Review published on March 11, 2016.
Apollo is Head of Zeus’s new series of ‘great forgotten works of fiction’ launching in April and I was lucky enough to pick this one; I just hope Phil Ramage (who volunteered to take the 7 other titles being published at the same time) is having the same luck because I really liked this book. Only after I finished did I spot that it formed the basis of One-Eyed Jacks, the only film directed by Marlon Brando and one I remember fondly.
Anyway, this is a western set in the late 1800s or early 1900s, I’m not entirely sure but written, or at least first published, in 1957. The Kid is a gunslinger, better than Billy the Kid and less troubled as a character. Of course there’s a sidekick and he has to be called Doc, Doc Baker (although he isn’t really a doctor, it’s just one of those colourful nicknames that feature in westerns). So Doc is our narrator – a part custom made for the drawl of Tommy Lee Jones, circa No Country for Old Men – my favourite lines?
Wendell: It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell: If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.
You get the idea, it’s that conversational style that seems to come naturally to so many American writers, not least Cormac McCarthy. Kid is only 25 or thereabouts but his days are inevitably counting down. Doc is recounting events as if to a friend who already knows the gist but has asked for more detail. Charles Neider cleverly unrolls his story from different perspectives, particularly when the action gets torrid so a character can be shot dead on the floor but, as if in flashback, we see things through his eyes or those of a bystander. This is no Zane Grey – no disrespect – there is a genuine depth to the way the characters age and act. Conversations feel real rather than expositional.
In an era when the West was becoming less wild and some gunfighters became lawkeepers as a way of evading justice themselves, Sherrif Dad Longworth, a former mentor of the Kid’s, is now his gaoler. There’s no other way of saying it the Kid is cool. Cooler than the Fonz, cooler than a Fox’s glacier mint, he is just, well, cool. No nerves at all as the week fritters away with a hanging on Saturday to look forward to for the locals.
Of course, there’s a gaolbreak but not in the way of the films of the late fifties. Thought and precision are needed and a logic for when to make the move mean the Kid does escape and hightails it to Mehico (see, I’m getting into the swing of this now!). But something has shifted and as if being pulled back by a magnet the gang return to the inevitable. Even then it’s all staged realistically, Doc refuting the legend that is building round the Kid’s memory.
It’s been decades since I’ve read a western but I have to say this has reawakened my interest. Think I need to see One-Eyed Jacks again – and maybe the Missouri Breaks. In the meantime, I wait with bated breath to see what Phil’s made of the other Apollo titles. If it’s as good as my experience then you should be adding substantially to your reading.
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider
Head of Zeus – Apollo pbk April 2016
AND THE WINNER IS: BookHugger Book of the Year
The Diaboliad and other short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov
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