Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fort Sumner, New Mexico and Billy the Kid

Fort Sumner, New Mexico is a tiny agrarian village 160 miles southeast of Albuquerque. It was originally an internment camp for the Navajo and Mescalero Apache. It was called the Bosque Redondo reservation. The Mescalero quietly left on a cold February night in 1865, and the Navajo were starving after catastrophic crop failures in 1865, ’66, and ’67. The camp was closed in 1868, and the Army sold its buildings to Lucien Maxwell in 1870. Eleven years later William H. Bonney—Billy the Kid—was shot dead in the home of Lucien Maxwell’s son Pete by Pat Garrett, and buried in the old camp cemetery.

Fort Sumner sits in the Pecos River valley and is surprisingly verdant. The Pecos is a ditch of a river. Its muddy water almost stagnant as it ebbs towards Texas and the Rio Grande. Cottonwood trees and alfalfa fields surround the graveyard. There is a worn out historical marker with a caption at the top reading, “Official Scenic Historic Marker” and a privately owned museum at the cemetery’s edge—“Old Fort Sumner Museum—Gravesite of Billy the Kid”.

It is a warm August afternoon 133 years after Billy’s death. A few people wander the graveyard. It is fenced. Billy’s marker is near the center. A rod iron cage surrounds the grave; four sides and top. The Kid is jailed even in death. Nameless tourists have scattered coins across the grave’s surface. A show of respect for a man who is a folk legend. A man who murdered for money.

Fort Sumner is south and east of the shabby Interstate town of Santa Rosa. It sits squarely on I-40 east of the Pecos. Its main street is Historic Route 66. A quiet two lane highway curls south and east from Santa Rosa across surprisingly green desert hill country. The flora is sage in color, but it is desert and the beauty is its variation. It is monochromatic; creosote, pinon, and grass shimmer in the clear morning light. A rare gash of red earth adding contrast. Nothing exists between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner. No towns. No sites. Nothing but empty road. A handful of ranches marked by dirt trails, and maybe a sign—Juan De Dios Ranch, Pettigrew Ranch.

Fort Sumner proper—the modern town—sits at the junction of U. S. 60 and 84. It hasn’t changed in decades. Its main street is a 1950s Hollywood back lot. Red and brown brick buildings. Flat roofed, attached one to another. Appealing, but faded. A picture of desperate tranquility.

The old cemetery is east of downtown, and south of U. S. 84. It is peaceful. An alfalfa field across the oiled road. The crop cut and drying in rows. The air dry and warm. A deep silence broken only occasionally by a passing truck. The crunch of gravel under tires in the museum parking lot. The few people milling around speak seldom, and when they do it is in hushed whispers. Almost reverentially. It is a cemetery. A place of death. A place of quiet.

I am struck less by the significance of the boy-criminal buried here, and more by its silent past. Everything that once was is gone. The Navajo and Mescalero who toiled in the fields. The soldiers. William Bonney, Pete Maxwell, and Pat Garret. The violence of that July night in 1881. All gone. Dead with nothing but a whisper of what was. Standing outside the cage surrounding William Bonney’s gravesite, the final stanza of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” kept rattling in my mind—  

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper        

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES. Billy the Kid was born November 23, 1859 in New York City as William Henry McCarty. His life was violent and short. Legend has him killing 21 men, but historians believe it closer to eight. He went by many names—Henry McCarty, Henry Antrim—but he was always known as “The Kid”. He spent his final years in New Mexico and named himself William H. Bonney. He was killed in a dark room of Pete Maxwell’s house in Fort Sumner July 14, 1881.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thrift Store Book Covers: "Wollheim's Best SF: Series One"

Wollheim’s Best SF: Series One is a reprint of the anthology The 1972 Annual World’s Best SF. It features an impressive catalog of authors, including Barry N. Malzberg, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison. While the writers included are impressive, the cover art is even better. The colors are a subdued with sharp lines and it hasn’t a certain muted starkness. The artist is John Berkey.

The opening paragraph of the Introduction by Donald A. Wollheim:    

“The essence of science fiction is that this is a changing world. In consequence science fiction reflects this. Though science fiction sets up stereotypes, they are stereotypes of that which may some day be or which might have been or could be, but they are always presentations of some form of a changed world.”

This is the seventh of a series of posts featuring the cover art and miscellany of books I find at thrift stores and used bookshops. It is reserved for books I purchase as much for the cover art as the story or author.

