Monday, September 05, 2005

Easy to Extricate from Simple "Trapp"

Trapp’s Mountain
by Robert J. Randisi
Leisure Books, August 2005

A friend critiqued my first, deservedly unsold western many years ago. It was called The Wide River. His first, and major comment was, “Where’s the river?” I told him it was metaphorical, that the river was a gulf to be crossed on the way to the main character’s growth and greater understanding. That didn’t matter much to the critic. He still wanted to know where was the damned river.
Perhaps Randisi was using the mountain in the title of this novel as a metaphor, too, but by the end of it I still wanted to know where was the mountain. Of course, the unnamed mountain within the Rockies is ubiquitous. The main character, Trapp, speaks of it at every opportunity. Eventually, we do get to the mountain for a few uninteresting pages in the epilogue. But the payoff is unsatisfactory, and the reader is left with the obvious question.

No doubt, Randisi meant the mountain to represent Trapp’s struggles through a life made unfair by cruel and powerful men. But you sort of have to guess at all of that and fill in a lot of holes yourself. Randisi doesn’t come out and tell you this, nor does he have Trapp develop an inner dialog that would reveal such (necessary and yet sadly absent) depth. Instead, Trapp expends a great deal of passive energy, and time, in a Sisiphysian effort to get back to his mountain, which to him symbolizes an ideal.

Trapp’s Mountain is a thin book – thin on ideas, not pages. Randisi fills many pages (most of them, in fact) with pedantic dialogue that does little to serve the advancement of the plot. Much of it rehashes earlier conversations. It is a story told mostly in dialogue, with textbook bad lines like, “Well, here comes our friend now.” This is not how a seasoned writer like Randisi is supposed to write.

It is a quick read, though. His sentences are short and clear, and the reader’s eyes virtually fly across the page. Mainly because there’s nothing on which to light.

Randisi tells his story out of order, which is fine. Filling in backstory as you go is the best way to keep a story moving at a quick pace. But too often he uses lengthy flashbacks – often 10 or 20 pages – to tell in dialogue where a paragraph or two of prose would have sufficed. It would make sense to spend this amount of time if Randisi had used it well. He doesn’t. Although the perspective or the time period shifts, Randisi does never varies his tone or style or atmosphere. Everything is told simply, with no effort to build much in the way of suspense or to give the action an air of drama. It reads like a shorthand version of a story, with everything that makes reading fun taken out of it.

The story is simple enough. John Henry Trapp has tracked down and killed the two men responsible for killing his Indian common law wife. One of the murderers has a powerful father. Trapp is himself convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. When he gets out, all he wants to do is get back to his mountain. In short order he quite conveniently falls into a woman’s bed, a pile of money, and the company of a pleasant gun-for-hire. They have a number of adventures that have nothing to do with the mountain, are chased by a bounty hunter hired by the powerful and still grieving father, and finally run afowl of some Comanches. They get away from this penultimate trouble rather neatly (and conveniently) only to have a final showdown with the bounty hunter.

We never really get inside the characters. They are all of them one-dimensional. All of them speak grammatically corrected English, with hardly an “ain’t” or a “wal” or a “shore” to be found. Even the writer’s own character doesn’t come to the surface. The book is entirely devoid of personality. Of course, Randisi can’t help take a PC shot at the military when, at the end of the novel he describes an off-camera military raid: “[The soldiers] had found the camp and killed themselves some Indians – among them, Trapp was quite sure, some women and children …” But even this is a watery indictment and feels obligatorily tossed in for no reason other than to say how bad the bluecoats were toward the Indians.

Some might read this book and recommend it as light reading. It’s far worse than that, though. Trapp’s Mountain is completely empty and not worth your time. Randisi is better than this; he has been better than this, and hopefully will be again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, Randisi never has been better, and this review could be of every book of his that I've ever read. The guy must be a hell of a fast typist, though. Every generation needs a Norman Daniels or a Chet Cunningham, apparently. What makes this so offensive in today's market is that crap like this clogs what precious little shelf space remains for mid-list writers with talent, of whom there are many.