth has it, there is an unbroken evolution from those hardscrabble beginnings to modern-day prosperity.

But the truth, Garrett-Davis observes, is that among whites who came to the Plains, there has been a steady erosion of the population since the beginning. It was a process accelerated by the Dust Bowl and continues today. It’s even possible to foresee a time when large swathes of the plains will revert to open rangeland, where the descendants of nearly extinct bison might once again roam.

Main Street, Bison, South Dakota, c1915
Wrapping up. Reading Garrett-Davis, I was reminded of a couple of other books on the subject, Ian Frazier’s Great Plains and Debra Marquart’s The Horizontal World. Like Frazier, the book rambles over a wide range of topics, connecting dots in every direction as you easily can on the grid that surveyors once laid out across this vast land. Like Marquart’s memoir of growing up in North Dakota, it captures the loneliness of coming of age “in the middle of nowhere.”

In his accounts of the earlier generations of his family, Garrett-Davis also reminded me of Mary Clearman Blew’s book about the women in her Montana family, All But the Waltz. While the men in his family get their due, it is the women who are memorable, like his Aunt Ruth, whose life bridged most of the 20th century, and who fought tirelessly for world peace, ecumenism, and racial harmony.

Garrett-Davis is currently a graduate student of history at Princeton. This is his first book. He can be found at his website here, where there’s a link to his blog. Ghost Dances is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for kindle and the nook

Josh Garrett-Davis
Josh has consented to spending some time here at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Ghost Dances. And I’m happy to turn the rest of the page over to him.

Josh, who did you think of as your audience as you wrote?
That's a good question. I think I had different imagined audiences at different times. Sometimes I thought of people I grew up around, wanting to present myself to them differently or more fully than I believed I was able to in person.

I also had some desire to “explain” or present where I was from to people out on the coasts. And I suspected that there were a lot of folks like you and me out there, who had left the Plains (or perhaps other neglected places) and had a complex yearning for home.

I have had some vague sense of wanting to write a next-generation Western memoir/essay for a long time. I wondered how the famous myths (homesteaders, cowboys and Indians, etc.) had affected me and my peers in a generation that grew up on punk rock, or for others, video games and hip-hop and such.

Is the published version of the book closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
I initially imagined that the book would be about 5% memoir, but that element emerged more and more as I wrote the other parts. I rewrote a whole lot—there were probably three years between when I first finished a draft and when it was published.

Aberdeen, Dakota, 1883
Was there material you wanted to include in the book but decided not to?
Memorably, I had a short, weird passage in which I tried to turn the Rev. Fred Phelps’s hateful style of rhetoric back on him; but from my editor’s more objective perspective it was too jarring and undercut my reliability as a narrator.

What have been the most interesting reactions to the book so far?
I have been amazed how many people I've met or heard from who live far outside the Plains but who were born there, or whose parents were from there. I don't have any census records to prove it, but I've gotten more anecdotal evidence for my idea that “coming and going” are the norm for Plainsfolk (especially non-Indians).

How did you settle on the title for the book?
For a long time I had been using the provisional title "Pratincole," which means "prairie dweller" but is the name of an African bird (this is still the title of the epilogue). I never liked it all that much—it felt misplaced and too obscure. But I had a couple of chapters titled "Ghost Dances," and one perceptive reader just told me, "That's the book’s title. Just use that."

What were the creative decisions that went into the book’s cover?
I had heard many horror stories of authors hating the design their publisher came up with for the book. All I suggested to them was that I liked the iconic images on a lot of Plains books (tan grassland with a big sky above and a buffalo in the foreground), but I wanted it to have some sort of modern twist. I loved the design and instantly said "Yes!"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded (1910)

Bronson’s memoir Reminiscences of a Ranchman (1908) was reviewed here a while ago. The Red-Blooded is a collection of further memoirs and some fiction published two years later, half of it set in the frontier West. Here are a few samples.

