Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday's Book Covers

Among the sites I frequently visit is Killer Covers, (link), which is operated by the same proprietor as my favorite crime novel site, The Rap Sheet (link).

In the brief time that I've been blogging about books here, several people have emailed me with questions about the covers and dustjackets I have scanned.  A while back I excerpted the opening to Glendon Swarthout's Skeletons and posted a scan of the first edition dustjacket.  Someone asked me if I also had a copy of the 1981 Pocket Books edition.  I do.  The cover illustration isn't credited, but it is nicely done.  I especially like the colt on the handle.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Keith Heller's MAN'S STORM

Stormy weather, the earworm of the season.  See Wikipedia (link) for some fine annotations; the story of the song also makes a great chapter in Will Friedwald's book, Stardust Melodies.

Nearly every day this week we saw the press stick a microphone in the face of despair, in front of people whose houses had been destroyed, whose possessions had been scattered to the winds.  Some of them spoke sadly about how much they've lost, about how everything they had is gone.

The earworm lingers.  Life is bare.  Gloom and misery everywhere.  Stormy weather.

But then a lot of them say, "We all got out alive and that's what's important."  And we know that's the right attitude to have.  Which brings me to this Friday's Forgotten Book:

Keith Heller's Man's Storm  (1985) is an historical mystery set in London in 1703.  The author draws from Daniel Defoe's descriptions of the storm in epigraphs preceding each chapter, and Defoe is a supporting character himself.  The protagonist, George Man, is the watch, an everyman, pursuing his duties in spite of the storm, driven by  a timeless work ethic and his own sense of decency.

The book is both a mystery and a period piece.  We ask ourselves not only who did the crime, but just how much worse could this historical storm get?  And does the murder still matter when so much death and destruction are everywhere?

But the reader also wonders about the protagonist and the people he meets, about their passions and about how they handle loss.  The epigraph at the front of the novel is a quote from Defoe's contemporary, Richard Steele, speaking of emotional storms:

"One would think the hectoring, the storming, the sullen, and all the different species and subordinations of the angry should be cured by knowing they live only as pardoned men, and how pityful is the condition of being only suffered?"

Which reminds me again of the quote from Cormac McCarthy's The Road:  "Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it."  Which resonates to a quote from Marcus Aurielius, saying that a man ought to live his life as if borrowed, and that he ought to be prepared at any time to give it back, saying--here, I thank you for this life which I have had in my possession.

Why can't we always be thankful like that, why can't we maintain a constant attitude of gratitude?  Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky, Lena Horne says in her opening line.

She doesn't seem to know either.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The Best Western Novels Not Nominated, continued....

Last week, I left off with 1969, the year of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, which was something of a turning point for the western as it had previously been known in publishing circles.  Conventional westerns of the 1950s, with the simplicity of their white hat/black hat duality, were going out of fashion even among the ardent followers of the genre.  Novels once on the cutting edge became mainstream.  Movies were based on novels which in turn affected the writing of new novels.

The Spur Awards, which had previously ignored more sophisticated westerns such as The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, grudgingly now began to reflect this change and so the literary quality of Spur winners was on the rise.  The best traditional western authors were happy to change, helping to expand the definition of "western novel."  Publishers of conventional westerns saw their sales fall.

In 1970, Clifton Adams won the Spur Award again for the second year in a row with The Last Days of Wolf Garnett, a conventional vengeance western.  Not nominated was Elmore Leonard's excellent western, Valdez Is Coming, which was made into a very fine film the following year.  Not nominated was Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way, the first in a long series of good ones.

In 1971, the winning western novel was Elmer Kelton's The Day The Cowboys Quit, which I reviewed here (link) some time ago.  This was Kelton's best novel and a break from the Kelton's previous novels and the general standard of Western Novel winners of the past.  Based upon historical events and character-driven, it also dealt with ideas.

Not nominated was Dee Brown's non-fiction Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, first published in January, it went through 13 reprintings by October, 1971, and was selected by bookclubs across the land, a sign of the social consciousness of the times.

