Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wednesday's Western: Robert Flynn's ECHOES OF GLORY

Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory, was published in 2009 by TCU Press, Fort Worth, Texas, in trade paperback.  The cover illustration, credited to Vicki Whistler, is fine and fitting with the themes of the novel, but I wish that this had been published instead in a magnificently deluxe hardcover, in a larger, easier-to-read font, with a sturdy bulk suggesting its considerable substance.

I first heard of it when it won the 2010 Spur Award as best western novel of the previous year, and I counted it among the very best new novels out of hundreds I've read in the last few years.  It is a modern western set in Texas during the Reagan administration, part parable, part satire, part social commentary, and all together just a hell of a good novel.

Opening lines:  "Sheriff Timpson Smith lumbered through the dim, drafty Mills County Courthouse, his bootheels gunshots on the on the wooden floor.  The courthouse--a stone breadbox with a metal birdcage for a bell tower--was not built for grace or beauty but for the assertion of authority."

"Lumbered" is the right word, for the sheriff and the courthouse are built the same way in the imaginations of the population.  The people of the county trust their sheriff, a Korean War hero who had served in the legendary outfit recruited from their county, many of whom had been killed.  Sheriff Smith was a very reluctant war hero, always haunted by guilt about it and trying to compensate in the manner of some other kindred fictional Texas sheriffs--James Lee Burkes's Sheriff Holland of Rain Gods: A Novel and Cormac McCarthy's Sheriff Bell of No Country for Old Men.

Echoes of Glory is set in a mainstream Texas which is neither east nor west, " a philosophical rather than geographical distinction.  East Texas was closer to the plow than to the horse, closer to Gettysburg than to Little Big Horn, closer to plantation than to reservation.  West Texans favored wild over tame, believed that God's gifts to men were guns, dogs, women, and pick-ups evolved from horses; more inclined to drygulching than lynching, to fighting than reasoning.  Mills County was in the center whether you said branch or bayou, arroyo or gully."    

People trust Smith, their war hero sheriff, but they don’t trust politicians in general, such as Mayor Williams:

“Williams was mayor because his older brother, the one you could count on, died with Second Platoon and because voters didn’t like certainty in public office. Except for sheriff. There, certainty was important and if the sheriff said someone was guilty they probably were or they wouldn’t have been arrested.  Trials were for show like weddings for couples who had been living together for years.”
As the story opens, the trusted sheriff is about to retire and will most likely be succeeded by his most macho deputy.  The deputy is dispatched to quell a dispute between neighbors and shoots and kills a man, who brandished a gun but was about to surrender.  This incident sets the story in motion.

For the man shot was an old "war hero" too, from the same outfit as the sheriff, and he was also one of the county's Mills family, legendary in Texas history and for whom the country had been named.

“The Mills family had an outdated code of honor that made them seem combative. They required an honesty that some found intimidating. Quick to laugh, they were fierce when threatened, and sensitivity to menace had passed from father to child. The Mills required a lot of space.”

The small incident gathers lies and legends in parallel with the larger events of history, the Korean War incident and the Battle of the Alamo itself.  The small distortions of legend universally echo the larger ones.  The author evinces a fine grasp of human nature, and his wordplay and humor are subtle and often take you by surprise.

The sheriff "had believed in God, believed in America; they were almost synonymous," but he finds now that there is a difference between the county's poor old spiritual church and its modern monied church endorsing capitalism:

". . .poor uneducated Bible punchers preaching a stern God who expected his followers to work hard, to act with mercy and humility, and to expect nothing from this world.  Not power, not riches, least of all justice.  'The Lord will repay," they proclaimed.  The frontier had passed and with it those inclined to wait on the Lord.  Folks gravitated to churches like Pastor Murphy's Solid Rock Church where a benevolent God required only a little earnest money before pouring out his blessings on his chosen.  God repaid donors to Murphy's church and school tenfold tenfold what they had given, dollars to those who needed dollars, dollars for days for those who needed days.   'That's a better deal,' folks agreed, even in Mills County where God previously repaid good deed and charity in the hereafter."
The pastor of the poor church "never asked why bad things happened to good people; salvation was not a rabbit's foot and he didn't need the threat of everlasting punishment to believe.  Why good people did bad things to others in the name of goodness was something he pondered every day."

The novel is set during the 1980s, some thirty years ago, but even then, people "loved rugged individualism in books or on the screen," but not in real life "where there was less of it every year.  Mom and pop stores had disappeared" and everything was owned by corporations, and neither corporations nor elected officials were accountable.

Despite winning the Spur Award, this novel elsewhere seems to have flown under the radar as few people placed it on their year-end best lists, neither last year or the year before.  Well, it was on mine.

The author's website is at this link.  I haven't yet read any of his other novels except for North to Yesterday (Texas Tradition Series), which is a great trail drive novel, a western parable featuring father/son bonding.  I'll review it in this space one day soon.  

No comments:

Post a Comment