Sunday, December 16, 2012

Western Thought

I like Westerns.

I don’t know anything about the genre, but I like it. Something about it really appeals to me. I consider John Wayne to be the ultimate model of manliness. If one of his movies is on TV, I’ll watch it. I count The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Magnificent Seven among my favourite films. I’ve read at least one book by Zane Grey, Karl May, and Louis L’Amour. You have now exhausted all my knowledge about Western history.

But that’s hardly an excuse, is it? I’ve taken many professionals to task for their ignorance about detective fiction history, but I’m not much different when it comes to Westerns. When they come up in conversation, I’m forced to admit that I like them before staring at my feet and shuffling around awkwardly for the rest of the conversation. I simply know nothing about ‘em. And so I’ve decided to rectify that mistake. Every once in a while I will read and review a Western purely for the pleasure of reading and reviewing one. I won’t expect a mystery and won’t review it with the same criteria I use for mysteries. (All those opposed may use the provided space-time continuum to skip ahead to my next review.) And so without further ado, I give you Shane by Jack Schaefer.

This is the story of Bob Starrett, who narrates the events for us. One day, a mysterious stranger comes riding to town out of nowhere, and Bob’s dad, Joe Starrett, invites the stranger to stay. “Call me Shane,” the man says, and from that moment on he is known as Shane. He gets to bond with the Starretts and they form a tight little family. But their happiness is shattered by the greed of a neighbouring rancher, Luke Fletcher, who is determined to get as much land as he can, attempting to scare and humiliate people off their land. When those tactics don’t work, he turns to more… shall we say… direct methods.

We never find out Shane’s backstory, but the way he handles a gun, we can just tell he has a violent past of some sort— although he tells the Starretts early on that he’s not running away from anything. The Starretts realize that Shane is a dangerous man, but not to them. He protects them, he helps fight off Fletcher, and he becomes a role model for young Bob. A major facet of this character is revealed at the book’s conclusion after a classic showdown with guns, but because that would reveal major spoilers I will stay away from that kind of analysis.

Shane was the first novel by Jack Schaefer and was recommended to me by several people, including author Bill Pronzini (who wrote Sixgun in Cheek, an affectionate guide to the very worst of Western fiction—what Pronzini terms the “alternative classics”). I can see why. This novel is, quite simply amazing. It has reminded me of the pure joy of reading for the sake of entertainment. This was a book I enjoyed from the first page to the last. It’s a story on a relatively small scale – no huge train robberies or anything like that – but the way it is written is just incredible. Schaefer’s prose is excellent – he conveys the character of Bob Starrett very well. I could believe that this is something a man would write while reflecting on the events of his childhood. There’s a note of naiveté from young Bob’s reactions at the time, and a note of world-weariness from the older Bob who is writing all this down. He makes for a fascinating protagonist, and indeed the whole thing is rather like a coming-of-age story.

Shane is a terrific character. He’s a shady fellow; we don’t know a thing about his past except for what he chooses to tell us. He doesn’t carry a gun around with him, but he owns a beautiful gun and keeps it hidden. Yet even without a gun, we can feel that Shane is dangerous. It isn’t just that he’s good with a gun—the gun becomes an extension of him, and he doesn’t need a gun to be menacing. At one point, he confronts a gun-crazy madman and lashes out at the man… even though the other man is armed and Shane has nothing to defend himself with. And yet this man is safe, at least for the Starrett family. And there’s a fascinating angle between Shane and Marian—aka Mrs. Starrett. They are attracted to each other but it never escalates into a full-blown affair.

What more can I say? The writing is simply superb. It gives you atmosphere, local colour, character development, and it doesn’t uselessly pad out the book. It’s a short book, but ever so sweet. It is a triumph in every way. Jack Schaefer constructs a brilliant coming-of-age story with real complexity to it. But it is also a joy to read. Every page sparkled with the clarity of its writing, and it has reminded me that I don’t read books to find out how depraved society is or to be lectured on the world’s evil ways. I read books to enjoy myself… and brother, did I ever enjoy myself reading this one! Shane is a must-read for anyone who enjoys Westerns. It is a masterpiece.


  1. Sounds great Patrick and look forward to seeing where this takes you. I've always wanted o ttry Elmore Leonard's early excursions into the genre before he switched to crime. Like you I have read very few western novels despite loving movies in genre - thus, I've only ever seen the absolutely terrific movie version iof SHANE starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance. Glad to gear the book is so good - cheers mate.

  2. I read a really good book a few years back by Elmer Kelton called The Time It Never Rained. And then I read his autobiography Sandhills Boy which I enjoyed a lot. I keep meaning to read more by him.
    I'll be reading your reviews because I've found myself thinking lately that I'd like to read more by EK, and more Westerns in general. I heard part of a Louis L'Amour story on Sirius Book Radio, and was surprised to find how riveted I was. :<)