Friday, December 30, 2016


This novel about the subduing of the Indian tribes of the Staked Plain is actually more history than fiction, with almost all the characters being the actual people who engaged in the battles and skirmishes. The exception is one fictional character who becomes an observer and a participant in the events. His thoughts about his lady love and his eventual return to her provide the only sustained narrative thread in what is otherwise an episodic account of how the buffalo hunters and later the U.S. Army destroyed the way of life of the Plain's tribes and forced them to choose reservations rather than starvation. The two main incidents recounted are the Fight of Adobe Walls and the decisive Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.

Initially, I had trouble with this novel because Johnston provides an extremely large cast of characters, and I didn't know which ones I should remember and which ones were incidental. After a bit, I realized that the book should be read as a history of events rather than as a conventionally constructed novel and my problems with it disappeared. Johnston obviously heavily researched his subject and is, as far as I can determine from cursory internet research, quite accurate in his depictions. Most of the incidents are narrated through the eyes of various Anglo characters, with a few from the viewpoint of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Kwahadi Comanche.

I don't know if Johnston intended that a reader should have this reaction, but I found myself rooting for the Indians, even though I obviously know that they were, indeed, subdued. He seems to be attempting to present a balanced account, portraying the good and the bad of individuals from both sides. The real villain is the U.S. government, which broke treaties and promises and then attempted to exterminate all those who resisted being herded onto reservations.

One thing I found amusing about Dying Thunder: Since the action concerns battles and skirmishes, women are obviously not usually present. Johnston thus introduces some pretty detailed sex scenes by having his fictional protagonist and the Comanche Quanah Parker think between battles about hot action with their respective women. That was pretty hokey, and also tells me that this was a book written primarily for men.


For those interested in the history of the struggle between the Comanche and the U.S. Army for the possession of the llano estacado I would also recommend the novel The Lord of the Plain by Max Crawford and the non-fiction Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Butcher's Crossing was one of the first revisionist Westerns, a reaction against the cliches' and stereotypes of previous treatments, and, as is often the case with such responses, it goes to the opposite extreme, creating stereotypes of its own. Instead of courageous and principled protagonists we find anti-heroes who are violent and without scruples. Instead of good versus bad we find almost all bad, in one way or another.

Williams tells the story of a young Harvard student in the 1870s who, influenced by the writings of Emerson, travels to Butcher's Crossing, Kansas, hoping to discover a relationship to nature and to "find himself" in the Western wilderness. Soon he eagerly agrees to join a buffalo hunter and two companions in a trek to a hidden valley in Colorado where perhaps the last great herd of buffalo can be found. The men almost fail in their endeavor in its early stages when they cannot find water in their ride across the plains, but they persevere and at last reach their goal. That's when things get brutal.

Faced with five thousand buffalo in an enclosed valley, the hunters begin an orgy of killing, taking only the hides, leaving the bodies to rot in place except for the little that they eat. The lust to kill every single buffalo overtakes them to the extent that they lose track of time and become trapped by the winter snows. When they finally make it back to Butcher's Crossing the following spring, they find that both they and the world have changed. Ironically, instead of finding himself in nature, the protagonist has lost himself and no longer knows who he is or who he will become.

This is considered to be an important book, an accomplished book, and I can see that, but I did not enjoy reading it. Instead of detailed descriptions of the natural surroundings Williams provides detailed descriptions of how to track and kill buffalo, how to skin buffalo, how to butcher buffalo. Even the writing style annoyed me, though I can't exactly pinpoint why, except that it does seem to be pretentious and academic. Perhaps it's just that I don't believe looking at a situation entirely from the dark side is good for mental health, at least not for mine.

Monday, December 26, 2016


What do you imagine happened to the shootists of the Old West--those mysterious lone gunmen who drifted from place to place--when they were lucky enough or skilled enough to survive into middle age? What if they fell ill? Who took care of them?

Glendon Swarthout tells us what might happen in this thoughtful novel. His shootist is John B. Books, the last gunfighter in the West. He is 51 years old and he has terminal cancer. He rides to El Paso to consult a trusted doctor and holes up in a boarding house owned by a widow who has a wayward teenage son. As news of his identity and his medical condition gets abroad, human vultures begin lurking, hoping to cash in on his fame. Determined to die with dignity, Books sees a way to spare himself a lingering death and to rid the town of some rotten skunks at the same time.