In 1972, the Spur Award went to Lewis B. Patten for A Killing In Kiowa, a reactionary tribute to the old guard (or perhaps given as something of a lifetime achievement award).  Patten was long a hacker of standard and sometimes pulpy westerns, turning out over 90 books under several names.  At least this one was a passable adult western.  To judge by the others I've seen, he wrote mostly YA novels or simple-minded variations of cliched revenge tales, "shit-kicking" action yarns with stock characters.  The best thing that you can say about them is that they were loyal to the old conventions.  Some of his tales, such as Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders (1957), will last long as artifacts.

Western movies led western books in innovations that year with Joe Kidd, Jeremiah Johnson, and Ulzana's Raidamong many others.  The naturalism of Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man brought to film was refreshing, and there was an interesting true story behind Elmore Leonard's Joe Kidd.  

In 1973, Elmer Kelton won again with The Time It Never Rained, another character-driven novel involving ranch economics and the independent western attitude vs. bureaucratic policies.  Ideas and realized characters were becoming more important than happy endings--or so it seemed.   Among those not nominated was Clair Huffaker's epic,  The Cowboy and the Cossack, which I reviewed here (link) a while back.  Also not nominated that year was Tony Hillerman's cross-genre western/mystery, Dance Hall of the Dead, but his day would come.

(to be continued....)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Michael Bishop's BRITTLE INNINGS

This last week, British journalist Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats, appeared on The Colbert Report promoting his new book, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry.  Ronson says that psychopaths that become serial killers are only a fraction of the psychopaths in the main population, that the other psychopaths often become CEOs and religious leaders causing damage to society and the general economy.

Q. What is your thumbnail definition of a psychopath?

A. I think it is no remorse and a total lack of empathy, which are the most important things. Everything follows from that. If you are a violent person, it frees you up to be violent. It frees you up to be manipulative. It frees you up to win the stampede to the top. Psychopaths become CEOs and religious leaders. Their brain dysfunction is the brain dysfunction that rules the world.

I thought about that as I reread Michael Bishop's Brittle Innings last night.  This little known gem defies classification.  It is many things: a crime-and-revenge novel, a baseball novel, a buddy novel, a coming-of-age novel, a science-fiction novel, and a beautifully written period piece of the segregated south during World War II.  It is also a rumination on the difference between monsters and humans, on how psychopaths can look human even while gentle humans may look monstrous.

Brittle Innings begins seriously, it turns comic, then tragic, but it is ultimately uplifting.  I finished it again stunned, amazed at the imagination it took to write such a book.  It is the kind of book that validates the reader's own humanism, that makes you glad that there are others out there who see these things, who feel this way.

I suggest you read Brittle Innings without reading any other reviews of it.  The less you know ahead of time, the better.  But if you demand to know more before taking it on, then you might as well read the spoiler topping my list at Amazon at this link.

This is the kind of novel that reads well even if you know the plot twists the lie ahead.  The beauty is in the telling.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday's Western: The Spur Awards, The Best Western Novels, Year By Year

The Spur Awards, presented by the Western Writers of America, can be seen at this link.

I have not yet read this year's winners.  I hadn't heard of last year's winners before the Spur Awards were announced, yet Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory and Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star were both read later and found to be excellent.  Echoes of Glory is not to be missed.

The categories of the Spur Awards have changed over the years with the times.  Politics and contemporary events always have their effects on such things.  Arguments arose over the definition of a "western novel," prompting the creation of additional sub-categories.

I noticed that all three nominees of this year's Best Long Western Novel were women.  This year's winner, Lucia St. Clair Robson (Last Train From Cuernavaca), is a veteran of the Peace Corps and long a western novelist.  See her site at this link.

Over the years, the influence of women authors on the western novel has not been ignored.  Lucia Moore won the first Best Historical Western Award back in 1953, the first year the Spurs were given.

