Monday, November 18, 2013

More Western Thought

Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Kubla Khan

Last year, when I reviewed Shane by Jack Schaefer, I admitted that I did not know much about Westerns and that I intended to rectify the mistake. Well... it's taken me a while to get around to it. I have so many books lying unread on my shelves... But because of my blog, I tend to emphasize crime and detective fiction. As a result, I have plenty of books in other genres lying unread and which I will probably never read if I follow my current reading patterns. So I've decided to rebel. For the next little bit -- maybe one week, maybe two, maybe a month... who knows? It depends how much I enjoy myself... - I've decided to take a small hiatus from mysteries and to focus on other genres. (There might be one or two mystery reviews, but these would be out of my backlog.) And to kick this break off, today I’d like to talk about another Western that was recommended to me by Bill Pronzini: The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout.

The scene of the crime has temporarily been taken over by other genres. All those who object may use the provided space-time continuum to proceed to the next crime fiction review.

Western fans might recognize the title as the title of John Wayne’s final movie, and for good reason: that movie was adapted from the book by the author’s own son, Miles Hood Swarthout. The film co-starred such legendary actors as Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Stewart, and it included other high-profile names: Ron Howard, Scatman Crothers, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, and John Carradine all come to mind. I consider the movie to be one of the finest Westerns ever made, a poignant valentine to the Western and the type of iconic hero John Wayne might have played. (Indeed, the movie began with a unique sequence, in which a series of clips from Wayne’s glory days in film were used to show his character’s glory days.)

So Glendon Swarthout had a tough act to follow, even though his novel came before the film. I don’t know much about Westerns – honestly, when I think of vintage Westerns I think of the books in the section next to the vintage mystery/thriller section in my favourite used bookstore. Based on my brief perusal of those books, they seem rather similar in content and style, in a derivative pulp-fiction kind of way. But I’m not qualified to comment – I’m as ignorant on the subject as the average mystery writer today is ignorant of the Golden Age of Mysteries. This is simply my impression. So imagine my delight when I discovered that The Shootist was just as good a book as it was a movie – in fact, it might be even better.

John Bernard (J. B.) Books is the titular “shootist” (a term that was once the popular word for a gunman). He comes all the way from Creede, Colorado to El Paso, looking for a doctor. Specifically, he is looking for Dr. Charles Hostetler, who once saved his life when he was shot in the belly. As a consequence, Hostetler is the only medical man Books will trust. Books complains about severe pain in his crotch. After an examination, Hostetler delivers his diagnosis: Books has a carcinoma of the prostate: cancer. He can’t expect to live much longer, and his eventual death is going to be slow and excruciatingly painful. At Books’ request, Hostetler delivers the harsh truth about the kind of death he can expect:

Hostetler pursed his lips. "You will waste away. The process will be slow at first, then rapid."
"Waste away?"
"Loss of flesh. Known as `cachexia.' bones of the face become prominent. The skin takes on a grayish cast. You will be a pretty awful sight. No one will dare tell you, but you will. Pretty awful."
"What else?"
"There will be increasing severity of pain. In the lumbar spine, in the hips and groin."
"What else?"
"Must we go on?"
"Your water will shut off progressively. The bladder will swell because you can't unload it. You will gradually become uremic. Poisoned by your own waste products, due to a failure of the kidneys. By this time the agony will be unbearable, and no drug will moderate it. Hopefully, you will become comatose. Until you do, you will scream."
"Jesus Christ."
Charles Hostetler picked up his bag, walked to the door. His look for the first time was severe, almost angry. "I regret you forced me to be specific, Mr. Books. If you need me, telephone. Good day, sir."

And thus, J. B. Books gets ready for the hardest battle of his life, a battle he is guaranteed to lose. He has gained a reputation as an assassin, and he’s never backed down from a fight. If these are to be his last few weeks on earth, he is going to go out like a man.

But there are other things to consider. He takes up lodgings with Bond Rogers, a widow with one son, Gillom. There is reason to worry about Gillom, who’s been keeping bad company of late. Gillom looks up to and respects J. B. Books, however, and Books decides that he will teach Gillom what it takes to be a real man. At one point, he outlines his moral code to the youngster:

"Everybody has laws he lives by, I expect. I have mine as well."
"What laws?"
Bond Rogers was dismayed. Yet she waited, evidently as curious as her son.
"I will not be laid a hand on. I will not be wronged. I will not stand for an insult. I don't do these things to others. I require the same from them."

The Shootist is a poignant novel which chronicles the last days on earth of J. B. Books, and how he slowly gets ready for his own death. Reporters come to him eager for his life story, wanting to examine the psychology of a murderer. The undertaker comes by to see about Books’ final arrangements. Other local “tough guys” hear that the great assassin is on his deathbed and decide it’d be a fine feather in one’s cap to kill the infamous J. B. Books.

One of the novel’s most disturbing features is the pain felt by Books, and not just the physical pain. Throughout the novel he prepares himself for his inevitable death. Everything he owns is slowly stripped away, piece by piece. People show up to his bedside in order to try to take advantage of him and profit from his death in some way. He even reunites with a woman he once loved, and that scene is one of the novel’s most poignant and tragic moments. Through his interactions with these people, the author is interrogating the whole idea of the Western hero, with Books representing the last of the gunmen, those John Wayne-like characters. It’s fascinating stuff.

Books’ physical pain is important as well, and it mirrors his emotional turmoil. He gets a bottle of laudanum from Doc Hostetler, who warns him that its effects will decrease over time. Slowly, the laudanum gets less and less effective. Books at first only uses it to sleep through the night… but then comes the first night where he wakes up in pain and has to take a second dose… and then comes the first day where he can’t get through the afternoon without a dose… and on and on it goes, the pain mercilessly increasing. It makes for riveting reading.

