Book Review: The Ruthless Range by Lewis Patten

“For the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one’s personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time.” ~ Ford Madox Ford

RuthlessRange1The distinction between literary and genre fictions (mysteries, westerns, fantasy, and sci.fi.) is largely an artificial one. Those who still insist on making anachronistic literary distinctions do it for the same reason that all snobs make such declarations, self-aggrandizing assholery.

The only distinctions that can legitimately be made in literature are between good writing and bad writing and good stories and bad stories. When a work of fiction takes hold of your imagination, when the language continually invites you to turn pages the writer has done his or her job. When the book haunts you and you can remember it years and years later, the writer has written a masterpiece.

Having said all that, and believing all that to be true, I nonetheless make the following self-consciously ironic statement: The Ruthless Range by Lewis B. Patten is fully and completely a genre-fiction western in both its execution and delivery. It is not great literature by any stretch of the definition, but I did enjoy it as I enjoy all Lewis Patten books.

Patten writes in the western noir style. His stories are not as bleak as H.A. DeRosso’s but they are also not as sunlit as L’Amour. His characters are haunted and hunted men. They are driven by fate and circumstances, they are broken and break others. Violence touches them and touches those they love.

In The Ruthless Range, a gunfighter longs to hang up his guns. But in every town he goes to there is someone who wants to prove that he is faster. Shot to hell and pursued into the mountains by a crooked posse the main character, Jase Mellor, is rescued and put back together by a rancher. When the rancher is murdered, Jase has to save the ranch from the many people who want to destroy the ranch and kill Mellor. At stake are the lives of his ex-wife who had been forced into a  life of prostitution and the life of the ranch widow who has become Mellor’s love interest.

In the story there is nothing new that is not in a hundred westerns. It is Patten’s style and the grim, relentless pacing that makes the book, makes any Patten western, worth the reading. Patten does not give his main character or his reader any chance to rest. Like Mellor we move with grim fatalism and no sleep from violence to violence, from defeat to defeat. The end result is a highly readable western with icons and cliches just edgy enough for us to sink our teeth into.

On Reviewing Poetry

yeats1-226x300Reviewing a volume of poetry is much different than reviewing some genre of prose work. It is so difficult that many literary publications have stopped doing poetry reviews all together. The difficulty is usually presented as four-fold.

First, to use mere prose to talk about poetry is an extremely difficult task. With few exceptions (Edward Hirsch) the best practitioners of this kind of cross-species translation are poets: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Donald Hall, Dana Gioia. To be fluent and articulate in two mutually exclusive kinds of language usage is as rare as a five-tool prospect in baseball.

Second, it is almost impossible to define your audience. How can you possibly write about poetry in a way that would make people who currently do not read poetry (outsiders) want to pick up the particular volume you are highlighting and at the same time talk meaningfully to those who already regularly read poetry (insiders).

Third, unless the reader of the review is a frequent and habitual poetry reader (and how many people truly are?) there is the very real problem of shared experience and language. Any novel reader knows what a reviewer is saying when he writes, “the characters are multi-dimensional and their quick-paced dialog moves the story well.”   But only a “poetry insider” understands when a reviewer says of a poem, “the Alexandrine lines fit the elegy forms the poet has chosen well.”

Fourth, and finally, there is in poetry that indescribable “personal” quality that makes objective standards difficult. Since a poet routinely creates and breaks his or her own rules and since so much of modern poetry is so “personal” in theme, criticism is seen as extremely difficult. I do not “like” this kind of poetry and hence it is bad. I “like” this other kind of poetry and so it is good.

While the first three difficulties are legitimate. The last one is not. Art has standards. If I were to compose a piece of music and Henryk Górecki composed a piece on the same theme and we compared them it would be objectively clear which piece was truly music. While it is admittedly more difficult in poetry, it is clear that what Seamus Heaney writes and what a 7th grader writes for language arts class are as different as oceans and mud puddles. We do not need to be shy about making the same kind of distinction in poetry as we do in music.

Book Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

The-Outlaw-Josey-Wales2-185x300In summer we often gravitate to “lighter” fare, summer blockbuster movies, quick-read novels. What is it about long days that make us want to shy away from heavy lifting?

The movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable westerns – great characters, memorable lines (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”), and great scenery.