In later decades, the definition of "western novel" has expanded, and cross-genre novels have been considered.  The Best Long Western Novel Award of 2008 went to Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals, a western which is at the same time a literary novel, a mystery, and a coming-of-age story.  This year, Elmore Leonard's Justified was nominated for best western drama, even though it is set in contemporary eastern Kentucky.

I thought I might take the time to look at the best western novels never nominated for a Spur Award.  Let's start in 1953, when the winner was Lawman by Wayne D. Overholser under one of his pen names, Lee Leighton.  But not nominated was Louis L'Amour's Hondo, his best novel by far and made into the John Wayne film.  Unfortunately, Louis L'Amour, having made a name for himself, was later given awards for some mediocre novels.

The winner in 1954 was The Violent Land by Wayne D. Overholser, making it two years in a row for this author of conventional westerns.  The best westerns published that year were not nominated--they include Fredrick Manfred's excellent Lord Grizzly, a novelization of the historical adventures of Hugh Glass; that now classic western, The Searchers, by Alan LeMay, later adapted into the John Huston film; and yet another greatly influentional work, Dorothy M. Johnson's Indian Country, from which came A Man Called Horse and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

It was a good year for westerns.
In 1956, the winner was High Gun by Leslie Ernenwein, a conventional western in keeping with the times.  Not nominated was Edward Abby's Brave Cowboy, later made into the excellent Burt Lancaster film.

In 1957, Elmore Kelton won his first Spur Award with Buffalo Wagons, far below the quality of his best novels as he himself would later say.  Not nominated was Donald Hamilton's best western novel, The Big Country, which was then made into a fine film starring Gregory Peck.

In 1958, Noel Loomis won with a fine western, Short Cut To Red River--not to be confused with Bordon Chase's Red River, upon which the 1948 John Wayne film is based.  Not nominated was Oakley Hall's Warlock, one of the finest western novels ever written.  It was made into a fine film, but you should read the novel.

In 1960, Will C. Brown's The Nameless Breed won, but the best western novel of the year wasn't nominated.  That novel, John Williams' Butcher's Crossing, experienced a well deserved surge of acclaim after being rediscovered and republished by the NYRB.  It too is one of the finest westerns of any year.

Westerns would also be influenced by the 1960 film, The Magnificent Seven which was based upon Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

The winner in 1961 was The Honyocker by Giles Lutz, which I haven't seen.  Not nominated was Elmore Leonard's classic western, Hombre, later made into a fine Paul Newman movie.  Also not nominated was Larry McMurtry's excellent Horseman, Pass By.

The winner in 1963 was Leigh Brackett's Follow The Free Wind.  I haven't read that one, but my favorite from that year is the un-nominated Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer, later made into the Lee Marvin movie.

The winner in 1964 was Benjamin Capps' fine trail drive novel, The Trail To Ogallala.  Not nominated for an award that year was Frank O'Rourke's excellent novel, A Mule For The Marquesa, later made into an outstanding film and retitled The Professionals, starring Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster.  Also not nominated was Thomas Berger's classic, Little Big Man.

The winner in 1965 was Benjamin Capps' fine western, Sam Chance, making it two years in a row for him.  Not nominated was Vardis Fisher's now classic Mountain Man, upon which the 1972 Robert Redford film was based.

The winner in 1966 was My Brother John by Herbert R. Purdum.  Not nominated and now my favorite western novel from that year was Paul St. Pierre's Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse.  

The winner in 1968 was Louis L'Amour's Down the Long Hills, but the book that should have been nominated was Charles Portis's True Grit.  The Coen Brothers movie of it won the Spur Award, in a tie, for Best Western Drama in 2011.

The winner in 1969 was Tragg's Choice by Clifton Adams, author of many fine conventional westerns.  Benjamin Capps won again for Best Historical Western, and Wayne D. Overhoulser  and Lewis Patten won again for Best Juvenile Fiction.  Repeat winners and good ole boys from the club, it seems.  Not that they weren't good at what they did.

