Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BARBED WIRE by Elmer Kelton

I have listened to few audio books. I never seem to have time; at work I tend to concentrate on work and lose the plot and action. In my car I tend to listen to, and curse at, traffic. But my wife gave me an MP3 a few days ago and it took me about two hours to download a book from the library, and I really enjoyed it.

The novel was a short western by Elmer Kelton. The title: Barbed Wire. It was originally published in 1957, and it has lost little of its impact over the fifty years since its first publication. It is a Texas range war story that is told, essentially, from the perspective of a fence builder—although it is told from several view points. The land is split between ranchers and dirt farmers; it is open range country, and the largest rancher—Captain Rinehart—wants it to stay that way.

The story unfolds as the Captain battles against the coming fences that will lock away the water, and cut the land into tiny rectangles of farms and ranches. It is the future; this separation of land that will allow herds to be bred exclusively, crops to be secured against the roaming cattle, and the protection and hoarding of water in a dry country. It is a future that terrifies the Captain enough that he is willing to let himself be mislead into action by his foreman.

Barbed Wire is an excellent western. It is only my second experience with the work of Elmer Kelton, the first was his novel Badger Boy, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot is fairly generic, but its execution, characters and authenticity, mark it a few notches better than the norm. The prose is gritty and matches the western plot like a glove—

“It was a sorry way for a cowboy to make a living, Doug Monahan thought disgustedly. Bending his back over a rocky posthole, he plunged the heavy iron crowbar downward, hearing its angry ring and feeling the violent jar of it bruising the stubborn rock bottom. He rubbed sweat from his forehead into his sleeve and straightened his sore back, pausing to rest a moment and look around.”

The plot is executed with a tight linear momentum that takes the expected and makes it fresh and somehow new. The characters are tough and realistic, the action is paced with an equitable easiness—a pace that is far from melodramatic, but is exciting and seemingly authentic.

Ken Marks read Barbed Wire. His voice is mellow and southern, a perfect fit for the story. He is easy to understand and he brings the story vividly to life.

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