Book Review: “Guns at Gray Butte” by Lewis B. Patten

Guns at Gray Butte

Book: Guns at Gray Butte, by Lewis B. Patten

Cover:  A nice cover painting by Ken Laager. It fits the story well.

Back Cover: Boring with yet another slightly mis-leading plot description

Style: Western-Noir

Plot: A young woman is raped by a stranger. Her fiancee, Deputy Pete Chaney, chases the outlaw and brings the man back to town alive, first having to contend with a lynch mob and a cowardly sheriff and then with a family of outlaws. Mayhem ensues.

Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:

     Gray Butte was a sentinel, brooding and tall on the western edge of town. It began to rise in the center of town and, less than two hundred yards from the last building, pitched up in perpendicular grandeur to its crest five hundred feet above.
Now, the rising moon put a silver shine on the sheer rock face. In winter huge pieces had sometimes broken away to roll crashing through the town built with human impracticality at its food.
At ten, most of the town slept. There were lights in the Butte Saloon, in the Buffalo Saloon, in Delehanty’s Mercantile Store and in the sheriff’s office at the lower end of Butte street, who was Gray Butte’s main thoroughfare.
A solitary figure walked the street, Julie Duquesne….


The late Ron Scheer once said that plotting in a Western is like a card game. You are dealt a certain hand of elements and you try to make the most of it: a power-mad rancher and his beautiful daughter, a false accusation of murder/horse thieving, a gang of outlaws, a band of Apaches, etc. The challenge for the writer is to do something different with the familiar elements.

In Guns at Grey Butte, Patten does something really different. So different that it borders on the ridiculous. And yet, somehow he pulls it off. At least for this reader.

He is able to do it in the end, because of his mastery of the genre. He does the important elements of the Western so well: the heroically suffering hero, the strong-male-world vs. weak-female-world, the rugged individualism.

Patten is so strong a Western writer that we are able to overlook significant plot flaws and tired clichés.

A Final Note: Spending time with Jane Tompkins has certainly helped me see Westerns in a different light. Beginning the book as he does with the rape of the protagonist’s fiancée is a plot device that, for this reader, took Herculean effort on the part of Patten to overcome. A hero can be motivated to heroic actions by much more than “revenging” or “protecting” vulnerable womanhood after all.


Some Classic Western Lines from “Guns at Gray Butte”

Jake looked up slowly. He said, “If you wear that star, you bring him back. If you figure you’ve got to go kill him, go without the badge.”

* * * * * * * * * * 

He had always been slightly uncomfortable in this house, even when he was bathed and shaved and dressed for calling on a girl. It was so spotless, so blasted tidy…. He hoped Julie wouldn’t keep their house that way – so clean a man was afraid to sit down for fear he’d dirty up a chair.

* * * * * * * * * * 

“Man does what his conscience tells him is right, Pete. If he doesn’t, he ain’t much of a man.”

* * * * * * * * * * 

In summer the dawn came early to the western plains. It began with the faintest lightening of the velvet black of the sky. it grew, turning that inky color to deep gray that faded to a lighter gray. Clouds appeared, and as the sun crept toward the horizon in the east, its… light stained those clouds faint shades of pink, tinged with purple that gradually changed to orange and gold.

The Future of the Western

An article awhile back in Grantland caught my eye, “Dystopia Is the New Western.” Fans of Western fiction, and even more so, those who dabble in writing it, are forced at times to ask two questions: What has happened to the Western? And, does it have a future?

America can boast of inventing a number of essential “art” forms: the Blues and Jazz; bourbon; baseball and basketball; and the Western which gave birth to Hard-Boiled Fiction.

The Western, and its themes of “man (human) vs. wilderness,” rugged individualism, and the essential corruption of big business is in the DNA of the American psyche. It is our definitive and defining myth.

And yet, the western has all but gone away. And in its place… dystopia.

I have been working my way through West of Everything by Jane Tompkins. It is a “feminist” look at Westerns by someone who loves them. It is also the best book about Westerns and popular culture I have ever read.

To quote the book’s summary at Amazon, Tomkins believes that westerns were born out of:

a reaction against popular women’s novels and women’s invasion of the public sphere [in the late 19th Century]. With Westerns, men were reclaiming cultural territory, countering the inwardness, spirituality, and domesticity of the sentimental writers, with a rough and tumble, secular, man-centered world.

She also makes the convincing case that for men, and for women too, born roughly between the 1920s and 1960s, the Western more than anything else shaped our view of masculinity. I know for myself that that is most certainly true.

And yet I need to be honest with myself as well. While I know that the view of masculinity depicted in Westerns is not realistic and is often unhealthy, it is a view of masculinity I do not want to let go.

And so that is why I do not want to let go of Westerns. Why I read them even though the writing is often terrible. Why I want to write them. Why I want them to be better written than they are. Why I pop in a John Wayne DVD whenever life seems confusing and pointless. Why I still think the Western, along with Jazz, is the most American of all art forms.

And when we have totally lost both the Western and Jazz what will be left? Dystopia.