Even though Swarthout begins his story with an unusual situation, he could have let it slide into sentimentalized pathos and familiar cliches', but he avoids that by his matter-of-fact narration and by constantly introducing surprising developments. Just when you think you can anticipate what is about to happen, you find that you are wrong.

This novel is not written in a showy style, but it is extremely well done. The characterization and dialogue are excellent. It is not your typical feel-good-at-the-end Western or your revisionist ultra-violent Western. It has more in common with Elmer Kelton than with Louis L'Amour or Cormac McCarthy. I liked it very much.


The movie version of the novel starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall was really good until someone (writer? director? John Wayne?) decided to change the plot to make it end on a feel-good note, which entirely negated the theme of the book. What a shame.

Friday, December 23, 2016


Shane is a simplistic, highly romanticized treatment of the basic Western formula--a mysterious stranger with a gun arrives to help innocent homesteaders who are being threatened. In this case, the villain is the "big rancher" who hires a gunman to drive out the small land owners so that he can expand his cattle operation. The narrator of the story, the young son of a homesteader, describes Shane this way:

"He was tall and terrible there in the road, looming up gigantic in the mystic half-light. He was the man I saw that first day, a stranger, dark and forbidding, forging his lone way out of the unknown past in the utter loneliness of his own immovable and instinctive defiance. He was the symbol of all the dim, formless imaginings of danger and terror in the untested realm of human potentialities beyond my understanding."

Wow. Just wow. Who wouldn't run the other way?

Yet this same Shane has a softer side, inspiring hero worship in the young boy, a bromance with the father homesteader, and romantic love in the wife. Self sacrificing to the end, Shane rides away after defeating the enemies, resuming his lonely travels. As he leaves, the family wonders, "Who was that masked man?" NO, WAIT. That's the mysterious hero from another story. In this story, the wife says, "He's not gone. He's here, in this place, in this place he gave us. He's all around us and in us, and he always will be." (Cue the dramatic music and bring on the hankies.)

I am poking fun, but this novel is not as ridiculous as I make it sound. It has such a straightforward good-versus-evil format and such earnestness and high drama that it becomes affecting. It's a pity I did not read it when I was in junior high. I would have loved it then, I know. I am a bit too cynical these days, I guess.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I love reading Elmer Kelton Westerns because they sound like home to me. He was a Texan who wrote about Texas and he knew how Texans talked. His dialogue is spot-on perfect, among the best I've ever read. His characters are complex and never wholly black or white. His stories may not be as melodramatic as some, but they are more representative of life as it really was than those formulaic hero-versus-villain Westerns or those revisionist Westerns which portray a cynical ultra-violent world. The Western Writers of America named Kelton as the Greatest Western Writer of All Time.

Kelton based the beginning of this novel on an actual event--a strike in 1883 by cowboys on ranches in the Canadian River area of the Texas Panhandle. When the strike inevitably fails, the protagonist, one of the striking cowboys, tries to make it as a small-time cattleman, but the big ranchers (one of them a Yankee banker) want to drive out the small operators to reserve the open range for themselves, even hiring a "shootist" to threaten violence. Will the struggling underdogs be able to stand up to the rich and powerful? Has civilization reached far enough that the rules of law and order can prevail?

This is a depiction of Texas as it probably really was in that place and time, and it is excellent.


I have not read all of Elmer Kelton's novels, but all I have read have been outstanding. I particularly recommend The Time It Never Rained, which takes place during the drought of the 1950s.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Louis L'Amour is the most successful Western writer ever, having published 100 novels, all of which are still in print. This is my first L'Amour, and I expected that I would be impressed. Instead, I am surprised. I don't think this is a very good book at all.

The plot is so formulaic as to be almost laughable: a tough army scout (who had once lived with the Apache for five years) arrives at a ranch in the middle of the Arizona desert and finds a beautiful young woman, who has been deserted by her husband, and her 6-year-old son. She refuses to leave her home to go to the fort, even though the scout tells her that the Apache are readying for war. Romantic sparks fly. He goes on to the fort to report. The Indians start attacking settlers. He returns to the ranch to rescue the woman and her son. Anyone who has ever seen a Western movie from the '50s can fill in most of the details.

