Friday, March 16, 2012

The Long Riders

© 1967 by Dan Cushman

[... to be read slooooooowly in a Sam Elliot drawl ...]

First, let me preface by stating that I am not a reader of Westerns by trade, occupation, or inclination. I have read some in the past. This past July, fer instance, I read a pair of Zane Greys. Sometime in the 90s I read a pair of Larry McMurtrys. If you can label The Red Badge of Courage a Western, since, or in spite of, it taking place in Tennessee during the War Between the States, then put that notch on my gun belt. That’s my background here.

Now, I enjoy a good Western as much as the next red-blooded American male. Maybe more so, since I fancy myself a cinephile and am particularly partial to a well-done Western flick, with or without John Wayne. Perhaps it’s the harkening back to a simpler time, even if simpler occasionally meant, “more violent.” Perhaps it’s the continual wondering how I’d fare had I been born a century earlier. Perhaps it’s the manly testing and manly rising to the occasion, whether its survival on the plains, survival fighting the Injuns, or survival facing that steely-eyed gunslinger in the middle of the muddy, abandoned street in front of the saloon in the one-horse town. Perhaps …

Anyway, when I did get snagged in that Zane Grey phase last summer, I bought me a bunch of comparable books of varying stripes. Some are classics, like The Ox-Bow Incident. Some are based on John Wayne movies I seen and enjoyed, such as Hondo. And some are pulpy, like this one, The Long Riders.

I had beefs – might powerful beefs, it must be established – with this last novel. But I can’t deny a gripping interest in the story right from page one. It’s a cattle drive, the medieval quest of the Old West, and two rugged hands – Leo Glass and Old Dad Haze – take on the share of cattle for a man left for dead. Leo and Old Dad are joined with the maniacal ex-Rebel officer Andy Broadbaker and his posse of “scouts” – hired killers hired to keep the other cattle drivers in line – in a journey from Nebraska, through Wyoming, and up to Montana, through all the hostile Indian territory that overlaps. But – ain’t there always a “but” in these things? But Broadbaker has different plans, and Applied Bullying and Intimidation 101 wants to take the herd elsewhere, elsewhere being someplace that ain’t Montana (I may have missed that precise part of the novel).

Sounds simplistic, and it is, I ’spose, but Cushman manages to breathe life into the 140-page horse opera. Every trope and every cliché is here in full bloom, yet it doesn’t come across as trope-ic or cliché-y. You know what I mean? Ever read something like that? If you did, well, you had a similar experience to me reading The Long Riders.

There’s Leo and Old Dad, drifting from one place to another, finding work whether it be with gun or lasso, always on the look for the Big Score. There’s the kid who idolizes Glass. Whether or not he’s the same kid who gets shot in the back by the young psychotic gunslinger Billy Grand I’ll leave for you to discover. You have the escalating threats, first veiled and quickly not so much so, between the heroes and the bad guys. You have the verbal jousting in the saloon, with twitchy hands hovering over holstered Colts. You got the showdown, the quick draw. There are the feckless homesteaders Who Shouldn’t Be There. You experience the dirt and the struggle driving a thousand head of cattle firsthand.

Possibly the only truly unique part of the novel was the ending. Yes, it ends with a confrontation between Glass and Broadbaker, but you knew that was gonna happen in the first chapter, when Kid Maybee first describes the “man-eater” to Glass (and us). What is unique is how they fight it out. It’s not a three-second flash of hot lead like the dénouement of Once Upon a Time in the West. It ain’t a long, drawn-out gun battle like Gunfight at O.K. Corral. No, our heavies battle it out John Norman style (he of the Gor fantasy novels) – left hands clasped, right hands wielding leather gun belts. You can figger out what happens next. It was a fast-paced, well-written scene, and the comeuppance which comes up is fully satisfying. Bastardo truly gets what he deserves. ’Specially for ordering that young, idealistic kid to get shot in the back.

Absolutely loved the classic Western nomenclature, be it names – Old Dad, “Frogs” Braskin (the cook), Billy Grand, Polly Arbogast, her dad Judge Arbogast; or places – Dry Crick, Alkali Crick, Bone Crick, Spider Crick, Poison Spider Crick (sensing a theme here, hm?)

My main complaint is that the book I read wasn’t the book I bought. This based upon the paragraph synopsis on the back cover. True, this isn’t the author’s fault, and I don’t reckon I blame him particularly. That back page painted the novel more like an Unforgiven Clint Eastwood mean drunk than what the contents spelled out, an Unforgiven Clint Eastwood just trying to make a buck or two clean-living (forget that the “clean-living” in that movie involving assassinating two ruffians). Still, it ticked me off, for I was itchin’ to read the back-page novel, especially after the pair of Zane Grey-meets-Danielle Steel books I read last summer. But the complaint wasn’t a deal-breaker. Still isn’t, as I’d willingly read any more Dan Cushman works I come across.

Grade: B+

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