But what made the year 1969 remarkable for westerns was the publication of The Wild Bunch.  Brian Fox did the novelization, but the movie script was written by Roy Sickner and Walon Green, and amended by Sam Peckinpah.

(to be continued. . .)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday's Quote: Paul St. Pierre On The Art of Story

"Art outlives us.

Storytelling, dancing, song, sculpture and painting are all essential parts of human existence, as I learned late.  For too much of my life I thought of them as merely frosting on life's cake.

Here, I confine my comments to the only art in which I can claim any expertise, the telling of stories.  Even that I once disdained and until quite late in life, after a few successes such as The Education of Phylistine and Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse, stories that remained in print and copyright longer than almost any other Canadian works in the last half of the twentieth century, I was still unsure as to whether they were worth anything and nagged by the suspicion that writing was no way for a grown man to earn a living.

Now I know otherwise.  Those two stories and perhaps a few others will outlive me by a generation or more.  Information about whether my mortgage was paid off, the size of my credit card bills and such stuff is less than a soup made from the shadow of the wing of a passing dove.  The arts live longer than anything else.  Of them all, the telling of stories is one of the greatest. and those who do not do this for their grandchildren neglect both a joy and a duty.  Every generation needs stories told by those who went before.

I offer an example, a classic great story. I wish I had told it but the author was an unknown Lakota who died a century or so ago. Out of a commonplace observation that men and dogs have a special relationship, he created a story that lives on as a masterpiece. This is the translation:
In the beginning, men and the other animals were the same and could speak with one another.  But the Great Spirit became angry with man and decided to separate them.  He called them all together on the floor of the desert, the man on one side, all of the other animals on the other side, and with his thumbnail he made a mark in the sand between them.
The mark he made grew deeper.  It went right down to the centre of the earth.  It grew wider and wider, man standing on one side, all other other animals on the other side.
Just when it seemed that man was going to be alone forever the dog made a tremendous jump and took his place beside the man.
This is no old man prattling, this is an inspired professional teller of stories.  All he has to offer is commonplace, that men and dogs are close.  There is nothing more, and everybody already knows it.  He could have told it all in one or two sentences:  "The Great Spirit decided to separate man from the other animals but the dog stayed with man."  But that's a narrative, not a story.

The difference is fundamental.  Narratives are valuable, we use them all the time:  they are an account, true or fictional, of a series of events.  It is the twist of the narrative that creates a story that excites our imagination, touches our heart and is remembered and retold during the dark nights of winter.

Observe this Lakota professional plying his trade.  First, he obtains what every storyteller needs, the willing suspension of disbelief.  Did you stop reading because some being cut the planet in half with his thumbnail?  The original author could have made the whole matter too easy and uneventful.  The dog could have simply stepped across the line with no risk when it was only a centimetre wide.  Instead he made the dog wait until the gap was almost unbridgeable.

But there is a factor more important than all the preceding.  It is the essence of the art of storytelling.  He made the audience take part in creating the story.  Any great storyteller  arouses questions he does not attempt to answer.  All who hear this story are left to write most of it themselves."

----from Paul St. Pierre's excellent book of essays, Old Enough To Know Better (2002)

In this essay, Paul St. Pierre continues to elaborate on just what it is that the listener must provide to complete this story.  This was aptly defined as "recalcitrance" by Austin Wright, who coined the literary sense of the word and used a novel to illustrate the concept in his brilliant study: Recalcitrance, Faulkner, and the Professors.

Eoin McManee, interviewed by Declan Burke at this link, says that a novel should be "an attempt to apprehend the transcendent."  I heartily agree.

"Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." --Hannah Arendt 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Eoin McNamee's RESURRECTION MAN

Eoin McNamee is just one among several fine established authors of emerald noir, but he has lately become my favorite of them all.  His books are all still little known gems in the United States.  With each successive book, he soars in my estimation.  Let me tell you why you should be reading him too.