Throughout the novel, the author paints a fascinating and complex portrait of Books, Bond Rogers, and her son Gillom. These three are changed forever by the experience they share in this novel. There are elements of tragedy to this all, and Books’ journey in particular is expressed by a piece of poetry — a fragment of Kubla Khan — which Doc Hostetler shares with Books in an attempt to make conversation. These four lines of poetry keep showing up throughout the novel, and although the poem’s initial appearance is cryptic, its purpose becomes very clear by the novel’s end.

Overall, The Shootist is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone who enjoys Westerns. Like the best genre fiction, it uses the boundaries to craft a quality piece of fiction. The result is tragic, poignant, and beautiful. The prose, the characters, hell, even the story on its own… all of them are terrific. This is a book that comes highly recommended – it must be experienced to be understood.


  1. Another great Swarthout book is The Homesman (soon to be a motion picture).

    1. How delightful to hear that the author's work is still being adapted today! And it sounds like a dream cast as well! Thanks so much for this tip!

  2. Really enjoyed the beginning of this detour Patrick. I have only seen the film, which I like a great deal, but this sounds much tougher, perhaps unsurprisingly. I'll see about getting a copy though, it sounds really impressive.

    1. Well, Sergio, there's one scene in the book which was dropped from the movie at the insistence of Jimmy Stewart, a devout Catholic. It involves a preacher who shows up at Books' bedside and urges him to repent and denounce his life's sins. Furious, Books delivers a verbal lashing until the man leaves. Basically, the preacher was just another one of the leeches trying to take advantage of Books, this one trying to earn some prestige by converting such an infamous killer as part of his flock. I didn't expect to see something like this (as the movie generally sticks close to the book), so it was an incredible "discovery", so to speak.

      I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. It certainly helps me to see the movie in a different light -- in a good way, of course!

  3. Incidentally, if anybody has any suggestions for me to tackle during this mystery hiatus, I'd be glad to give them a look. The emphasis on crime/mystery in my reading has left me virtually clueless on other genres like sci-fi or horror or fantasy. The only thing I can really tell you about horror, for instance, is that Stephen King writes very, very long books.

    I hope everyone enjoys this next little bit on my blog. I like to challenge myself and to keep pushing at my literary "comfort zone".

  4. takes an historical look but does include some later and contemporary writers.
    Three books by Oakley Hall: Warlock, the Bad Lands, Apaches
    A. B. Guthrie- who wrote the script for Shane- wrote some fine novels, notably The Big Sky & The Way West.
    Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian- like a collaboration between Herman Melville & Sam Peckinpah.

    1. Roger, thanks so much for the link. That's exactly the kind of site I wanted to read when it comes to Westerns! (And I really, really like the historical perspective -- it helps me learn more about the genre as a whole.)

      Actually, A. B. Guthrie is on the list for authors I want to cover in the next little while. I hadn't heard of Hall or McCarthy until you brought them up. I'll look into them.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  5. If you fancy a SF mystery hybrid, look no further than THE DEMOLISHED MAN by Alfred Bester as it's a real classic! Have you tried King's MISERY or DOLORES CLAIBORNE? These are suspense novels without supernatural elements (they also made terrific movies though in the case of the latter the novel was altered greatly, though sympathetically).

    1. Sergio, as it happens I have THE DEMOLISHED MAN on my Kindle, looking at me ominously...

      Oooh, really good King recommendations. I have heard of MISERY but never read the book, and that sounds like a brilliant premise. I might just check it out in this next little bit. Thanks for the tip!

    2. I think the movie version of MISERY vastly improves upon the book which is a gorefest. Caveat lector. The business with the lawnmower? Over the top and unnecessary.

      Here are my suggestions for books (easy to find, too!) that you might like outside of the crime fiction world.

      Western: FORTY LASHES LESS ONE and HOMBRE both by Elmore Leonard
      Science Fiction: FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID by Philip K Dick
      Weird Fiction: Anything by John Blackburn. BROKEN BOY and BURY HIM DARKLY are excellent
      Lost Race: the "Jimgrim" novels by Talbot Mundy, especially THE DEVIL' S GUARD and THE NINE UNKNOWN and THE STARKENDEN QUEST by Gilbert Collins (yes, I have to plug my own imprint)
      Supernatural: the books by Jack Mann, all available form Ramble House I like MAKER OF SHADOWS and NIGHTMARE FARM the best.
      Fantasy: NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman, or anything else the man wrote

      Hope you discover some new and exciting writers as you travel away from the "safety zone" of At the Scene of the Crime.

    3. John, some interesting suggestions here. And thank you for the warning on MISERY. I prefer less gore as a general rule, but I must admit the plot idea for MISERY has me absolutely fascinated. I might at the very least see the movie.

      Have you by any chance read THE RUNNING MAN? I love the movie but never read King's story... but it strikes me like the kind of thing I might enjoy reading.

      I looked up John Blackburn, and my eye got caught by another book altogether, THE FLAME AND THE WIND. According to Wikipedia it's "an unusual historical novel set in Roman times, in which a nephew of Pontius Pilate tries to discover the facts about the crucifixion of Jesus." That sounds like it might be pretty awesome, but it came just a couple of years after "The Passover Plot", so I have no idea if those claims were taken seriously or not. ("The Passover Plot" always struck me as a rejected idea for a political thriller.)

      Actually, now that I think about it, I still haven't read any Thomas Carnacki stories! Or Dr. Silence. And it's been a while since we did that crossover review...

      Thanks for all your suggestions, John. They've been most intriguing.