Robert Parker’s Ironhorse

For fans of Robert Parker’s western series about Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, there is a new book out in the series. Since Parker died a couple of years ago, Ironhorse (or, the full title, Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse) is written by someone else, Robert Knott. Generally speaking, I haven’t encountered many series that have carried on effectively after the death of their original author, and, in fact, I can’t think of another book written by someone carrying on a series other than Ironhorse that I’ve actually completed. Robert Knott was one of the screenwriters for the Appaloosa film, so he brings a knowledge of the characters—and the experience of writing about those characters—to the novel, and perhaps that’s why the book ends up being a successful continuation of the series.

Much of the action in the book takes place in two locations, on board a steam locomotive that has been overtaken by bandits, and in the small frontier town of Half Moon Junction, where Cole and Hitch trace the would-be robbers (who have successfully kidnapped a couple of hostages that they are holding for ransom). Part of what is interesting about the novel is the attention to the details of both steam locomotive and telegraph operation—and those details are of importance to the plot. Half Moon Junction is a weird little frontier town (all the streets are named after phases of the moon) that is quite in keeping with Parker’s approach to the western, and I particularly like the group of women telegraph operators (all of whom have male names) who play a supporting role.

For me, the weakness of the series is Allie French, the love of Virgil Cole’s life, who I find to be a stereotyped and one-note (she’s promiscuous) character. In most of the books, I’ve started thinking about her more as a Plot Device than a character, which is actually fine with me, as her shenanigans usually lead Virgil into interesting plots. In Ironhorse, she’s an off-stage presence, and I’m glad she stayed that way.

I’ve written about the Parker series before, especially the final book written by Parker, Blue-Eyed Devil
. What I most liked about Blue-Eyed Devil are two elements of the series that don’t really make it into Ironhorse. Although like the other novels, Everett Hitch is the narrator of Ironhorse, we don’t get into his consciousness as much as we do in the Parker novels. As a narrator of Ironhorse, he’s more of an objective observer reporting on the action than he is a commentator or thinker on what he sees. Which is fine, because the action is good and fast-paced, but I missed the dry observations and commentary that sprinkle Hitch’s narration in the Parker novels. Also, other than the opening scene where Hitch and Cole discuss philosopher Charles Peirce’s theory of pragmatism (they both had just read an article about Peirce in the newspaper), there’s not much emphasis on Cole’s surprising interest in new words. It makes a kind of sense that a man who can go for hours without speaking is nonetheless intently interested in words—when he does speak, you know his words count for something, so all the more need for precision of language. Cole is interested in the word pragmatism, because he realizes that when it comes to Allie French, a pragmatist is exactly what he is not. That discussion of pragmatism was a nice nod to that element of the novels, but I missed the extended discussions between Hitch and Cole over what a particular word means, how it’s supposed to be used, and to see how often Cole misuses it as he tries to work it into his vocabulary.

Still, those aren’t really flaws in Ironhorse, just differences that I noticed, and I can’t complain too much about a book that kept be turning pages all the way through, and, it was good to spend time with Hitch and Cole for awhile.

Advertisements

CFP on Charles Bowden for the 2012 Western Literature Association Conference, Lubbock, TX

We are accepting proposals for a panel or panels on Charles Bowden for the 2012 Western Literature Association Conference in Lubbock, Texas (November 7-10). The theme for this year’s conference is “Western Crossroads: Literature, Social Justice, and the Environment.”  We are open to all critical approaches, including feminist, Marxist, critical regionalist, hemispheric, narratological, postcolonial, and ecocritical perspectives. Potential proposals may include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

  • Apocalyptic southwest
  • Connections between Bowden and other writers (Abbey, McCarthy, Silko, etc.)
  • Environmental beauty and destruction
  • Genre tensions between the essay, the memoir, crime reporting, gonzo journalism, and history
  • Globalization and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands
  • Interplay of text and images in the Inferno, Exodus/Éxodo, and Trinity trilogy, and/or Juárez: Laboratory of Our Future, and/or Dreamland
  • Mexican North and the American West
  • Police state(s) vs. anarchism
  • Relationships between narcotraficantes and the war on drugs
  • Representations of the Mexican Army and/or the U.S. Border Patrol
  • Transnational social justice
  • Versions of El Sicario (film, articles, and books)

Please note that our panel(s) will be the first step towards the eventual publication of a scholarly collection of essays focused on Bowden, which we will edit throughout 2013. This volume appears almost certain to be the initial scholarly foray into Bowden, and we have already received interest from a major university press.

