Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Fishin' Hole Blues

Cutthroat Gulch
Richard S. Wheeler
Signet, April 2003

Wheeler takes a break from his successful and long running Barnaby Skye series to give us one of his “traditional” westerns. I’ve never read Wheeler but found his prose in Cutthroat Gulch easy to read but prosaic. His suspense is never really suspenseful, though, and the mystery he sets up never pays off.

We meet Blue Smith, an old-time sheriff who’d long ago cleaned up the county and is now at the end of his career. He’s about 50. His eyesight is going and so is his hearing. His young deputy is covetous of the top spot. He’s an ornery sort, and his roughness goes deeper than just the edges. His wife loves him, though, and the town has respect for him.

Smith’s vice is fishing. He goes to a certain pond with some regularity and it’s been made clear to just about everyone in the town of Blankenship that this is Blue’s fishing hole. It’s here that Blue finds the body of a dead man.

Taking his time, Blue investigates and cannot find out who the dead man was. He’s a stranger, unknown to anyone. Blue figures that the body was left at the fishing hole as a message to Blue himself, left for the sheriff to find. Just what that message might be is unclear. He finds a trail leading away from the murder scene and follows it. In almost no time his horse and packhorse are killed by a sniper. The shooter, Blue reasons, is toying with him.

Shortly we’re introduced to Blue’s daughter Tammy, her two children, and her husband, Steve. They live close to where the tracks lead. It occurs to Blue that the killer knows him and is leading him somewhere. He worries for his daughter. That worry is borne out when Steve is murdered.

Leaving his daughter in the care of a trusted friend, Blue continues his search. It’s about then that he’s told that Jack Castle has been released from prison. Castle, once a favorite in the Smith household, had turned wild and went to prison. He had been the son Blue had always hoped his own son would be. But things went bad.

Slowly, he begins killing Blue’s family. Steve is first, then Blue’s wife, then Tammy. The children are left unharmed. Blue realizes that Jack is saving him for last and sets a trap of sorts by his fishing hole. There, he confronts Jack with the children in tow. With stern understanding Blue tells Jack that someone has to take care of the kids once he is gone. Either that, or Jack will have to kill the kids, too. Unable to murder children Jack rushes off and commits suicide.

Aside from the all too common bloated story telling in today’s fiction, the story is obvious with no twists or turns. The characters act ridiculously. Jack has promised to kill Blue and all his family, but his daughter and son think little of this threat, even after Tammy’s husband is murdered. Toward the end, Blue’s son, Absolom, charges down on Jack with clearly no chance of surviving. It’s a stupid thing to do, and a bit of foolishness the character has never displayed. He’s killed instantly. It is at this point that Blue realizes he’s been a bad father. He didn’t give Jack the kind of support he needed, and he didn’t give Absolom space to become his own man.

In fact, the whole book ends up being about how Blue has screwed up. Yet he’s the only one left alive, except the children. And he hides behind them when Jack came gunning for him. I understand what Wheeler was trying to do. He was, in effect, slapping Jack in the face with reality. While that may work in real life, western fiction needs a more explosive confrontation. Wheeler ignores this to give Jack a “noble” end. Yet he pretty much ignores Jack’s death. We never see it. We barely see the result of it. And Blue doesn’t care how Jack died, either. Nor does Blue (or Wheeler, for that matter) care about the murdered man that started the book – who he was, where he came from, why he was killed. Ultimately, neither do we.

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.

Monday, March 07, 2005

McGuire's Gold a bit Tarnished

Texas Gold
by Tim McGuire
Berkeley – August 2004

There’s an old standard device popularized by Zane Grey in westerns. It’s the one where a girl – for a variety of reasons – pretends to be a boy and joins up with a trail herd. Grey used several variations on this theme. Of course, there was precedent in the old west. In the 1850s Charley Parkhurst began working as a stagecoach driver and became known as a reliable and tough customer. With one eye covered by a patch, Charley handled a team, smoked cigars, did a little drinking, played cards and dice, and even voted for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. It wasn’t until Charley’s death that he was revealed to be a she. Such happenings were, though, incredibly rare. Even Annie Oakley and Bell Starr, homely as they were, could never have been mistaken for anything but women.

McGuire uses this device earnestly and, to his credit, lets us in on it very early. Young Leslie Turnbow – an orphan living with a kind but cloistering guardian – has big dreams which are fueled by the musings of a man set to hang. Leslie, who goes by the name Les, is told that there is a cache of Confederate gold hidden in Texas, and the condemned man kindly tells Les how to find it. Of course, being a young girl, heading out on the 500-mile trip from Kansas to Texas is not something she can undertake alone. But with the convenient help of the town whores Les is given a disguise and teamed up with a couple of drovers taking a cavvy of cow ponies back to the home ranch.

Along the way, Les is beset by all manner of problems and conflicts – the standard fare in a trail story. Throughout, though, she is constantly faced with exposure as opportunities to strip bare seem to grow on trees. Eventually she is unmasked and the travelers discover the gold’s hiding place. But to their disappointment they find only gold certificates issued in Confederate currency, all of it worthless.

Because this is ultimately a journey story, Les is made to learn many things. You need to buy into the fact that she’s a complete idiot and wouldn’t even know to bring dry, seasoned wood for a fire or how to cook up a plate of beans. This is a little hard to believe, frankly. While Les lived in Abilene, Kansas is still part of the frontier. The time is 1870, or thereabouts, so people are using wood stoves. Les would have had ample opportunity to learn about firewood and cooking. That she doesn’t know some trail practices, however, is perfectly reasonable and McGuire exploits these fairly well.

Being a journey story, Les meets many people along the way. There is a spiraling mix of characters, in fact, that all seem to meet around Les’s campfire. There is the itinerant gambler/lady’s man, the rustlers, the angry husband chasing the gambler, and the lone wayward family heading west in a covered wagon. There is, in fact, a whole mess of free travel through what would have been some of the deadliest territory in the west. In 1870 the place was swarming with warring Indians and it wasn’t very safe to travel alone. McGuire’s characters move with little thought to Indians except when they have to pay tribute – in horses or cattle – to some very cultured braves collecting a toll.

The biggest problem is that Texas Gold is an unfulfilled promise. The first chapter tells us that we’re going to have a search for gold. That kind of the story suggests a different set of struggles than McGuire used and a concentration on the gold. Instead, we get the journey/coming of age story and the gold is used as a Hitchcockian McGuffin. By the end we get a TV-style epilogue where everyone has a laugh over finding worthless paper and they decide to head off into another adventure.