Monday, August 17, 2009


I read a Brian Garfield novel a little better than a month ago. I was going to review it originally, then I got lazy or busy or something, and it never happened. But the problem—the story, the characters, and the action won’t leave me alone. It visits me in small segments; something the characters said, a twist of the plot, the setting, the lonely desperation. 

Everything comes in small vivid flashes at moments when I should be sleeping, working, or generally concentrating on something else. So here, finally, is a little something about it.
The title: Fear in a Handful of Dust as by John Ives. It was originally published in 1979.

Calvin Duggai is a veteran of the Vietnam War. He is Navajo and was raised traditionally on the reservation. He has been in a mental institution for the criminally insane for seven months. The institution is a place worse than hell for Duggai. It is squalled, harsh, and pungent with the rancidness of human decay and rot—

“He hears the slap of the bolt and the male nurse’s footsteps pocking away down the corridor; he hears the squeak of springs, the rustle of bedclothes along the ward. He hears Joley’s fear-of-darkness whimpering and someone’s catarrhal snort and the empty bitter cough of an inmate’s laughter.”

Duggai was transferred to the asylum from prison. He was convicted of murder. He stranded five men in the Mojave Desert to die solemn and harsh deaths after an argument. He was sent to prison and then declared insane by four psychiatrists, including a man named MacKenzie. A man half Navajo, but raised far from the reservation and culture. A man who is very different from Calvin Duggai. Duggai blames the psychiatrists for his hellish imprisonment in the asylum and when he escapes he has only one thing on his mind. Vengeance.

Fear in a Handful of Dust is a modern Western. The setting is the New Mexico / Arizona deserts, but it is more than just the setting that makes it a Western. It is the attitude and atmosphere—humanity and nature. A battle between two men (Duggai and MacKenzie), both from the same place, but with very different attitudes—one has spent his life escaping his roots and the other embraced them. 
It is a small-scale story, an adventure more than a thriller, as the protagonist—MacKenzie—must save only himself and his three companions. But the group represents more than just itself—it represents society in its many complex and conflicting mannerisms. There is love, hate, responsibility, jealousy and envy. It is an adventure story with many of the elements that make a Western a Western—the lonely protagonist with the skills and drive to save society; a society that he only marginally belongs to, and a society that can never quite fully accept his presence.

Fear in a Handful of Dust is brilliant. Everything works. The action. The pacing. The plot. The prose; elegantly simple. The dialogue. The characterization. It all works to a stunningly violent and meaningful climax. If your only exposure to the work of Brian Garfield are the Death Wish films, read this novel and be blown away.

It really should still be in print.

Fear in a Handful of Dust was made into a low budget film titled Fleshburn. It was released in 1984 and directed by George Gage. It was written by George and Beth Gage and starred Steve Kanaly, Karen Carlson, and Sonny Landham.


Frank Loose said...

Thanks for posting a review of this book. I was not aware of it. You have piqued my interest and I will be on the hunt for a copy.

Anonymous said...

I had owned a paperback version. It had been titled 'FEAR'. The sheer terror and horror as Calvin transports his bound and gagged helpless victims in his van is superb.