I can remember back a few decades ago, when we all sat around complaining that no one was writing like Faulkner anymore.  Fiction was in a state of fluff.  The new books that publishers were churning out all seemed superficial, commercial, fads and flavors of the month.  No one seemed to be dealing with the major human issues anymore, and brilliant prose seemed largely a thing of the past.

Along came Cormac McCarthy.  For many years, he was a recluse, a writer's writer; his books had small printings and even remaindered copies were scarce.  Back in 1993, a small gathering of scholars and academic professionals formed a society to further study and promote his parables.  Like Faulkner, McCarthy dealt with the universals, the eternal cycles, the human condition with its naturalistic violence and almost constant war.  And he wrote beautifully, always with an eye for the fleeting transcendent, for the dim eternal light beyond this temporal vale of darkness, beyond the scope of formal language.

Then the world at large began to read his work, more so every year.  In a thread at the Cormac McCarthy Society site, I used to maintain a list of those authors who said that their own work was in some measure inspired by McCarthy, but after a few years the list grew so fast that I could no longer keep up.  McCarthy's name also seems to be invoked fairly often as some sort of comparable yardstick in the reviews of first-time authors, some of whom may never have even read McCarthy.

In any event, not many of the novels compared with Cormac McCarthy pan out as such, but fortunately some do.  Eoin McNamee's 1994 novel, Resurrection Man, is among the very best of them.  For openers, I love the dustjacket on my copy of the hardcover edition (scanned above), the complicit mixture of light and doppelganger shadow, with the subtitle "a novel" buttoned into the shadow in blood red.  The illustration fits the subject matter of the novel.

The beauty of the novel is the telling, the prose, in the point of view which sees its frail humans with so much insight and compassion.  There is humor here too, in the irony of complicity in the face of denial.  Some people may be put off by the raw descriptions, as with McCarthy's novels, but this is an anti-violent novel of violence, ultimately a cautionary tale which tells it like it is, naturalism in parable.

I'm not saying that you'll see any Cormac McCarthy in Resurrection Man yourself, but to this reader, at times, McNamee takes on a McCarthyesque point of view, a way of seeing:

"A steamshovel reared in solitary abandonment against the night sky.  Cross here.  By frograils and fishplates where engines cough like lions in the dark of the yard.  To a darker town, past lamps stoned blind, past smoking oblique shacks and china dogs and painted tires where dirty flowers grow.  Down pavings rent with ruin, the slow cataclysm of neglect, the wires that belly up pole to pole across the constellations hung with kitestring, with bolos composed of hobbled bottles or the toys of smaller children.  Encampment of the damned."

That's from Suttree, which I think of now again when reading Eoin McNamee:

"The Harland and Wolff cranes are visible from everywhere in the city.  Scaffolding abandoned from the beginnings of the world.  A helicopter moved across the city with a searchlight picking out threadbare taxi companies and shops shuttered as though in the aftermath of looting.  Each lit area noted for its history of riot, pogrom, act of reprisal.  The Brickfields.  Smithfield."

I wouldn't say that this cinematic point of view is quite optical democracy, but it does see all with a subtle sense of compassion, like the Oversoul in the prologue to Suttree.  Down these streets no soul shall walk save you.

Eoin McNamee also turned his novel into a screenplay for a movie starring James Nesbitt, Stuart Townsend, John Hannah, and Geraldine O'Rawe--no doubt one you've never seen.  Don't miss out on the experience of reading the book, but later you may want to see the movie too--it is very well done.  Splendid acting all the way around, a nice soundtrack of seventies tunes mixed with Vivaldi, and several scenes stand out.  There is considerable graphic violence, so be warned there.  The ending might have you and your wife arguing about what happened and what it all means.  And that's a good thing.

Please Stand By

My entry of Friday's Forgotten Book, Friday the Thirteenth Edition, has been delayed due to technical difficulties.  It is as if the dog chewed up our homework.  Please see the other fine entries at this link.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


First, a follow-up to last Wednesday's Western.  This week we watched the movie adaptation of Paul St. Pierre's Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse.  It is vastly inferior to the book, as I suspected it might be.