E-mail abstract proposals (350-500 words) with a working title and a brief biography or CV by April 1, 2012 to David Cremean (nialmccruimmen@gmail.com) and D. Seth Horton (dshorton@umd.edu).

Reading True Grit

If the difficulty I had finding a copy of Charles Portis’ True Grit in a bookstore is any indication, I’m not the only person inspired by the Coen Brothers’s new adaptation to take a look at the source. I always find it interesting to see what strategies filmmakers used to adapt a book into a movie. First person narratives like True Grit seem particularly difficult, in part because of the difficulty of transforming literary voice into a cinematic style, and in part because written narrative seems more amenable to creating the illusion that we are truly sharing a character’s perspective. The transition from first person may have been easier with True Grit, as Maggie is a narrator who is intent on observing and describing the world around her. Rather than providing the subjective experience of Rooster Cogburn’s testimony at the Wharton trial, she provides us with a transcript, stepping completely aside from her place in the narrative to let the words of Cogburn and the lawyer Barlow carry the story. Rather astonishingly, the exchange from the novel plays out almost verbatim on screen—it’s rare when dialogue written to be read works as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

However, one of the pleasures of the book is Maggie’s narration, especially when she goes onto the kind of tangents that tend to get cut out of film—there’s more space for leisurely telling in a novel. I particularly like those moments when she speaks directly to the reader, or even to specific groups of readers:

I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “clap-trap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.

Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to the short devil a good turn. Chaney was his tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?

I also like the way she puts quotation marks around words like “clap-trap,” and “stunt,” and, well, some dozens of other words that she uses.

The Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit follows the novel so closely, that it makes those moments of departure all the more interesting. Although the Coens, in interviews, have said they weren’t interested in remaking the earlier film (and, if I’m recalling correctly, even stated that they didn’t re-watch it), there seems to be an homage here and there to the John Wayne film. For example, in the book, Mattie does not at any point take Cogburn’s tobacco away and roll his cigarette for him, but she does so in both film versions of True Grit.

Another significant departure from the novel is when LaBoeuf gets angry at Cogburn’s continued disparagement of the Texas Rangers and goes off on his own, leaving Mattie and Rooster to travel together without him.  In part, this seems to create an opportunity to include Mattie in more of the action (she’s the one to climb on the roof of the cabin to drape a jacket over the chimney; she’s the one that must climb a tree and cut down the body of the hanged man).

And that entire sequence of Mattie cutting down the body, not to mention the discovery of the body itself, is not part of the novel. The character listed in the credits as “Bear Man” is a new character, and his appearance wearing a bear skin (complete with head) is one of the film’s most bizarre moments—as is the revelation that he’s a kind of frontier dentist (who should, by the way, pay a visit to Lucky Ed Peppers, whose extravagantly unattractive rotting set of choppers gets my nomination for this year’s Academy Award for prosthetic teeth design).  The appearance of Bear Man was one of the more memorable moments in the film, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

Immigration and Science Fiction

The Science Fiction Research Association held its annual meeting in Carefree, Arizona, on June 24 to 27, 2010. The planning of the conference predated Arizona’s passage of the anti-immigration bill, and in response, the SFRA drafted the SFRA 2010 Statement in Response to the Arizona Immigration Bill, SB 1070. The statement notes, “It is with discussion and action in mind that the Executive Committee has decided to hold a roundtable discussion at SFRA 2010 about SB 1070. Instead of standing in silence and throwing away all of the hard work that went into planning, developing, and organizing SFRA 2010, we intend to face the issues head-on at the meeting.”

I thus attended the roundtable, with statements from moderator Doug Davis, Jason Ellis, Mack Hassler, Rob Latham, Yu-Fang Lin, and Patrick Sharp. (Lisa Yaszek, listed on the program, was unable to sit on the panel.) The question addressed was, “What does SF across media have to say about immigration?” I summarize their remarks below, then note some concerns that came up during the discussion with the audience.

Sharp, who lives and teaches in California, which has its own anti-immigration fervor, provided a summary of the history of immigration in the United States, noting that English-speaking whites have held dominion for only about 160 years. Jack London (a proto-SF writer) wrote about the Yellow Peril, and the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon franchises echoed that concern in a manner that linked immigration and warfare.

Latham noted that as teachers, allegory might be used to inform issues of immigration and race/ethnicity–for example, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In regard to this text, Latham noted that two things in particular struck him: first, the constituative ambiguity of the legal bar against androids, which appears clear-cut but in fact isn’t; and second, the assumption of bad faith, which is required before a test is made to make a declaration and apply the law, which thus questions its own motives, and whether a distinction is meaningful. Latham stressed the complex background to what appears to be an easy question.