Friday, August 08, 2014

THUNDER AT NOON by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Thunder at Noon is the eleventh novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964. It was extensively rewritten, and published as Dillinger in 1983, which is a shame because Thunder is a pretty terrific novel and its revision essentially doomed the original story to extinction.

1930. Mexico’s revolution is still a fresh memory. Harry Jordan is an English mining engineer who came to Mexico seeking adventure and wealth. He found an abundance of the former and little of the later. He spent the last year panning for gold in the Yaqui River basin and as the novel opens he is in Durango waiting for the next train north. His plans change when he is arrested on trumped up tax evasion charges after refusing a job offer from a wealthy mine owner named Don Jose Manuel de Rivera.

Jordan makes the only choice left and accompanies de Rivera to his mine outside the small town of Hermosa in Northeast Mexico. The mine is in deplorable condition. The ventilation system is unusable, and the reinforcing timbers are rotting. De Rivera is determined to get as much gold from the dilapidated mine as he can before it collapses, and the native Indians—who happen to be Apache—are used as something very close to slave labor.   

Thunder at Noon is Harry Patterson’s version of a western. It is more adventure than traditional, but the setting and story are wholly western. The language is less eloquent and more realistic than much of Mr Patterson’s work. It is something approaching hard boiled. An early passage describing the remains of a young woman, after her execution by a Mexican cavalry troop, is particularly rich—

“As [the train] began to pull away, the sun crept over the rim of the mountains, slanting across the valley. The scarlet skirt of the Indian girl, as she sprawled face down, was like blood in the dust.”

The desert landscape of Northern Mexico is realistically rendered as an ambivalent, and somewhat menacing, spectator—

“When he opened the shutters the mountain was waiting for him as it had always done, crouching darkly out there in the desert, its jagged spines touched with gold in the early-morning sun.”

The plot is Harry Patterson’s usual smooth and professional job. No gimmicks. No coincidences. And nothing left dangling. It reads something like a mixture of a Zorro story—specifically the corrupt and brutal landowner—and a western film. I was reminded of both the film “The Searchers” and, particularly the descriptions of the desert landscape, of a Shadowlands story by H. A. DeRosso.

The antagonists—and there are many—are portrayed as something like incarnate evil. A band of outlaw Apaches, led by a warrior named Diablo, are especially brutal. They kill and mutilate with pleasure. It is caricature, but caricature effectively used, and used without malice. Mr Patterson’s portrayal of the outlaw Apaches is juxtaposed by his use of an old Apache chief named Nachita as one of the supporting protagonists, and, after a particularly gruesome death scene one of the protagonists, a veteran of the Great War named Steiner, philosophically utters—

“‘On the Western front we maimed men just as neatly with shrapnel and shell-splinters.’”        

Thunder at Noon is both a superb adventure novel, and a much better than average western. It is one of the more difficult Harry Patterson titles to find. It was, to my knowledge, never published in the United States and never released in paperback in the United Kingdom. I was lucky to find it in a 1965 book club omnibus from Man’s Book (sort of like The Detective Book Club in the United States). Its second incarnation as Dillinger is its lesser self, and at its core very different; meaning more than just the name of the protagonist changed.

The Man’s Book edition included a photograph of a young Harry Patterson, and I was unable to resist posting it here.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Library of America Scheduled to Release Elmore Leonard Omnibus

This is kind of cool news. Library of America is welcoming the work of Elmore Leonard to its series of high quality hardcover omnibus editions. It is includes four of Mr Leonard’s early novels: Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Swag (1976), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), and The Switch (1978). Its scheduled release date is August 28, 2014.

Library of America traditionally publishes classic American literature—Walt Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, Edith Wharton, etc.—and over the last several years it has begun publishing genre writers from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including work by Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Richard Matheson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE LAWBRINGERS by Brian Garfield

The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, the bad guys are too bad, and the natives are one-dimensional cutouts. The townsfolk—the common working class—are portrayed as stupid, weak, or both.

In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. There have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10 percent that separates a viable genre from a dead one and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the novels published today.

An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, ACE, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.

The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in an unexpected way. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.

The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not the end justified the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less an end to his jurisdiction and more an artificial line to be ignored.

Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but he hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.

The Lawbringers manages to does all that and also tell an exciting and tight tale. It has a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis of right and wrong. It has a conscience without being limited or judged by that conscience. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10 percent, which has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.

This post originally went live September 1, 2009 right here at Gravetapping.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mom (December 2, 1941 to July 27, 1994)

20 years. That is how long it has been since we spoke. Since you gave me advice. Since you were part of my life. That last time is vivid in my memory. A hot July evening in the kitchen. The faded, dirty brown linoleum. The white walls. The cheap brown table. You were in a wheel chair; body wasted. Hair so red, so short. That damn bright red seat cushion that gave less than concrete. The pain in your eyes haunting, feverish. The black canker of disease devouring you. Your only grasp on life; hard stubborn will. And love. And maybe fear. Not for you, but for me.