In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood arrived as a true western star, in Josey Waleshe fully completes the work of art. In the spaghetti westerns the rough outline is there, but like the scenery of those films Eastwood as western star and the West as a place of grandeur and limitless vistas is greatly diminished, cramped and small, a European’s vision of the West and the western myth. Eastwood directedHigh Plains Drifter and Josey Wales so they are two of his first real Westerns. In the end, only an American can direct a true western, for the western hero, or western anti-hero, is the most American of all icons.

The movie The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a the book that was originally called something like Gone to Texas. The story of its author, if Wikipedia is to be believed,  is almost as interesting as the book itself and mirrors the story in many ways.

Forrest Carter (Asa Carter) like his fictional outlaw was apparently an unrepentant confederate. A Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace, Carter fought against integration and the Federal government for years. Finally like Josey Wales he fled to Texas and tried to put his past behind him, something he was for the most part able to do. The book now called The Outlaw Josey Wales was his first novel.

As a western novel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very satisfying. In story and tone the movie follows the book very closely. Most of the great lines from the movie come from the book, except the best line, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy” (here a screenwriter or Eastwood made a great decision).

In the movie, the female love interest is played by willowy and wimpy Sondra Locke. Carter’s love interest is more Spillanesque (for those not fluent in Mickey Spillane, read that statuesque), the picture is of a dreamy Velma. For Carter, one theme stressed in the book is of men and women big enough for Texas, big enough to live in the West. The pale and sickly looking Locke would be only big and strong enough for a cramped and tiny eastern state like Rhode Island.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the movie and the book –are worth spending a few summer evenings with. Settle into your favorite chair, pour yourself a few fingers of good bourbon, and enjoy. This is, after all, what summer is all about.

Music Monday: “Jerusalem Tomorrow” by Dave Olney

Dave Olney is another musician that my friend Bob introduced to me via cassette tape. Olney is from Nashville, that is where Bob first met him. Emmylou has sung some of his songs, as well as a number of other country greats.

I have seen him twice in person. Both times he performed alone, just him and his acoustic guitar. Once was at the Fine Line in downtown Minneapolis. The other time was at a dinky little coffee shop in St. Paul. In St. Paul, Sue and I had the best seat in the house: a front row love-seat that was the only padded furniture in the room. Most of the small audience had to stand.

“Heading to Jerusalem” is my favorite song he does.

Book Review: Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

“…there are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.”  ~W.H. Auden

Parades-End_Ford-Madox-Ford1When I was in college, I had to make a choice one semester between taking Romantic Literature or Victorian Literature. Knowing just enough about everything to get myself into trouble, I chose to take Victorian Literature. Romantic poetry did not sound like something a Montana kid grown up on Hemingway would want to read. Only much later, years and states away, would I discover how wrong I was….

The Victorian sensibility that pervades Arnold and Browning – the interest in the ordinary and common day, the moral purposefulness, the unmooring clash with science, the search for the Victorian ideal – seemed cloyingly myopic and dark. I admired much but was never able to get my sea legs.

Years later on a whim, walking through a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan,  I picked up a copy of Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. The big paperback caught my eye because of the size and the price, $1.00.

By then, I knew a little about Ford: his relationship with Conrad, his literary influence, his reputation for untruth (though hardly a vice in a writer), his bad relationship with Hemingway. I knew of, but had not read, The Good Soldier, his most celebrated and read work. I think, but cannot be sure, that I may have read by that time some of his literary reminiscences, which (whether “embellished” or not) remain in my mind some of the best of that genre ever written.

I put the book on a shelf and carried it for a few moves. Through years of reading the once neglected Romantics, through expanding my familiarity with Irish poetry beyond Yeats. [In those days, before kids and domestic distractions, I created, as I continue to do, my own courses of study but, of course, had much more time to concentrate and ruminate.] Finally, one dark winter day in my little studio on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul I picked up the big book and began to read.

Parades End has been called the last Victorian novel. And I suppose it is. So much that is Victorian is in this book, and yet… there is something of the lost generation in here also. It is in my mind a transitional novel, the last hurrah of the Victorian and a first tentative peek at the modern. Or more properly perhaps, the first description of the Modern by a Victorian: “No more hope, no more glory, not for the nation, not for the world I dare say, no more parades.”