Ellis and Lin, a married couple, both spoke of their personal fears of visiting Arizona because of Lin’s status as a legal immigrant, with a temporary green card. Both mentioned the fear inherent in being accosted, because untrained state police can stop people at any time, whereas federal agents are specially trained to work with the immigrant population. Ellis linked the experience to another text by Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, where the protagonist’s life is erased and he has to negotiate a world without proper documentation. Lin divided her experience of being an immigrant other (she has been in the United States for 8 years) into the gaze and the encounter, with people staring at her like an “exotic animal,” which may then escalate to encounters, such as people throwing things at her and laughing. She noted that harassment will not make her feel any more an American, and laws like Arizona’s will make it impossible to make diversity work.

Hassler spoke of texts by Robert Heinlein that establish borders and assign citizenship: Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Social Darwinism is inherent in these texts: characters compete for space and resources. By studying literature along these lines, it is possible to talk about conflict, competition, cooperation, and mutuality. Authors particularly relevant along these lines are Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, and Heinlein. Hassler concluded by noting that it may be more useful to think of people as all citizens of nature, not of competing nations and states. He also noted that legislating otherness and difference is useless; nature will impose it and will create boundaries, as in Moon.

Davis discussed Hollywood films with an immigration theme, where one social order imposes itself on another. Immigration is often conflated with invasion in these texts; invasion is a common SF theme, with the story of immigration often becoming a story of invasion. One of the few texts truly about immigration is the film Alien Nation, which was made into a TV show, and another is Brother From Another Planet. The recent film District 9 is a refugee story more than an immigration story; here, immigration is used metaphorically to represent the present and us, and to critique the inhumanity of the military-industrial complex. However, most of the texts identified are about violence and our own often violent condition, not the issues behind immigration. In many of the films, the alien is a shadowy underworld figure, perhaps a drug dealer, who must be stopped.

During discussion, we sought to list more SF texts with immigration themes. Inherent in the discussion was Latham’s point that SF uses an alien other to describe the present human condition, not to peer ahead into the future in an attempt to prophesy. Texts mentioned include Coneheads (with immigration officials suspicious of the Conehead family), Third Rock From the Sun, Sleep Dealer, Children of Men, actual documentaries, V, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Men in Black, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler’s story “Bloodchild,” Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, C. J. Cherry’s Foreigner series, and texts that deal with colonialism, such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds.

Discussion also raised interesting points. Sharp noted that modern science is a product of colonialism and conquests. SF usefully reverses the power differential: in SF, we may be the colonized, not the colonizer. The relatively recent rise of ecofeminism as a cultural movement foregrounds cooperation and mutuality, which has implications for dealing with the alien other. As some texts, such as Men in Black, show, we erase aliens from our mind. We can only exist by ignoring the aliens among us, although they hold a crucial place in our economy.

In practical terms, it was pointed out that anti-immigration fervor is almost always linked to the economy. If the economy is doing well, immigrants are, if not invited, at least tolerated; but if it is doing poorly, anti-immigration laws result. Latham pointed out that the desire to create borders is to alleviate the anxiety about the lack of borders. The literary movement of cyberpunk, which rose in the mid-1980s, is about the meaninglessness of these borders. The Arizona law is attempting to preserve borders that are eroded beyond recovery.

The panel was useful in foregrounding the relevance of SF in generating a response to a contemporary cultural moment. The tenor of the panel was against the anti-immigration law, and the general consensus was that the permeability of borders is now so far advanced that attempting to police them is useless. A better response, the panel implies, might be exploring mutuality and cooperation.

Posted by Karen Hellekson

A Response to David Guterson

In the latest volume of the Crab Creek Review (23.1, 2010), Kelli Russell Agodon interviewed David Guterson, author of six books, including Snow Falling on Cedars.  I received (and am very grateful for) Agodon’s permission to reprint the following exchange on the WLA blog:

[Agodon:] Is there such a thing as a “Northwest writer”? Do you think that writers in the Northwest write differently or are more in touch with place or nature than poets fro other areas? Just as there are certain types of Northwest cuisine, what do you think would make a Northwest writer?

