Friday, March 18, 2005

Ballard's Two Tons No Heavyweight

Two Tons of Gold
by Todhunter Ballard
Leisure Books, November 2003

This is one of the most violent westerns I have ever read. Apparently Two Tons of Gold was not published in Ballard’s lifetime. He died in 1980. His one-time associate and friend Sue Dwiggins Worsley writes an excellent introduction about a writer who is unknown today, giving a glimpse of a fascinating method of creating fiction. Dwiggins, however, offers no date for this novel. We’re left to examine clues.

Two Tons of Gold has some pulpy elements. There’s plenty of action. Some of the characters are fairly thin and straightforward. Ballard uses a pulp standard: elaborate disguises that thoroughly fool even friends. The disguises are in the form of full head masks that our hero is able to weave seemingly out of air; masks that Jim Phelps and his IMF team would envy. We get the sense that this book was written in the midst of the pulp era – except for some themes, which move the origination of the writing possibly into the 1960s or even the 1970s.

Mark Dorne, The Major, late of the Civil War, comes home to greedy industrialists and bankers who are taking over everything by force. Dorne’s parents are killed and this sets The Major on a course of vengeance. Alone for most of his reign of terror, Dorne uses his skill as a self-taught demolition man manufacturing the newly invented and not widely known explosive called dynamite. Along the way, Dorne picks up a few allies as they steamroll over the evil barons of big business and destroy their mining, banking, and logging interests.

The violence in the novel is two-fold. Dorne uses dynamite more than he does a gun. There is one scene where, after dynamiting closed a box canyon, he proceeds to drop TNT into the canyon and kill the posse trapped there. Ballard describes bodies flying about as a result of the explosions. He doesn’t stop, even when the trapped men throw down their guns and raise their hands. A lot of people are killed by dynamite throughout the book. Dorne often tries to avoid killing those he considers innocent – men who are just doing a job for the evil robber barons; men who aren’t really themselves evil. Yet he kills others who meet the same criteria. Dorne guns down a lone defender of the two tons of gold (which shows up very late in the story), yet warns a dozen men chasing him with ax handles and guns that a boat is about to explode. In the end, innocent or guilty, most of the characters die, even Dorne’s own lumbering aid.

The second level of violence is what is perpetrated on the little people – the miners, the loggers, the small investors. These people are trying to make a living and Dorne destroys their ability to feed their families. Ballard give short shrift to these people. He paints them all with a rough brush and with very thin paint. There’s no depth to any of them. However, he writes his character, The Major, as clearly justified in going on the vengeance trail after his innocent parents are murdered. But Ballard draws the trail all over the map. There is no real sense throughout the book that Dorne has a purpose other than to attack and kill big business. There is a nominal evil titular figure but he is not really shown as a scheming, menacing person. Instead, as his end is nearing, he is convincingly portrayed as a man who is confused as to why he is being attacked. He believes that all of his business efforts were made to better the community in addition to making him richer. And the truth is, he wasn’t evil. Ballard himself points out that by destroying the villain (who commits suicide as his world crumbles around him) Dorne has hurt the community. The Major admits that he cannot return the two tons of gold he stole to those small investors who were wiped out when the bank failed. To make amends he decides to give the gold to another man of big business who is portrayed rather thinly as a man of the people. This other mogul will use the money to build a giant tunnel that apparently needs building.

The novel has a modern feel in that it is incredibly distrustful of big business. Granted, strikebreakers are used to bust head – all of it off-camera – but other than that, the businesses are engaged in positive growth for the community. Ballard pays lip service to his anti-corporate beliefs (which may only extend to this novel) and expects the readers to follow along. It’s hard to do that when he gives none of these characters depth.

Another modern aspect is Ballard’s use of an anti-hero. The Major is clearly not a good guy. He may be a good man, but he’s really doing bad things. He kills wantonly, violently, and gives no indication of remorse. He is a model for anti-establishment, a rebel with a cause. He could easily have worn a black leather jacket with his hair pomaded into a pompadour, a knowing sneer cracking his face. That’s the mold from which Mark Dorne was cut.

There is a Billy-the-Kid-Syndrome kind of hero worshipping here. While employees of the corporation are after Dorne’s head, the down trodden and those who have lost their personal battles with the corporation find secret ways to help The Major. As the novel progresses, he becomes a cult figure, even loved by some of the bad guy’s henchmen. Dorne is surprised by this, and later astonished that one of his cadre would sacrifice his own life to save Dorne. But Ballard doesn’t really explore the nature of this universal phenomenon that played out in similar fashion for a number of real western characters. He uses it simply to get The Major out of many of the jams in which he finds himself.

All of this is minor, really. Ballard is a good writer who keeps you interested and the pages turning. Two Tons of Gold is a fast-paced, full on action story cut out of the classic pulp cloth. Simply for fun it’s worth reading. The question, then, is why it was never published. I think this was a story written during the pulp era and was rejected for one simple reason. The character of Dorne is a terrorist.

While justified in seeking revenge, Dorne’s plan is too broad. He kills too many people. In classic pulps the hero is in fact a hero who stands against amazing odds and wins, ultimately facing down the villain. Dorne faces similar odds but he attacks the workers, not the mastermind. He terrorizes a sweeping area, kills men who are not evil, destroys an entire economy, and feels no emotion about any of it. The last line of the book shows a television influence: “They had no idea what they would do next, but something would turn up. It always did.” You can hear the laughter and see the fade to black just before the final commercial. Dorne should have been moved by what he did, felt some emotion, looked back on the carnage and wondered if he had done the right thing. Something other than simply walking away.

Leisure has put out several other Ballard books over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if these themes are carried through in other stories.

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