Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Somewhat Hazy Gunsmoke

Joseph West is a good writer. He plots well, he turns some good phrases, and he lets you see the world in which the story takes place. He’s taken all of these skills and applied them to the new Gunsmoke novel, Blood, Bullets, and Buckskin.

We are firmly in the Festus era with this book. The author sets the date at 1878 through the use (and eventual overuse) of a letter from the governor requesting Dillon’s help on a trivial matter.

For the most part I enjoyed the story. There were problems, but when I started reading I didn’t want to nitpick. Although I hadn’t read the three previous Gunsmoke books (penned by Gary McCarthy), online reviewers lambasted the novels with comments about the wildly out of character behavior by Dillon, Kitty, Doc, and Festus.

Yet, the further I read West’s book, the more those small problems grew. You get the feeling that West probably saw a few episodes, most likely of 1970s vintage and not the superior 1950s and 1960s black and white stories. He’s got Festus talking fairly accurately, even if he uses a few too many “Matthews”. Matt’s characterization, though, is uneven. At times West seems to have Dillon down pat. Other times he’s considerably off the mark.

A bit of irony leads off the novel. In James Arness’ introduction he recounts a time when he told writers to cut down on his dialog. This echoes sentiments directors (especially John Ford) had about John Wayne. The Duke’s dialog was usually pared to the bone and that simple action, as much as anything else, helped make him a star. Arness benefits from minimal dialog, too, by his own admission. But West often has Matt Dillion prattling on.

One of the biggest characterization problems with Dillon takes place before the main story opens but is recounted in a long bit of dialog in the first few chapters. In short, five years ago Dillon was unable to stop a man from nearly beating another man to death because he was convalescing from injuries sustained in another adventure. Dillon is shown raging impotently while Kitty cuddles him, crying. This is not Dillon. We’ve seen him shot, near death, rising from his sick bed to take care of the bad guys. Kitty and Doc always argue with him, but once he’s on his feet, they stand beside him.

Two other problems exist in this scene. First, it should have been told in flashback so Chester could have had a scene rather than a passing mention. This is just laziness on West’s part. The second problem is that Festus, who is hearing the story from Dillon, says he knows of but never met Chester. In the show, however, both men met several times. There was, in fact, a transition period as Chester was phased out and Festus came in. The two characters even had a number of scenes together.

Miss Kitty is off-key, too. West tries to explore the relationship she and Matt share. He starts with the premise that Dillon and Kitty love each other. That much is true, but the attempt at sexual tension, while trying to keep the relationship in a neutral position, doesn’t work. Kitty flies off the handle over nonsense. While Amanda Blake’s Kitty could boil over (and on occasion use a gun with deadly accuracy), it took a lot for her to get red mad at Matt.

Doc is nowhere to be seen and one wonders if West decided he couldn’t capture the character’s unique quality. Quint makes an appearance, but it is a perfunctory one, which is a shame. Festus is kidnapped at one point and Matt spends days looking for him. In the television show, Dillon would have engaged Quint as a tracker abilities. In fact, Quint would have volunteered.

The biggest problem, though, comes early, and is in fact signaled by the cover. We are treated to a big shot of Marshal Dillon in the foreground with an action sequence (which does not take place in the book) in the background. Dillon is dressed appropriately, the big US Marshal’s badge pinned on his shirt. The background image – a shootout on Front Street – shows Dillon’s office with a sheriff’s sign clearly in view. It’s an unnecessary confusion.

The misunderstanding of Matt’s authority is reinforced within the first few opening pages as we see Matt riding out far from Dodge, alone on the Kansas prairie. He’s chasing after some killers, and ready to close in for the capture. [West berates us here with a page or so of Matt’s introspection (something we get a lot of), but I don’t fault him for this. I’m sure he needed to get the word count up to appease the publisher.] Taken by surprise, the badmen don’t draw right away when Matt enters their camp. They bide their time. Yet they don’t seem all that concerned. They know Matt is a town marshal and he doesn’t have any jurisdiction outside of Dodge. Matt acknowledges this but tells the killers he’s going to take them in anyway.

