Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Black Tolts a Bright Star

The Black Tolts by William McLeod Raine
(Popular Library, 1986)

Having read Zane Grey, I was prepared for William MacLeod Raine’s rather stilted, old-fashioned style in The Black Tolts. While flowery in his language, Raine doesn’t waste a lot of time extolling the virtues of landscape, as does Grey. His purplish prose is reserved for expressing human emotion – albeit torridly. This practice seemed to be going out of style by the 1930s in favor of the terser language of the gangster.

Despite this, Raine is truer than Grey is his use of themes and characters. Grey is kind of like Shakespeare in that his people are idealized characters: good, bad, tormented, or whatever, they seem to be the very epitome of that single characteristic. Raine’s characters – at least in this novel – are rougher, less perfect in their foulness or virtue, regardless of the flowery language.

The Black Tolts was originally published in the September 1933 issue of Complete Western Book Magazine. For some of its later book printings it carried the title of Pistol Pardners. This is one of those rare times when a pulp proclaimed accurately that the story enclosed was "novel length." My copy is a 1986 Popular Library reprint with a rather bland cover.

The story inside, though, is quite enjoyable. Raine deals with three themes, one of them effectively, one fairly well done, and the other not so well. He wonders (through his heartbroken Ellen and bedeviled Dave) about the nature of free will and whether or not human beings can control their foul deeds. This comes rather late in the story, but at least there were thin suggestions of it from almost the beginning. There is also the discussion of celebrity and how people elevated robbers and even murderers to lofty status. While the Tolts are chased and every effort is made to perforate them, in the end the clan survivors escape without punishment. In fact, Dave goes with a blessing and a hope that the future will change him. The primary theme deals with loyalty, and just how long a friend should stay loyal even after one of the friends turns to crime.

Dave Tolt is the youngest of six brothers and feels left out of the loop. The family is called black because they stem from a less than savory branch of the good name of Tolt. The brothers run a ranch but have a side hobby of robbing stages and banks. Young Dave is kept away from the family recreation until he overhears plans to rob a train. He beats the brothers to the punch and is reluctantly taken into their confidence. After committing some more crimes, they decide to rob two banks in a town called Burke. It’s a foolish venture and three of them are killed. The other three, including Dave, are shot up and go into hiding.

In the middle of all of this is a love triangle between Dave, Ellen, and Dave’s best friend Allen, who is secretly in love with Ellen. Both Allen and Ellen realize that something is wrong with Dave from early on and begin to rely on each other and grow closer. Eventually Ellen ’s eyes open to the fact that it’s the stalwart Allen she loves and not the reckless and criminal Dave. Along the way, though, both she and Allen torture themselves over Dave’s fall from grace and their desire to help him avoid the hangman’s noose.

What makes this novel enjoyable is that the characters are not wholly one thing or another. They are conflicted, they make mistakes, they are foolish, and ultimately some of them regret the paths they’ve chosen. No one is truly happy at the end of the book. Ellen and Allen have found each other and are looking forward to a good life and the respect of the community. But there are echoes of sadness, too, reminders of the pain left behind in the wake of good men gone bad. Despite the language, this is a surprisingly modern story that is very true to human nature.

Enjoyment Factor (out of 10) – 8

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