The movie is retitled Smith! but the protagonist, played by Glenn Ford, is a man who trusts the bureaucracy of the law, much different than the existential Smith of the novel.  In the book, Smith is a natural man, an everyman who sees how things are beyond the political correctness of the times.  In the movie, he urges Jimmy Littleboy to do "the right thing" and turn himself in.  Not so in the book.  The Smith of the book is a bit like Elmore Leonard's Hombre, naturally going his own way and letting others be free to do the same.

The movie turns motivations around and adds noisy melodrama to what is a simple, understated story.  The opening focus of the movie is a father/son relationship in keeping with the YA movies then shown on the Mickey Mouse Club.  Smith's quarter horse is changed into an appaloosa that Chief Dan George's character is breaking for the boy, probably to enhance the Nez Perce connection.  But it then loses all symbolic value in the movie, all sense of a McGuffin.

One of the beautiful things about the book is the relationship between Smith and his wife.  Much of the charming dialog between them was taken out for the movie and replaced with melodramatic fluff.  Glenn Ford could have played it right, but Nancy Olson was miscast as his wife all the way around.

Chief Dan George was a natural for the part of Antoine, and a sun-tanned Warren Oates plays the interpreter Walter Charlie beautifully.  I was surprised to see Jay Silverheels (famous for playing the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto), but he was appropriately cast here.

This movie is a pro-American Indian artifact of its time, issued a little more than a decade from the Eisenhower Administration's policy of seizing American Indian reservations under the ruse of "helping" Indians assimilate into the American mainstream.  Despite the treaties, American Indians were abruptly and systematically forced from the land and dumped into the ghettos of big cities.  The intense political lobbying of a few American Indian leaders, Osage Richard W. Freeman among them, finally got this policy reversed.

The ending of the movie is sugar-coated, in the way of such Disney movies of the time.  But the book is understated, comical, metaphorical, humanist, and well-worth seeking out.

Paul St. Pierre's more recent books have found their way here.  Now in his late eighties, the man is still a whangdoodle, blogging at Amazon on the Royal Wedding and the Ben Laden killing.  I don't always agree with him, but he is always a refreshing, independent  voice to be heard.

I've added him to my list of favorite Contrarians, Mavericks, and Writer's Writers--which includes Wendell Berry, Gene Logston, Cormac McCarthy, Stanley Bing, Lewis H. Lapham, Eric Hoffer, H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Chris Hedges, Owen Ulph, B. Traven, Terry Pratchett, Tom Robbins, Alfredo Vea, and several others.

Paul St. Pierre also makes my list of authors who are spiritual naturalists, always taking potshots at organized dogmatic religion while maintaining a spiritual core coupled with a sense of naturalism. I also added western author Win Blevins to the list after reading his surprising The Rock Child: A Novel Of A Journey.  I'll be reviewing it here soon.

I'm now just finishing up Paul St. Pierre's book of essays, Old Enough To Know Better, which has some very good things in it. I'll be quoting him at length first chance I get.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Sam Toperoff's CRAZY OVER HORSES

Psst, hey, tomorrow is Kentucky Derby Day!

Many forgotten gems are associated with horseracing and even a few are crime novels which involve the Kentucky Derby itself.  My selection today, Sam Toperoff's Crazy Over Horses, is probably the least known entry in the field.

This is a memoir, but it makes free with the facts and instead goes after the truth.  Not a crime novel, though you could say that this is a mystery of sorts, the suspense being in the protagonist's noir search for a system that will allow him to make an easy killing at the races.  It is episodic enough that each chapter can stand alone, but the narrative plot of the book leads the protagonist from grasping addiction to self-control, from a materialistic and controlling frame of mind to a letting go--toward a liberal and spiritual appreciation of horses and of life itself.