Sometimes a hackneyed plot can be rescued by characters who are dimensional and interesting. Here is L'Amour's description of his hero: "He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous." Here is the damsel in distress: "She was a woman, all right. Scarcely more than a girl in years, but all woman. And mighty pretty." These two, and all the other characters in the story, are stereotypes and behave in entirely predictable ways.

L'Amour devotes a portion of the narrative to descriptions of the Arizona landscape, but even here he descends into cliche and repetitiveness. For example, within ten pages, L'Amour writes, "the vast night sky," "the vast and rolling plain," and "the vast distance." It would be interesting to count the total times "vast" is used in the novel.

I know that it is comforting to some readers to be able to anticipate the course of a novel, but I prefer to be surprised by the characters and events and to be impressed by the originality of the writing. This L'Amour novel does not fulfill those requirements.


The Hollywood movie Hondo starred John Wayne. No surprise there. Forty-five of L'Amour's novels and short stories were made into feature films and television movies.

Friday, December 16, 2016


The Big Sky does not quite fit the pattern which usually classifies a book as a "Western." Its setting is the high country of the Northwest in the early 1800s, before the western migration, before the ranchers and the cowboys, before civilization spoiled a wilderness Eden--a time that belonged to the Indians and the mountain men. It is both an epic adventure saga and an allegory about human nature and how we frequently destroy the very things that we love most.

Guthrie's hero, Boone Caudill, is 17 when he runs away from an abusive father and trouble with the law. "I don't hanker to live in no anthill," he tells Jim Deakins, a newfound friend. "I aim to go west into Injun country and trap me some beaver." The two set out together in a search for a place of adventure and freedom from civilization, and they find what they are looking for, only to see it disappearing bit by bit, sometimes due to their own actions.

This novel transcends what one expects from Western genre fiction and reads instead as literary fiction which happens to take place in the early West. Its characters are complex rather than one-dimensional. Its dialogue flows naturally, differentiating in vocabulary and cadence between speakers from varying backgrounds and regions. The descriptions of the wild landscapes are without peer, in my experience. Gutherie never tells the reader, using adjectives and metaphors and suchlike, but shows the reader, so that I actually felt present in the place. The prose is rhythmic and precise. It is so well written in every respect that it has that ineffable quality which takes a book from being just good to being great.

The Big Sky is an extraordinary book, in all senses of the word. I can't imagine why it is not taught in schools. I can't imagine why I never heard of it before.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Riders of the Purple Sage is one of the most popular Western novels ever, but I'll be willing to bet it's not well-loved in Salt Lake City. The reason? Unexpectedly, the villains are the Mormon leaders of a community in Utah and the other Mormon residents who cooperate with them out of fear of reprisal or religious devotion.

The central character is Jane Withersteen, the beautiful young heiress to a huge ranch in the high country of Utah in 1871. As she tries to maintain her independence, she is pressured by the leadership of her church to become one of the many wives of an Elder and to cease her friendships with the few Gentiles (non-Mormons) in the small village. The Mormon leaders are portrayed as also being hungry for power and wealth and unable to tolerate the existence of any female not under their control. When the Bishop and Elder order all of her range riders to leave her and rustlers drive off half her cattle, Jane is unexpectedly aided by the arrival of a stranger named Lassiter. Although he has the reputation of being a killer of Mormons as revenge for a mysterious wrong once done to him, she accepts his help in running her ranch, believing she can persuade him to abandon his murderous ways. It is easy for the reader to anticipate that romantic sparks will fly although the two have clashing belief systems.

Parallel to the events are Jane's struggles to continue to subscribe to the religious teachings of her upbringing while she is suffering blatant persecution by the leaders of that religion. When the inevitable showdown comes, she must for once and all choose where her allegiance lies.

Zane Grey purportedly carefully studied the plot and structure of Owen Wister's The Virginian before beginning to write his own novel, and the plots do have certain similarities. However, Grey's plot is much more complicated and even includes a secondary love story between Jane's Gentile friend and an outlaw's girl. The dramatic action is much more at the forefront here than in Wister's novel, with multiple lengthily described gun battles and chases on horseback. As does Wister, Grey provides much description of the wild landscape, but I would have to judge that Grey is often guilty of over-writing. And his dialogue is terrible.