Well, you know what happens, of course. But the story is tainted by this grievous error. West continues to pound home the point that Dillon is a town Marshal, and it has an enormous effect by the end of the story. I could have glossed over it if West had ignored Dillon’s jurisdiction, but he used it to provide Matt with an internal conflict at the climax.

No one who has ever seen even a few Gunsmoke episodes could mistake Dillon for a town marshal or a county sheriff. West made the choice deliberately because he was attempting to do something that should never have been done. He was trying to marry the television Dodge City with the real one.

For those of us who love the old west, we know that Dodge, while being a fairly wide open town for years, was not so homespun and rustic as it appeared on the CBS television show. We’ve seen photographs of the famous saloons with their rich, polished wood bars and green-baized gambling tables. We’ve seen the expansive rooms where gambling and live music played out every night. We know that the likes of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp were town marshals, and that Doc Holiday came to town on occasion to fleece the hiders and trail hands. We know that Dodge was a fairly good-sized town, split down the middle – respectability and law and order to the north, and wild debauchery to the south. We know that in addition to a town marshal there was a county sheriff who lived within the city limits, too – and that one of the men to serve multiple terms was in fact the owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

The television Dodge is vastly different. It is, for the most of its years, a cow town. It’s rustic, Spartan in appearance and design. The only shot we get of the size of the town is the forced perspective painting on the back studio wall in the opening credits. Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon is a pine board affair with few embellishments. Rarely is there gambling. The entertainment is provided by percentage girls (women who seduce men into drinking), not by soiled doves. Matt Dillon’s Dodge is compact, perennially dusty, and it only has one lawman – the US Marshal.

West tries to bring these two disparate images together and it doesn’t really work. He brings historical fact into the story, and while such things make other novels ring true, his Gunsmoke has the hollow clunk of falsehood. For twenty years (and a few more with the reunion movies) we knew a special kind of Dodge City. It was a place where human stories played out on a dirt and rough wood stage. It was a place where one lawman could keep the fickle populace in line with a hard-spoken word and, if necessary, a single shot of a Colt .44. West wants the best of both worlds and doesn’t really capture either.

The end of the story is a fairly big mess. This is a tale of revenge with some range war overtones. The town divides out for the two factions, Gatling guns are brought in, lots of people die. Matt chooses one side, the lesser of two evils, and manages to put down the fighting.

This was way over the top and not at all in keeping with the show. Thematically, Gunsmoke dealt with very human, personal stories that tended to center around the seven deadly sins. The consequences were always devastating – but only for one person. These were morality plays, not action movies. West tries to imbue his story with the old values of the television show, but ultimately abandons those sentiments in favor of the modern perspective of moral ambiguity and unrealistic pyrotechnics. Shades of gray may have been as prevalent back then as they are today; that’s real life. But it’s not Gunsmoke.

Untamed is Raw L'Amour

Bantam has had a death grip on all things Louis L’Amour for decades. Without knowing the numbers, it wouldn’t surprise me if the (arguably) most famous writer of Westerns were responsible for a large percentage of the company’s profits. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find that Leisure Books – the only steady, indefatigable publisher of Western novels – corralled another one of L’Amour’s stories for the anthology, The Untamed West.

It turns out that the novel (the longest of the three stories included in this, the second compilation to include the triumvirate of popular Western authors) is a reprint of a 1950 pulp novel from Giant Western. Max Brand’s “Black Sheep” is fairly short. It sports the cloak of restoration that is popular now in which the pulp editor’s often heavy handed bowdlerization is removed in favor of the author’s original text. The results of such restoration are not always for the best. Zane Grey’s Ladies Home Journal short serial, “CaƱon Walls,” is included, and it is also in its original form.

L’Amour’s Showdown on the Hogback is reprinted as published in the pulp. It is an early version of what would become Showdown at Yellow Butte.

I’ve read both and, honestly, I don’t recall much of Yellow Butte. Hogback is not particularly memorable either, but it is at least fresher in my memory.