The prose is understated, and the inferences and nuances linger long after you have finished the book.  Younger readers might find it educational or at least a cautionary tale, while older readers might see more humor in it.  Ever wonder what the parallax view is?  The protagonist tells us:

"Unless you stand right on the finish line, you simply can't tell with the naked eye which horse has won in a tight finish.  A natural phenomenon called "parallax" makes it seem as though the outside horse is ahead if you're watching from a position up the stretch.  If you're standing beyond the finish line, it looks like the horse on the rail."

In the old days, sharpies and touts would position themselves in the stretch and make side bets with patrons about which horse had just won in a tight finish.  Just one of many cons routinely encountered at race tracks back in the sixties, when this book was first published.

And, if you've looking for horseracing crime novels, I also recommend Jon L. Breen's Listen for the Click and Triple Crown, Stephen Dobyn's Saratoga series (especially the later novels), William Murray's Tip On A Dead Crab and the rest of his series, and Robert Reeves' Doubting Thomas.   


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wednesday's Western: BREAKING SMITH'S QUARTER HORSE by Paul St. Pierre

A little known classic, you might say.  The first edition of Paul St. Pierre's Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse , published by the Ryerson Press, printed and bound in Canada, 1966, was written from his play after the Walt Disney movie appeared in 1965.

I have not yet seen the movie, but I can't help thinking that the book has to be far superior due to its gift of understated humor--something that would be hard to duplicate on film, despite the excellent cast of Glenn Ford, Chief Dan George (in his first movie, before Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales), Carol Olson, and Dean Jagger.

Paul St. Pierre continued the stories of the characters in Smith And Other Events, which deservedly won a Spur Award.  But if you have not yet read Breaking Smith's Quarter Horse, you are missing something extraordinary, not much of a horse story but an adult literary novel somehow lost over in the YA section of the library, an original and humorous humanist story which still rings true.

Monday, May 2, 2011


May is a green month, the emerald month, the month of spring growth, the month of becoming.  James Jones' novel, The Merry Month of May, is a timepiece set in the calendar events of May, 1968, a time of youthful exuberance and social change, with the politics of sex and violence played out against the student revolt in Paris, France during that tumultuous year.
It is a complicated novel, a novel of spiritual evolution, filled to the brim with lush literary and philosophical nuances that you might not grasp at first reading, unless you have also read Steven R. Carter's excellent study, James Jones: An American Literary Orientalist Master.   I discussed this a couple of months ago in a blog on the trinity in literature.

Last week novelist Bill Crider selected James Jones' A Touch of Danger for his Forgotten Book Friday review (link).  A fine review, but you should know that it too is structured in accord with James Jones' spiritual ideas of the transcendent.  The protagonist, Lobo, is a lone wolf, an animal man who, at age fifty, is struggling with his long-denied connections to the rest of humanity.

In the scene where Lobo meets the murderer, it is wolf meeting wolf, despite the civilized trappings which disguise them.  The clues are in the wording of the descriptions.

The first edition of A Touch of Danger provided a detailed map of the island on the frontispiece.  The epigraph is a quote of Achilles from Homer's Iliad, wishing that gall would vanish from men's minds.  Which is to say, ego.

Jones explained his philosophy to Carter.  He saw the spiritual evolution of man as going from animal man to mental man to spiritual man, with a diminishing of ego at each stage.  You can also think of this trinity as id-dominated, ego-dominated, and spiritually-dominated.  Or, as I detailed in an earlier blog, in numerous other ways.  These things are universals and can be seen in all of the author's many books including his justly famous war trilogy, From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle.

In his novels, Jones was more interested in the big issues, the human universals, than in the local politics of the day.  Frank McShane, in his excellent biography of Jones, says that he was rereading Joseph Conrad's The Nigger of the Narcissus during the writing of Whistle.  I suspect that Conrad's novel was also in part the inspiration for the narcissistic character of Samantha in The Merry Month of May.  It is clear that he was not a racist, yet he used her race as a symbol of the Other, as Conrad did originally.

I'd also like to recommend Kaylie Jones' Lies My Mother Never Told Me: A Memoir.  Long an accomplished author herself, in this book she discusses her memories of the literary figures which passed through her father's house.