I plan to sample more Zane Grey in the future. His literary skills may not be great, but this is a suspenseful and exciting story.

Friday, December 9, 2016


The Virginian includes these stock features of our Western mythology:
*a tall, slim, soft-spoken, brave hero who is kind to animals, women, and children but who has steel in his eye when confronted with injustice;
*a schoolmarm from Back East who struggles to understand the hero and the Code of the West:
*mostly good-natured cowboys who pull pranks and sing to cattle when they are not drinking whisky and playing poker;
*a villain (dressed in black, with a pencil mustache) who hates the hero and turns out to be a killer and thief;
*cattle rustling;
*a lynching;
*marauding Indians;
*a gun duel in the street.

All of these would seem to be cliches EXCEPT for the fact that Owen Wister was not copying anybody. He came up with it all first and put it all in this book, which is accounted to be the first Western novel ever. All the thousands of books, movies, and television shows that repeated these elements to the extent that they became cliches were following his pattern.

Since the book has all the ingredients for an action adventure, it is surprising to discover that it is primarily a love story in the style of a Jane Austin novel, with a heroine who is slow to recognize the true worth of the man who loves her. The violent events are handled briefly and serve more to highlight admirable aspects of the hero's character than to provide drama. Wister seems to be trying to convince his (mostly Eastern) readers of the innate dignity of the Western cowboy. He says, "In their flesh our natural passions ran tumultuous; but often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature."

In my mind right now I'm seeing Gary Cooper walking all alone down a dusty street at high noon. How about you?

Owen Wister was a member of the Eastern elite who was educated abroad and at Harvard. After traveling to the West for visits as a young man, he was fascinated by the customs, lore, and landscapes of the region, a passion shared by his friend, Teddy Roosevelt. This novel reflects his attraction, particularly in his lyrical descriptions of the Wyoming landscape. The Virginian is a strange mixture of a novel of manners, a morality legend, and a travelogue. Its style is sometimes stilted and Wister disconcertingly switches without pause from first person narration to third person omniscience, but it captures the spirit that formed the legend of the West.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969)

Something strange happened to my sense of humor in the years between the 1970s and today. When I first read Flashman back then, I found it to be highly amusing. In fact, I liked it so much I read several of the sequels. Today, I don't perceive it as very humorous at all. In fact, I find it more than a bit distasteful. I know the book hasn't changed; obviously, it's me. I can't imagine why I found it so funny back then.

This book introduces George Flashman, beginning when he joins the military after being expelled at age 17 from school for drunkenness. He is supposedly writing about the adventures and misadventures of his long life from the vantage point of old age. He is self-professed as "a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward--and, oh yes, a toady," who has nevertheless been awarded "a knighthood, a Victoria Cross, high rank, and some popular fame." In this first installment of his saga, he survives ambushes, captivity, torture, and a catastrophic battle, mainly through running the other way when danger nears, emerging against the odds as a celebrated hero. The story centers on the First Anglo-Afghan War, which took place in Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842. The political and military history provided is purportedly quite accurate.

One of the back-cover blurbs compares Flashman to Henry Fielding's anti-hero Tom Jones. Yes, the two both behave badly at times and manage somehow to come out on top, but there their similarity ends. Tom is portrayed as basically honest and good-hearted, although his youthful lust gets him into all kinds of trouble. That kind of fault can be and is, in that case, very funny. In contrast, Flashman has all the faults listed above and also rapes women, beats servants for amusement, and wishes a fellow soldier dead because he had witnessed Flashman's cowardly actions, even though the man had previously saved his life. That's just not funny to me, even narrated in a cynical and sarcastic tone.

Fraser wrote eleven Flashman novels, each one covering some military conflict. All are considered to be faithful to the background history. As to whether they are "hilariously funny" (The New York Times Book Review) or not, it maybe depends on how old you are when you read them.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001)

This is a good example of the kind of historical fiction that plays fast and loose with generally accepted history, bending events to fit the plot. Before the internet, I would just have wondered how accurate the supposed history was, but now I can read from numerous sites to find out what most historians think actually happened. In the case of this book, historians disagree with many aspects of Gregory's account.

