Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Middling West

Journalist Jeff Guinn has explored a number of unsavory characters in his non-fiction books, including Charles Manson, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Cash McLendon, the protagonist of his three Western novels so far, can be a weak man now and again but is nothing like the criminals Guinn has profiled.

Which doesn't mean there aren't unsavory characters in the McLendon novels, and 2017's Silver City brings back one from the initial story, Glorious, to settle things between them once and for all. Ted "Killer Boots" Brautigan has been dispatched westward once again because word of Cash's appearance has reached his former father-in-law, Rupert Douglass. Douglass frequently uses Brautigan for deadly work he can't accomplish with his wealth, and sends him out to bring Cash back.

Brautigan will team with a pre-O.K. Corral Ike Clanton to home in on Cash and get him out of the bustling frontier town of Silver City by kidnapping Gabrielle Tirrito, the woman Cash moved west to find and ask for forgiveness. Cash, along with Gabrielle's other suitor, schoolteacher Joe Saint, pursue Brautigan prepared to take his life or sacrifice their own in order to rescue her.

Silver City is easily the least of the three Cash McLendon novels so far. Its opening act, with Cash finding his way in Silver City and enjoying the blessings of fame that come with survival of the Adobe Wells battle, is light and fun, and helps demonstrate the depth of character our rather shallow hero has developed since we first met him. Once Brautigan makes his move, though, we settle in for a grinding chase story that rinses and repeats until the end of the novel. Brautigan is brutal to Gabrielle. Cash and Joe Saint hate each other. Brautigan is brutal to Gabrielle. Brautigan is brutal to Cash. Silver City might have made an interesting novella or even short story, but as a 400-page book it's a chore -- and although chores are necessary it's a very rare one indeed that you actually enjoy doing.
Louis L'Amour died in 1988, and at the time nearly all of his 100-plus books were still in print, something that can still pretty much be said nearly 30 years later. His transition to the brand name in Western fiction was well under way when he published Catlow in 1963.

The pace at which L'Amour wrote novels -- about three a year from the mid-50s on -- meant that the likelihood of some lesser work slipping in amongst the High Lonesomes and Hondos is pretty high, and Catlow is a good candidate for the list.

Abijah "Bijah" Catlow and Ben Cowan grew up together and were close friends, but as they grew older they saw each other less and less. Ben took to the badge, and while Bijah initially stayed to the right side of the spirit of the law if not its letter, he soon crossed all the way over. Ben did his best to avoid the areas where Bijah worked, not wanting to either kill or jail his friend, but eventually they cross paths when Ben is on an assignment to track down a payroll thief. Bijah escapes and heads to Mexico, where he intends to pull off a retirement-level robbery, and Ben trails him. While on opposite sides of the law, they find themselves on the same side as allies fighting for survival in the harsh Mexican desert.

Catlow is mostly a string of action set pieces loosely tied together with some musing on Ben's part about his "frenemy" and the philosophical implications of their relationship. L'Amour sets up characters and storylines that he never resolves later in the book, almost as though he forgot about them. The verbal sparring between Bijah and Ben is fun (L'Amour was a lot wittier than he's often given credit for) and the descriptions of the desert chase and what it means to try to live in such a wasteland have an elegant quality to them. But these parts are not well-mixed, nor are they prepared once thrown together.

The reader who expects Serious Literature from the pen of Louis L'Amour labors under a rather silly delusion about L'Amour's goal in storytelling. Though L'Amour was an intelligent and well-traveled man with a life almost as exciting as one of his characters (John Wayne was supposed to have called him "the most interesting man in the world," well before the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery started selling Dos Equis in the United States), he did not generally aim to write anything other than interesting and entertaining stories. His intelligence and native curiosity made the best of those stories something more than just a fireside yarn, giving them questions and commentary on matters of the heart or of life, but the list of such output is short. Catlow's problem is not that it isn't great literature -- it's that it's a poorly-told story. But when it comes to L'Amour that's also a short list, so the next one, whatever it is, is very likely to be a lot better.

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