I let you go that night. I told you I would be fine. I lied. Every word a lie. I wasn’t alright. I’m not alright. I survive. I’ve survived nearly half my life without you. Without a mother. Without my mother. There are days I hardly think of you, but not many. Mostly I wonder how it would be if cancer hadn’t destroyed you. Eaten you. I wonder what you would teach my child. My daughter with red hair. My daughter with your sweet, kind demeanor. My daughter who you never met. Who will never meet you.

It has been 20 years since my whispered request of “mom,” was answered. It has been 20 good, hard, and bad years. 20. A number that is impossible. A number that is so very unfair. A number that represents the years spent without the benefit of your quiet, beautiful wisdom. A span of two decades that passed like a long weekend, but has somehow felt like an eternity. I have nothing but memory—

That warm autumn day we took the bus to Safeway—why we didn’t drive I will never remember—eating that package of Snowballs on the grass berm waiting for the bus.

That day I picked a package of gum—Big Red in my memory—from the shelf and pocketed it without paying. You made me return it. To the store manager no less, and apologize, and promise never to do it again.

That day you purchased me a cheap plastic Batman Halloween costume before taking me to Dad’s shop to show it off.

That day you stood up to the school bus driver for me.—

It has been 20 years Mom. You have been gone so very long, but still, if I can find silence. A quiet place. If I concentrate. If I want to badly enough, I can still hear you. I can feel the gentle timbre of your voice like a summer breeze. I can feel your pride, joy, sorrow, and disappointment. You are gone Mom, but everything you taught me. Everything you were is still here. It is with me. It is with my family. It is with my little girl.

It has been 20 years Mom, and still I miss you. Still I mourn you. Still I love you.

Friday, July 25, 2014

WRATH OF THE LION by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Wrath of the Lion is the twelfth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964, and it is both the longest and best of Mr Patterson’s first dozen novels. Mr Patterson’s early novels all had marvelous titles, and this is one of my favorite. It comes from a line in William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”—

“The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.”

Neil Mallory is a former SAS Colonel now working for British Intelligence. He is sent to a small island in the English Channel, closer to France than England, to search for a French submarine with a renegade crew. The L’Allouette (ironically meaning “lark” in English) has been cruising the French coast making mischief. It forced a boarding on a ship in the Channel and executed an aging public prosecutor responsible for convicting several of the crews’ comrades.

Mallory’s mission: find the L’Allouette and call in the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. The island has only a handful of full time residents, and the heavy, who is a self-exiled former military officer from an old line family, seemingly knows more about Mallory’s doings than Mallory knows about his.

Wrath of the Lion is the most complete of Mr Patterson’s earliest work—its characters are crisply developed (and believable—Mallory has something of a genuinely unsavory past), its plot is linear, tricky (in a good way), and while not surprising to the 21st century reader, it is executed with an almost flawless professionalism and very, very entertaining. The prose is eloquent and smooth describing the action, setting, and characters in a succinct and (somehow) economical manner—

“He took her arm. They walked to the corner and turned into the street. It started to rain, a thin drizzle that beaded the iron railings like silver. There was a dull, aching pain in her ankle and the old houses floated in the fog, unreal and insubstantial, part of a dark dream from which she had yet to awaken, and the pavement seemed to move beneath her feet.”

The setting is a perfect fit for the period it was written. The bad guys belong to a real world French terrorist organization referred to in the novel as the “O.A.S.,” which is an acronym for “Organisation de l’armee secrete”; or its literal English transaction, “Organization of the Secret Army.” The O.A.S. was a group dedicated to keeping French colonial rule in Algeria. It, most notably, made an assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in 1962.

The factual detail—sprinkled into the narrative in small morsels—is as interesting as the plot. There is an interesting definition of the word “karate,” a bevy of detail about 1960s French-Algeria relations, the workings—in surprising detail—of the tiny Type XXIII U-boat design (an undersea electric tin can), and even a perfectly placed quote—from what I believe is Shakespeare—

“When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon.”        

—which is everything one expects from a high quality Harry Patterson novel.

Neil Mallory may seem familiar to the regular reader of Mr Patterson’s work, and for good reason. A very different Neil Mallory starred in The Last Place God Made; an incarnation that was saw him as bush pilot rather than a former SAS officer.