This is the story of Mary and Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, as narrated by Mary. Gregory portrays her as an innocent 14-year-old who is already married when she comes to Court and catches the eye of the king. Her parents and uncle push her into becoming his mistress while her husband obligingly turns a blind eye. This is the first of many historical inaccuracies. Mary was almost certainly older, probably about 21, when she came to Court, and she was apparently not an innocent, because she had been living at the court in France and King Francis himself had referred to her as "my English mare" and "my hackney" and "a great slag" ("slut"). I can only assume Gregory chose to make Mary a young innocent so that she could portray her throughout as the "good" sister, a helpless pawn just following the orders of her elders, in contrast to Anne, the "bad" sister, a self-centered, calculating, and ruthless opportunist. Gregory also casts Mary as the younger sister, although historians agree that Anne was the younger. This, also, was probably because the author wished to portray Mary in a sympathetic light as being naive and malleable. The list of other misrepresentations is lengthy.

Aside from the historical inaccuracies, The Other Boleyn Girl reads more like a bodice-ripper romance novel than historical fiction. Even the language used is romance-novel-appropriate. People frequently "tremble with desire." Female hair is always "lustrous" or "glossy" and always "tumbles in curls" around their shoulders. The several sex scenes would fit just right in a Harlequin Historical.

Philippa Gregory is a best-selling author with many books purported to be historical fiction. I would classify her instead as a popular fiction writer who adapts history to fit her plots. That might be OK for light reading, but she represents herself as a researcher and reporter of real history. I think not.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

L.A. Comfidential by James Elroy (1990)

I can think of many reasons why I should not have enjoyed this neo-noir crime novel.

First, the writing style is unpleasant and jerky; it would make even Hemingway, the champion of the choppy sentence, seem loquacious. Here is an example.

"A small room: Parker's desk, chairs facing it. No wall mementoes, a gray-tinted mirror--maybe a two-way. The chief behind his desk, in uniform, four gold stars on his shoulders. Dudley Smith in the middle chair; Green back in the chair nearest Parker." You see what Elroy has done here--he has left out words, mainly verbs. It's this way all through the book and at first it drove me crazy, but eventually I came to be so involved with the story that I forget to be annoyed. In fact, I came to feel that the style actually suited the tone of the book. Those readers old enough to have watched television back in the '50s will surely be reminded of Dragnat, as I was.

Second, not a single character is admirable, moral, or even law abiding, even though most of the large cast are cops. However, this is as much a story of police corruption as it is of outside crime, so the lack of principles in all concerned came to seem appropriate.

Third, the book is blood--soaked from start to finish, which I sometimes did find to be excessive and as much for shock value as for story progression. One of the most disturbing incidents -- prisoners almost beaten to death in their cell by drunken cops on Christmas day -- does mirror a real-life police scandal in Los Angeles in the 1950s which became known as Bloody Christmas, so perhaps the violence is not as exaggerated as it would first appear.

Elroy tells his story through the third-person limited viewpoints of three policemen. Ed Exley, whose father is a retired cop who has since grown rich from a construction business and whose older brother was a cop killed in the line of duty, is motivated by a drive to climb the ranks and impress his father. He is willing to do almost anything in his quest for success, even to snitch on his fellow officers. Bud White is a cop with a mission. Having been forced as a child to watch his mother beaten to death, he has made it his goal in life to protect women from abuse, often resorting to brutal tactics to punish those he perceives as guilty. Jack Vincennes is a glory hound who moonlights as technical advisor for a television detective series and who receive tips from a tabloid newspaper about celebrity narcotics users in return for exclusive coverage of the arrests. Their stories are told in revolving chapters.

The plot is incredibly intricate, with countless twists and turns, and a large cast of characters. Beginning with the murder of five people in an all-night cafe, it branches off in several seemingly unrelated directions, before the parts eventually fall into place. The fascination of this book comes from the reader's thirst to discover how all the pieces fit together. Elroy also exceeds expectations in character development, so that while his policemen are not admirable, they are understandable.

Crime novels are certainly not my preferred genre, but I have to admire Elroy for this excellent effort.