Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE GENUINE ARTICLE by A. B. Guthrie, jr.

Long before he wrote The Genuine Article, A. B. Guthrie, jr. had already won the Pulitzer Prize.  His novel, The Big Sky, is a romping epic, sort of an early western narrative written with Mark Twain exuberance, unpredictable but in step with the author's vision of love and loss, of Man eventually killing that which he loves--to paraphrase what the author said of it himself.

Guthrie, then in his 49th year, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for his next novel, The Way West, which revealed less of his muse but more of the conscious craftsmanship of an authentic stylist.

His reputation made, Hollywood came calling, and he wrote, among other things, the movie adaptation of the landmark western, Shane. Howard Hawks, who had made the movie of The Big Sky, recommended him for the job. Success was built upon success, more novels and scripts followed, and Guthrie made friends wherever he went.

In 1965, when Guthrie was 64 years old, he published a lively book of memoirs, The Blue Hen's Chick: A Life In Context, and more or less said good-bye to his readers.  The last chapter was devoted to expressing his love for the natural and for his Montana home.  Reading this now, you wouldn't think that the author would go on to live another quarter of a century, that he would reinvent himself yet again, acquire a young wife and family, and then eventually write a series of cross-genre western/mysteries--but that's what he did.

You don't have to know anything about the author or his work to enjoy his mysteries, but it enhances your reading pleasure if you do.  Back in 1977, when this was first published, there were typical disclaimers in the front of most novels designed by lawyers to protect publishers from litigation.  The one here simply says, "If anyone wants to find a resemblance between himself and any of my characters, let him."

The protagonist,  deputy Jason Beard, a seeker, observes and tells us the tale in the first person.   Guthrie modeled the protagonist on his younger self, and the deputy's parents on his own parents.  The sheriff, Chick Charleston, is in part the author's brother, Chick Guthrie, perhaps with a dash of Jake Vinocur thrown in.  The mystery is a small town pastoral mystery with western musings and references, but it is also shot through with the ideas to be found in all of Guthrie's literary classics.  For instance:

Guthrie distrusted religions and true believers in the Eric Hoffer sense.  He thought that organized religions were mostly salesmanship and that they should be taxed like any other commercial enterprise.  Yet he respected the truly spiritual, such as the courageous and penniless preacher whose historical diary became the basis of Guthrie's novel, The Way West.   

Guthrie's attitudes concerning Jews, blacks, and Native Americans changed as he grew progressively more aware, and his books reflected that.  

In The Genuine Article, Deputy Jason Beard says one night that his father, "a native Hoosier," read Booth Tarkington, while he himself read Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  Meanwhile, the sheriff reads historical accounts of the west, all of them named and genuine, looking for a clue which will solve the mystery at hand.  Clues are given, yet I did not see the solution until it was revealed in the final pages of the novel.

The western pastoral mystery, hard to find back in the 1970s, is well represented today: The Edge of the Crazies by Jamie Harrison, Death and the Good Life by Guthrie's good friend, Richard Hugo, the many novels of C. J. Box and Craig Johnson.  Many others spring to mind now, too many to list here.  The mystery/western novels of A. B. Guthrie hold their own with them too.

Listen to Guthrie, writing of Montana in the early 1960s:

"For a long time the state's two corporate giants, Anaconda and the Montana Power Company, virtually ruled the state.  For reinforcements they linked to the cow counties east of the Continental Divide, where a belief in individuality and a man's rights extended to and made personal the impersonality of corporations.'

"But there grew up the Farmers' Union, a formidable organization devoted to price supports, public power, cooperative endeavor and, in league with labor, to assaults on the companies and the capture of the Democratic party.  For both sides economics comes ahead of party allegiance.'

"Two more nearly direct opposites could hardly be found, but there's the choice.  The man of independent mind steers a lonely course between an American Legion mentality and that of the maddened man with the hoe and the handout.  If he sides on occasion with the companies, he wears a copper collar; if on occasion he sides with the opposition, they want the F.B.I. to inquire into his loyalty.'

"...and a sort of anti-intellectual vigilantism, an inhospitality to deviation, both in and beyond politics and economics, does exist.  Difference all too often suspect and unwelcome.'

"Having gone so far, I back up.  In a state like Montana, where population is small and space great, human affairs are immediate and personal.  Men are known for their sense of responsibility or their lack of it, and appraisals are easy as compared with the larger and harder assessments of faceless masses and the problems that masses present.  The flashlight of Montana has a flashlight's narrow beam, picking out forms from the formless dark.  Judgments vary with environment.  And perhaps intellectual curiosity is proportionally as great here as elsewhere, but made to seem small because men are few."

And what is the real problem?

"Lives without context,' Jake Vinocur once said.  He was a professor from Montana and a Jew from somewhere, possibly a ghetto where, for all I knew, lives could claim context.'

"We sat on the grass at my mountain home, under close stars, and around and away were the lights and shadows of a Montana night.  It was an hour of no wind.  Even the nearby aspens stood unworried, asleep without feet.  On some far hill a coyote sang deepening silence.  And it seemed to me that Jake had put into three words all we had spoken.'

"This time was good, I thought, this time of silence and seeing, this rare time of felt union with the universe, these minutes escaped from a clock.  Ahead and behind, first and last, to come and have come and gone--what were they?  The past and the future and now, where wasn't now now, because it slid back in the thought of it, under eternal stars that might be under death sentences, too.  Time was timeless and, by logic, then nothing, the great nothing that was the everything that was nothing.'

"Minutes, days, months, years, centuries--they were no more than names, human inventions to mark the turn of a leaf and the swing of far suns.  In timelessness existed the dead and the quick and the unborn, all in context that Jake may or may not have meant to suggest."

That's from The Blue Hen's Chick.

And Guthrie concluded that chapter telling about the time his cabin was burglarized and his prize collection of historical firearms stolen.  He rode with the sheriff to the nearby Indian town in search of his property, since everyone always blamed either kids or "the breeds" for such transgressions without other evidence.  Guthrie alluded to this episode in The Genuine Article later but he wrote it then with even more awareness and empathy.

And nicely done.  A. B. Guthrie, jr., was the genuine article.

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