“Loving’s Bend.” Bronson begins the book with an account of Texas cattleman Joe Loving. Telling a story that was told again by Larry McMurtry in Lonesome Dove, Bronson describes Loving’s fatal encounter with a band of Comanches on the Pecos in 1868. Riding some 60 miles ahead of his herd, in the company of a cowboy, Jim Scott, Loving was felled by a rifle shot that shattered his leg.

As Bronson tells it, the two men defended themselves by taking cover under a steep bank along the river, while the Comanches laid siege. Under cover of darkness, Scott escaped by floating down river a quarter of a mile, then walked without boots for a day and another night before being found barely alive by one of Loving’s cowboys.

Loving and Scott under siege
Fellow trail boss Charles Goodnight sent a rescue and found Loving about to lose his leg from gangrene. A surgeon was brought from Las Vegas, and Loving’s leg was amputated, but like Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, he did not survive.

“Triggerfingeritis.” This chapter is a tribute to the lawmen who fearlessly hunted down, eliminated, or drove away the most bloodthirsty of the bad elements on the frontier of the 1870s-1880s. Praising not just U.S. marshals, and sheriffs and their deputies, he includes stage and railway express guards, vigilance committees, and range detectives.

Among those he singles out for recognition are men with names like Boone May, Captain Jim Smith, Billy Lykins, Bill Stoudenmayer, Hal Gosling, Johnny Manning, Col. Albert J. Fountain, and Pat Garrett. With their services, Bronson argues, there was little need for judges and juries, and for each lawman mentioned he provides a lengthy character sketch.

Bronson counts Pat Garrett among his personal friends and says that with the exception of Col. Fountain, Garrett had “stronger intellectuality and broader sympathies than any of his kind I ever met.” Easy going in his private life, Garrett was also “exacting and painstaking” as a peace officer. Bronson notes that he was also an avowed atheist and suspects foul play in his death, which had occurred only recently, in 1908.

Sheriff Whitehill
“The Evolution of a Train Robber.” In this chapter, Bronson gives an account of a typical cowboy, Kit Joy, who supplies himself with the needed funds for a trip to San Francisco by turning to crime. Enlisting three accomplices, he holds up a train west of Deming. The engineer is shot during the robbery, and the four men soon have Sheriff Harvey Whitehill on their trail.

Tracing a piece of newspaper found near the scene to a merchant in Silver City, he is able to identify one of the robbers, whom he tricks into revealing the identities of the others. Jailed, the four men break out, with two other prisoners, and in the manhunt that follows, all but Joy are either shot or arrested.

When one of the posse pursuing them is found dead, the two living captives are hanged on the spot. Joy remains at large for weeks, until hungry and desperate he is shot in the leg by a rancher. After serving 14 years in a Santa Fe prison, Joy was released on good behavior and continued his life as a law-abiding citizen. At heart, Bronson says, he was a better good man than a bad one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Matt Pizzolato, Outlaw

Review and interview

 You read a Matt Pizzolato story for the enthusiasm in the storytelling. You know you are in the hands of a writer who loves the western. He immerses himself in the mythology so thoroughly, you follow along just to see where it’s taking him this time.

Outlaw has many elements of the traditional western, which you can trace back to Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. But there’s the spirit of Max Brand, as well, whose imaginative world often had him veering way off-road into a magical terrain inspired by who knows what.

Plot. That happens in this short novel, for sure, as Pizzolato’s story starts with the comfortably predictable, its western conventions firmly in place. Though his central character is wanted for bank robbery in Texas, his arrival in a small Kansas town is sunny enough, with prospects of staying that way.

He is offered a job as deputy sheriff and meets a pretty young widow who stirs his better feelings. The villains quickly show themselves in the form of a nasty local rancher, who has a son spoiling for a fight with Quaid, just to prove he’s quicker on the draw.