[Guterson:] The pursuit of regional identities in the arts is at best a nebulous activity.  It seems to me both arbitrary and useless to categorize writers geographically.  There might have been a time when geography and culture converged in such a way as to make the regional identification of artists a worthwhile practice.  There might have been something fruitful, once, in pondering why a particular art arose in a particular place.  Today, with the exception of the handful of essentially isolated cultures remaining on the planet, human beings have a limited relationship to place, and this is, of course, reflected in the arts.  To be a “Northwest writer” in the 21st century simply means that, like billions of people in other places, your sensibility and view of the world are informed by influences near and far—but mostly far.  Even thirty years ago this wasn’t the case.  There was something quite Northwest indeed about the so-called “Northwest School” of poets that started with Roethke and ran through Hugo, Kizer, Wagoner, Stafford, et. al., but that now seems a thing of the past.  Today we have a lot of writers who live here but who are in no way representative of “place” in the way those poets were.

The common thing to say about Northwest writers is that Northwest writers have a relationship to nature not found in other parts of the United States.  Not true.  It does conform to the national imagery and stereotype about the unknown far corner to assert this, but it is not true.  From a distance it’s as easy to romanticize the Northwest as it is to romanticize the literature produced in it.  But you have to have actually read the stuff before you can say it has a regional resonance, and even then, most of the time you only find resonance because you have a thesis and are therefore under self-imposed pressure to make the world conform to it (pgs. 79-80).

As I see it, the problem with Guterson’s response is that there are very few critics who would nowadays suggest that North American regionalist writing—be it the Northwest, the West, or the South—can simply be defined by a set of unique characteristics.  This is true for all literary categories, not just regionalist ones, for it would be equally difficult to pinpoint the essential qualities that define, say, American literature, women’s literature, African American literature, etc.  Yet, this obviously doesn’t render these categories useless because critics use them in order to suggest linkages between certain texts.  To take one example, the way one might read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children changes depending on the interpretive context one employs, be it based on genre (magical realism), region (South Asia), or politics (postcolonialism).  These contextual variations are also true for Northwestern writers such as Mourning Dove, Raymond Carver, William Kittredge, and Sherman Alexie.

While I think Guterson is wrong to deny the possibility that the category of the Northwest can provide critical insight into certain kinds of text, I’m not exactly surprised by his resistance to regionalist interpretive approaches; it is yet the latest reminder that many authors remain ambivalent about being labeled as regionalist writers.  No doubt there are various reasons as to why this is so.  Guterson claims that globalization renders regionalism to be an outdated interpretive strategy, but one merely needs to look to the fields of postcolonialism, Border Theory, and Hemispheric American Studies to see that globalization and new regionalism are not necessarily antithetical.  It will be interesting to see if the recent spatial turn in literary theory will alter the way that Guterson and others theorize globalization as a kind of erasure of the local.  Were that to happen, perhaps certain writers wouldn’t be under such self-imposed pressure, to borrow Guterson’s phrase, to resist the regionalist designations that have, in the past, threatened to reduce the number of books they are able to sell in the global marketplace.

Return to Appaloosa

I didn’t really know much about Robert B. Parker’s Virgil Cole / Everett Hitch series of westerns until the filmed adaptation of the first book appeared last year, Appaloosa, with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as Cole and Hitch. I had mixed feelings about the film (as revealed in an earlier post on Appaloosa), but I did like the characters of Cole and Hitch (and the performances by Harris and Mortensen). However, the film didn’t immediately inspire me to take up the series in book form.

With the 2010 publication of the fourth book in the series, Blue-Eyed Devil, I decided to give it a go, starting with what I assume will be the final book in the series (given the recent death of Robert Parker). Blue-Eyed Devil returns Cole and Hitch to the frontier town of Appaloosa. Cole and Hitch are living in Virgil’s house with Cole’s wife Allie and an orphaned girl named Laurel (sole survivor of an Indian attack). In contrast to the beginning of Appaloosa, Cole and Hitch are not the law in town anymore. The job belongs to Amos Callico (and his dozen deputies), who is more interested in using Appaloosa as a stepping stone for his political ambitions (and running a protection racket collecting money from the town’s citizens) than he is in law enforcement as such. When a group of saloon owners hire Cole and Hitch rather than pay protection money, well, you know that sparks (and lead) are eventually going to fly between Cole and Hitch and Callico.

What I found most interesting about that book is that Everett Hitch is the narrator, and part of the fun of the book is reading Everett’s dry commentary on events—an element of the novels that was absent from the film (unsurprisingly, as first person narratives are much easier in novels than in films).

I also enjoyed Parker’s take on the tight-lipped western hero who doesn’t do any more talking than needs being done. We expect that from Cole and Hitch, who don’t mind sitting for long periods in silence (as Hitch informs us), but Parker takes the convention even further. In addition to Virgil Cole, “who often went hours without saying anything,” the character Laurel suffers from a kind of traumatic muteness. She speaks to no one other than Virgil (and then only in whispers).  We also have Kha-to-nay, whose silence is political (he refuses to acknowledge the existence of the blue-eyed white devil’s language). The amazing thing about the book is that the narrative advances primarily through dialogue, which is quite a trick, given the number of characters who prefer silence to speech.

