Saturday, February 27, 2010

Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead

Far Bright Star, by Robert Olmstead (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007).

In writing there is talent, which can seem like some magical thing, and there is skill, which is honed, and there is a point at which all that becomes power. Olmstead's writing in Far Bright Star shows power. The language is a beautiful, brutal poetry that is hard in its beauty. It is what Hemingway wanted and might have had if he had not let his ego and celebrity boss around his talent and skill.

Far Bright Star caught my eye because I saw a tiny horse and rider on its cover, the two figures nearly lost in a wide, dark landscape dwarfed by a broad field of sky and stars, the whole serving as a backdrop for the typography proclaiming the title and author's name. Honestly, I don't think I'd heard of Olmstead before picking up this book, but now I'm looking for more by him.

The tale takes place in the late West -- during the United States' war against Pancho Villa. This period intrigues me, thanks in part to the Fargo series by John Benteen. Napoleon Childs and his brother, Xenophon, are in charge of a band of US Cavalry located below the border, searching for Villa. Napoleon is aged (think of Sam Elliott's character, Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, in Were Were Soldiers) compared to his band of young soldiers, who have enlisted to go south for adventure. He has been honed by terrible, bone cracking experiences, and his flintiness is all that may save the cocky, proud young fools under his command.

During a patrol in the heat, white light, and sand, the band is surrounded by what Napoleon thinks is a stray gang of Villistas. Napoleon's world has made him wily, stoic, and both determined and pessimistic. His dry, business-like manner in dealing with their enemies marks him as heroic in Olmstead's narrative, no matter that he is probably someone who no one would want to have join him for a friendly drink or conversation.

"You are not being shot at personally," he told the man. He could not remember when he stopped hating those who were trying to kill him. After all, he was trying to kill them too. He'd abandoned hatred somewhere on the plains of Montana or the jungles of the Philippines. He wasn't sure, but no matter, it wasn't good to hate. It always seemed to get in the way of doing the job, always seemed to take more than it ever gave back, always seemed to get the hater killed sooner than he otherwise might have been killed.

The prose is poetically masculine and stark and vigorous in a way that recalls Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry and Icelandic sagas. There are scenes here of battle and torture and as horrific as anything in Tom Eidson's The Last Ride (whose title was changed to The Missing after the release of the film by that name, based on Eidson's novel).

Olmstead's novel ultimately is about war, that it is always present, and the men who participate -- what makes some of them warriors and others not -- and what war does to them. It's not a novel for everyone, but it will resound strongly for those who read it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Max Brand, King of the Spaghetti Westerns

Our pal James Reasoner, a fine writer of westerns and crime fiction, has a nice blog named Rough Edges. In a recent post, he reviews an indie film, Shoot First and Pray You Live. This is apparently based on a Frederick Faust/Max Brand novel serialized in 1919 in Argosy, Luck, which later was published in book form as Riders of the Silences. One of the comments to James' post notes that Brand gets no credit for the story -- which really isn't surprising, as the novel's 1919 publication date puts it in the public domain.

James notes that the film is very faithful to Brand's novel, even though the title sounds like it came from a spaghetti western, and "it made me realize for the first time that what Faust was doing, decades before the genre was even invented, was writing the literary equivalent of Spaghetti Westerns."

Makes sense. I've said somewhere or to someone before that Brand's westerns are true horse operas -- bigger than life, played on a large stage. And Faust loved that kind of storytelling, as his biographies point out his love of Shakespeare and The Faerie Queene. He lived in the home of the spaghetti western for years in a villa -- it really makes sense that perhaps with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone was simply putting on film the sort of story that Faust had been hammering out for popular consumption decades earlier.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"The Passing of Black Eagle" by O. Henry

This is another western story, like "The Caballero's Way," about a badman at large in he Texas border country. This tale, collected in Roads of Destiny (1919), first appeared in the pages of Ainslee's Magazine during 1901, when O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) first began publishing tales in that publication.

Unlike the better-heralded "The Caballero's Way," which introduced the Cisco Kid to the world (see The Spur & Lock's entry on that story), this tale doesn't dazzle quite so much. The twist at the end isn't so surprising, nor is the tale-telling quite so delightful as in "Caballero." However, the names of the badmen are colorful, and Henry includes some passages whose language suggest the writer he would become:

For a week that car was trundled southward, shifted, laid over, and manipulated after the manner of rolling stock, but Chicken stuck to it, leaving it only at necessary times to satisfy his hunger and thirst. He knew it must go down to the cattle country, and San Antonio, in the heart of it, was his goal. There the air was salubrious and mild; the people indulgent and long-suffering. The bartenders there would not kick him. If he should eat too long or too often at one place they would swear at him as if by rote and without heat. They swore so drawlingly, and they rarely paused short of their full vocabulary, which was copious, so that Chicken had often gulped a good meal during the process of the vituperative prohibition.

Bill Pronzini tells us the story was the basis of a 1948 film, Black Eagle, directed by Robert Gordon and starring William Bishop and Virginia Patton. The story is so slight, I'm surprised an entire movie could be developed from its form.

The story is online in the file for Roads of Destiny at Gutenberg, but also can be found in The Second Reel West, ed. Bill Pronzini and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: Doubleday, 1985).

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hoppy Birthday!

February 3 was the birthday of Hopalong Cassidy creator, Clarence Mulford. My pal, Rodney Rhodus, contributes today's info:

Jay Gatsby had read him, we assume, since his father shows up at the funeral with an old copy of Hopalong Cassidy in which Jay had written his regimen for self-improvement.

It's been 30 years or more since I last read The Great Gatsby, and I really can't recall that bit of trivia. But I've heard Gatsby described as a reverse western: instead of the character heading west to recreate his identity, Jay traveled east to be a new person from the one he had been in the west.

It just so happens that I read The Coming of Cassidy not long ago. A lot of fun, and the hard-boiled and bloodthirsty qualities of Mulford's cowboys are a bit disguised by his oblique descriptions and colorful language, and the ways he characterizes their playfulness.

Worth reading.