But clouds begin to gather, and the story grows steadily darker. At first, it’s an idealized world, like a TV western, family-friendly. It starts out PG and then shifts into PG-13 country. Before long, we’re in R-rated territory as the sex gets more heated and the violence gets progressively more graphic. There are casualties, left, right and center, and Quaid takes quite a beating himself.

The women in the story deserve mention as true creations of western fantasy. There’s a good deal of romancing for Quaid, and he has his pick of the sweetly flirtatious widow, the steam-heated proprietress of the saloon, and a siren-like contract killer who appears at opportune moments. All find him desirable, and he doesn’t neglect their attentions.

Wrapping up. Pizzolato’s first-person narrative moves along at a good clip. He gets you interested from the start in Quaid’s intention to rob the town bank. However, up-to-date bank safe technology and an old fashioned armed guard provide enough obstacles to make you wonder how he’ll pull it off. Then as the plot twists accumulate, you begin to lose track of that thread until the surprise ending.

Outlaw is currently available in paperback at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for kindle.
Matthew Pizzolato
Matt has consented to spend some time today at BITS to talk about writing and the writing of Outlaw, so I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

Matt, talk about how this story first suggested itself and took shape.
The opening scene of Outlaw is the first thing I wrote with Wesley Quaid as the protagonist and I only had a vague idea of who he was, just a man who is discontent with his life and who wants to change it for the better. Yet as I got further into the story, I found that I needed to delve into his past to discover who he was. So I decided to put it aside temporarily and write a series of short stories that detailed his life before the events in Outlaw.

How different is the final version of the story from how you first conceived of it?
At the beginning, I intended to write a positive story of a bad man overcoming his past and bettering himself, but as Wesley Quaid grew into his dark, conflicted anti-hero role over the course of the short stories, so too did Outlaw evolve into a much darker story, but it is, I think, one that holds true to the anti-hero mythos.

Was there anything about this story that surprised you in the writing of it?
By the time I had established who Wesley was in my mind, I knew the story would take a dark turn when I went back to it, but I didn’t foresee the lengths that he would have to go to in order to fight against the villain of Outlaw, Dale Johnston.

How did you settle on the title?
Outlaw was a working title at first. However, as the story and the characters progressed, the more that title seemed to fit, not only because Quaid is a bank robber, but because he is an outlaw in that he doesn’t adhere to convention. He has his own code.

How did you settle on the cover?
Originally, I wanted to use a stock image for the cover but could never find exactly what I wanted. I had a couple of different images that were combined and put through various Photoshop effects, but I was never quite satisfied with the results.

The final cover I settled on was original artwork by my uncle, Michael T. Pizzolato, who also designed the covers for my story collection, The Wanted Man. I suggested that he design some art for it and the cover we used is what he came up with. When I saw it, I knew immediately that was the one.

How has the character of Wesley Quaid evolved since he first appeared in your stories?
In the first story he appeared in, Wesley Quaid was the leader of a gang who found himself disillusioned with the course his life had taken. When one of his own men tries to harm an innocent girl, Wesley kills him and rides away from his former life.

In several of the subsequent stories, he becomes a Robin Hood of sorts in that he defends people who are unable to stand up for themselves, sometimes with brutal results. At the beginning of Outlaw, Wesley is looking to start his life over, but the events from his past come back to haunt him.

You have said you were inspired by the anti-hero played by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Are there any anti-heroes in fiction you’ve found interesting?
For me, the classic example of the anti-hero in fiction is Robin Hood, but I think the first anti-hero I was exposed to in my own reading was Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. It’s still one of my favorite novels that I reread on occasion. I also found Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series to be fascinating, and I think the character of Batman is a great anti-hero.

How would you define the term “anti-hero” now that you’ve successfully created one?
I think an anti-hero is a character that is morally flawed but who, unlike the classic hero, doesn’t overcome his flaws. He doesn’t necessarily revel in them, but instead embraces and accepts them. He doesn’t live by a conventional moral code, he has his own code.