Ford, always an admirer of Henry James, lived by the credo: why say it in 4 words when 24 will do better. His is the anti-Hemingway style. His sentences and paragraphs go on for pages… and yet, I found myself enthralled in the same way that James enthralls me. So exotic does their language usage seem that I feel I am reading another tongue altogether. A language at once more ornate and expressive and beautiful than I could even dare to imagine – the term baroque comes to mind (although unlike baroque music, James and Ford are almost always satisfying).

The four separate novels that make up Parade’s End (Some Do NotNo More ParadesA Man Could Stand Up, and The Last Post) tell the story of Christopher Tietjens, a man struggling to survive personally and publicly. His  wife is unfaithful to him, he is betrayed by friends and colleagues, and the modern, post-war world is changing everything he once thought he knew.

Those who have read The Good Soldier will recognize some familiar themes, but in Parade’ End will enjoy Ford at his most expansive. Why Ford has fallen so out of favor, and this novel in particular has been all but forgotten, is one of those peculiarities of taste and time.

Ford himself once said, “Only two classes of books are of universal appeal; the very best and the very worst.” It is certain that Parade’s End belongs in the former class. Certainly it will again be “rediscovered” by some generation of writers. It’s quality and execution demand it.

Music Monday: “Martha” by Tom Waits

Visiting Montana again has made me feel nostalgic, for times and people now long gone. “Martha” by Tom Waits is as melancholy and nostalgic as any song I can think of.

I was introduced to Tom Waits by my friend Bob. This was back in the days when you would make tapes of favorite music for others and send it to them. I wore the tapes out. One of the first things I did when I got an iPod was to buy all the Tom Waits that I no longer had.

On a melancholy Monday, Tom Waits is just the thing.

Music Monday: “Unemployed” by Michael McDermott

In 2001, I was laid off from the best paying job I had ever had, and still have ever had. The evening of the day I got news that I was unemployed, Sue and I went to see Michael McDermott at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

The Cedar Cultural Center is a small venue but a nice place to watch a concert. I was drinking a Summit beer and doing my best to enjoy the evening, but I was having a hard time not feeling sorry for myself… until McDermott started singing this song. It has been one of my favorite songs ever since.

It isn’t much of a video… but the song is great.

Enjoy!

Music Monday: “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole

The first Monday in June is making me feel nostalgic. When I was young, my mother had a few albums and singers that she played more than others. When I hear those singers or those songs, I am immediately taken back in time to other summers, other long and lazy days.

Nat King Cole was was one of my mother’s favorites. And this is one of my favorite Cole songs.

Enjoy… and happy Monday!

Book Review: .44 by H.A. DeRosso

44_DeRossoIf you grow up in the West and and do not like westerns, it is the same as if you grew up in Belgium and do not like beer. At the very least, you have proven yourself to be someone who cannot be trusted.

The status that westerns have in American culture is much diminished these days. Great westerns are still being written – see Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Elmer Kelton. But the greatest practioners of the classic western are long gone.

H.A. DeRosso wrote hard-boiled stories for the pulps in the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote a number of great western short-stories and a few novels. His westerns have been described by Bill Pronzini as western noir. Pronzini has edited a number of collections of his short stories. Each collection is great.

Of DeRosso’s novels, .44 is my favorite. It epitomizes DeRosso’s style: austere, hard-boiled, grim, lonely and yet,… poetic at times. The characters have an archetypal quality that transcends the merely conventional. The desert  landscape they inhabit is mythological– ethereal and bleak.

There are, admittedly, more realistic western writers and much more historically accurate ones. And yet with the possible exception of Cormac McCarthy there are no western writers that are as satisfying as DeRosso in the end.

DeRosso is satisfying because his work is so mythic. Westerns, after all, are suppose to be mythic. To quote Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

.44 begins with one of those great first paragraphs that hook you and then lives up to all that first paragraph promises. Everything that is classic DeRosso, that is western noir is here: menace, fate, and myth.

The two riders working up the mountain towards the pass travelled about a mile apart. There was not hurry in their progress. The first rider made no effort to quicken his horse’s pace and thus draw farther ahead. The second rider, too, seemed content with the rate he was travelling. He kept his distance, not trying at all to overtake the other, even though he had been hired to kill this first rider and intended to do so before nightfall.