This story appears toward the end of the pulp era when the only magazines to hang on were westerns and science fiction, many of them converting to digests. Much is made in Jon Tuska’s introduction of L’Amour’s writing – and not a lot of it flattering. With veiled language, Tuska calls L’Amour a hack – a man who played fast and loose with facts, was forgetful of his own story continuity, benefited from savvy and lucky marketing, and virtually forced Bantam to take his work in first draft and unedited.

L’Amour’s stories have many flaws, but it’s the rare story that is not entertaining. Hogback is certainly entertaining. More than that, though, it is interesting to see the author developing in long format. L’Amour is often best in brief. His short stories have punch and the action carries the reader along at breakneck pace. When he keeps his novels to less than 60,000 words, his writing benefits a great deal, and so does the reader. Hogback is one of his early “novel” length stories. Soon after its publication he would write the Hopalong Cassidy pulp tales, and from there go on to publish more than 75 novels.

In Hogback, you get to see some early themes developing – the honest, intrepid hero of few words who takes a great deal of physical punishment; the extolling of the building of the West; the hard man who makes deep, lasting friendships; and the dogged adherence to a moral code regarding women. But in this novel you see L’Amour experimenting with the themes and methods of the writers who came before. You can see the influence of Grey and Ernest Haycox (and probably others) in his plotting and characterization. L’Amour was playing with all of these as he searched for the voice that would become very clear and eventually tower above the rest.

The story revolves around a range war. L’Amour’s hero, tough guy Tom Kedrick, is the only man who can come into the territory and put an end to the greedy land owner’s troubles with squatters. But Kedrick is an honorable man. He investigates and discovers that the squatters are in the right. When he switches sides, the greedy land owner snaps and orders Kedrick and all the squatters killed.

The ending is obvious, but that’s not a criticism. All traditional westerns end in a fairly obvious yet satisfying way. Kedrick has to fight against great odds, overcome many obstacles, and nearly die to see that justice prevails, and he does.

What’s most interesting, though, is L’Amour’s use of character types and depiction of the land paralleling some of his predecessors. Zane Grey was famous for lofty descriptions of the natural world. But he also used a couple of tricks that had thematic import in his stories. The one L’Amour borrows here is the secret canyon. In this canyon, the hero is trapped yet securely hidden. It’s a place no white man has ever seen. It is narrow and remote, yet there are ways in and out of it that only a clever and brave man can negotiate. L’Amour’s canyon in Hogback is a refuge for Kedrick as he recovers from wounds and escapes to think and to plot.

L’Amour also uses a device to build romantic tension of which Ernest Haycox was a master. Where Zane Grey would use one man and one woman (or at times two men with two women – using the different monogamous relationships to show parallels of development as well as express romance according to the characters’ maturity levels) Ernest Haycox liked to pit two women against each other for the love of one man. These women would be very different in nature. The sexier one would represent lust and desire, an unattainable prize that the unsuspecting hero suddenly had access to. She, too, would lust – not just for the man but for what riches or rewards he could bring her. The other woman, lovely yet simple, represents goodness, true love, and the finer desires of a wandering cowpoke’s heart, namely hearth and home. Although deeply attracted to the femme fatale, the hero would ultimately choose the better angel by the end of the story – a stark contrast to the noir stories of this time where the hero would always choose the dangerous dame early, and suffer for it for the rest of his short life.

In Hogback, L’Amour sets up these two characters and turns them loose on Kedrick. He follows true to form and is attracted to the glitzier of the two women. But very quickly he decides she’s not the one for him. The nice girl is the one he wants, and he spends much of the story proving himself to her and protecting her.

L’Amour’s use of these two characters is rather perfunctory, like he’d read similar scenes in a number of stories and decided to put one into his. But he doesn’t develop either woman very well, even in pulp terms, and doesn’t seem interested in playing out the type.

Still, you can see him experimenting – with characters, with descriptions, and with the themes that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The story is mildly enjoyable and it’s interesting to watch L’Amour as he begins the process of maturing and defining his unique voice.