One of the things I like about Virgil Cole is that, despite his comfort with silence, he is very fond of words. He is continually asking the West Point educated Hitch the meaning of unfamiliar words. At a campaign event (Callico decides to run for mayor), Cole and Hitch listen as Callico makes a number of negative comments about his rival:

“Recently some of my supporters spoke publicly of his pusillanimity at Ralesberg. Of his brutality toward women and innocent children, as he fled the field of battle.”

Beside me, Virgil said, “‘Pusillanimity’?”

“Cowardice,” I said.

“My supporters,” Callico said, “decent, honest men, both of them, were confronted by General Laird’s hired gunman in an attempt to repress the truth.”

“Ain’t that ‘suppress’?” Virgil said.

“I’d use ‘suppress,'” I said.

In an earlier scene, Hitch explains to Virgil the use and purpose of a decanter. In a later scene, we return to that earlier moment.

“Fine-looking decanter,” Virgil said.

He loved learning a new word and tried to use it as often as possible. The results weren’t always pretty, but he got this one right.

Blue-Eyed Devil is a very enjoyable novel, and Hitch and Cole are memorable characters. Allie Cole, on the other hand, is a character that I could do without, and, although I don’t know the full range of Parker’s writing, I have read that female characters are not his strength, and Allie, here and in the film of Appaloosa, would seem to provide good evidence of that weakness. On the plus side, she’s a minor character in Blue-Eyed Devil (mainly trotted out for jokes about her lack of cooking skills).

Blue-Eyed Devil is a fun read, and Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are good companions for a long afternoon. And in his close observations of his friend Virgil, narrator Hitch is an entertaining storyteller—and, of course, this being a western and Cole and Hitch being who they are (men who make a living with their guns), there’s also plenty of action to keep the story moving along.

Recommended Readings

More new and recommended readings in Western American literature, fiction, criticism, etc.

unexpected

Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature
Eric Gardner
University Press of Mississippi
ISBN 9781604732832

http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1222

Unexpected Places recovers the work of early African American authors and editors who have been left off maps drawn by historians and literary critics alike. Individual chapters restore to consideration black literary locations in antebellum St. Louis, antebellum Indiana, Reconstruction-era San Francisco, and several sites tied to the Philadelphia-based Christian Recorder during and after the Civil War.  In conversation with both archival sources and contemporary scholarship, Unexpected Places calls for a large-scale rethinking of the nineteenth-century African American literary landscape, including the black West.  In addition to revisiting such better-known writers as William Wells Brown, Maria Stewart, and Hannah Crafts, Unexpected Places offers the first critical considerations of several important figures including Jennie Carter, Polly Wash, Lizzie Hart, and William Jay Greenly. The book’s discussion of physical locations leads naturally to careful study of how region is tied to genre, authorship, publication circumstances, the black press and early black periodicals, domestic and nascent black nationalist ideologies, and black mobility in the nineteenth century.

Unexpected Places is exactly the kind of book most needed in the field right now.  It is a book of rare urgency and authority–a call . . . that emanates from deep within the archive and . . . has to do with the integrity of the field itself.”  –John Ernest, author of Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History.

From Julie Weston:

My book, THE GOOD TIMES ARE ALL GONE NOW:  Life, Death and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town, is now out from the University of Oklahoma Press.  The official release date was September 15, although it was generally available the end of August.  I’ve been doing readings and signings in northern Idaho and Washington, which have been going well.  I’m also doing a “lecture” at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, Idaho, in November as part of the Center’s multi-disciplinary mining exhibition,  Prospects:  An Exploration of Mining.  OU Press is going into a second printing in the near future.
The book is a memoir of place about Kellogg, Idaho, where I grew up.  Mary Clearman Blew, John Rember, Craig Lesley and Carolyn See all generously wrote blurbs for me.  I hope you’ll take a look at the book and blurbs on my website:  www.juliewweston.com and if you’re still interested, read my posts on my blog:  www.juliewweston.blogspot.com .
It’s been fun to have many people who lived and worked in Kellogg or had family or friends there or knew about the mines write me notes and letters, and nearly everyone tells more stories.  Maybe I’ll have to think about a follow-up with just stories.  As most of you on this list already know, the promotion and marketing of a book is a darn sight different than writing one, and a lot of hard work!

From Lowell M. White, a new collection of stories, Long Time Ago Good
ISBN: 978-0941720045
$14.95