Bill Hartley is down Mexico way
The geography of violence can remain constant over very long periods. For example, the Texas-Mexico border country was and remains a violent place. There are towns in Texas with populations the size of Bridlington or Leighton Buzzard which have crime rates that might see a British chief constable out of a job. Texas has been described as the US state that lets people have guns then executes them for using them and it’s even worse on the Mexico side of the border.
Authors have effectively mined these lawless territories. To describe such literature merely as Westerns would be to assume an association with the sagebrush sagas of Zane Grey and the like. Critics sometimes describe them as ‘Neo Westerns’. They are the work of writers who appreciate that this setting continues to provide an excellent platform for storytelling and which century they choose doesn’t really matter.
Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992) was a novelist of considerable range and span. The Shootist (1975) wasn’t his first venture into the genre but it is a novel that overturns every western cliché to produce something highly original. The book shouldn’t be too closely identified with the 1976 film of the same name. This is a far deeper and darker story.
It is 1901 and into a fast modernising El Paso comes a man most believe to be dead. JB Books, last of the Shootists. To emphasise that an era has ended he reads about the death of Queen Victoria in the local paper. Books is in town to get a second opinion from a doctor acquaintance who confirms the original diagnosis: he has advanced prostate cancer. During his final days, Books attempts to be a positive influence on Gillom, the fatherless son of his boarding house landlady. He fails. The youth is a conscienceless thief with the potential to be much worse.
In the final quite brilliant chapter, Books arrives for the inevitable showdown in a tramcar. The cancer has made riding a horse impossible. He holds a conversation in his head with the dead queen whilst entering not a frontier saloon but a proto-Edwardian gin palace, complete with ceiling fan and telephone. The nineteenth century meets the twentieth. Swarthout doesn’t spare the reader when it comes to the effects of low velocity bullets striking human flesh. Men go down with awful wounds and lie there slowly expiring. At the end of the slaughter Gillom enters, picks up Books’ guns and almost by osmosis assumes the murderous mantle of the Shootist.
Larry McMurtry, an author whose whose screen credits go back as far as the Paul Newman film Hud is responsible for creating a character who has joined a list of the most memorable in twentieth century fiction. Augustus McCrae appeared in Lonesome Dove, the Pulitzer prize winning novel of 1985. Reflecting on McCrae and his partner Woodrow Call, a chalk and cheese pairing, McMurtry said that his influence was Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In Lonesome Dove, the two take part in an epic cattle-drive akin to a voyage of exploration. Rejecting the convention that anyone in the west can herd cattle, the author has McCrae point out that ‘we don’t know nothing about being cowboys’. What follows is a tale of amateurs setting out in pursuit of a dream. The trigger for their departure is the death of an old enemy. As McCrae says, ‘the fun’s over round here’ meaning there is no worthy adversary left.
This area was dangerous back then and is still so today. The reasons may have changed with drugs and people smuggling replacing rustling but it remains an unforgiving place. Swarthout’s ailing gunfighter drifts out of the past into a town with telephones, streetcars and uniformed police but it only takes his arrival to strip away the veneer of civilisation, as three violent men eagerly step forward to challenge the Shootist and acquire his reputation. Prudently the law decides to look the other way. McMurtry’s creations inhabit the same landscape. The eponymous Lonesome Dove being a flyspeck on the map close to the Rio Grande. Early in the novel the two men set out on a horse stealing expedition south of the border. In the US as former lawmen they would have handed out summary justice with a rope. In Mexico they treat it as a high risk adventure. Although the two have spent fifteen years in this border country, the author is slow to get the cattle drive underway, since there is a need to assemble an unforgettable assortment of heroes, villains and outlaws to support the story. Despite the potential of a cattle drive for story telling, some critics believe that it has produced only one great novel and Lonesome Dove is it.
Blood Meridian (1985) considered by some to be Cormack McCarthy’s masterpiece is one of those books which can be found listed among the last century’s greatest novels. It tells the story of The Kid (he never gets a name) a frontier waif who joins up with the Glanton gang operating along the border in 1849-50. The gang actually existed and were scalp hunters contracted to the Mexican authorities as a way of dealing with their Apache problem. Evidently the gang soon increased their income by killing any Indians. McCarthy’s description of these savages moving across this cruel landscape like a pestilence is sometimes quite poetic:
‘For the next two weeks they would ride by night, they would make no fire. They had struck the shoes from their horses and filled the nailholes with clay and those who still had tobacco used their pouches to spit in and they slept in caves and on bare stone. They rode their horses through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all. Crossing these barren gravel reefs in the night they seemed remote and without substance…..’
At one point the depravity off the Glanton Gang is contrasted with a raiding party of Comanche. MCarthy makes them seem more like a Mongol horde as they sweep across country killing and looting everything in their path. There is nothing to choose between the so called savages and those riding with Captain Glanton, who is eventually recognised as a menace to all. Added to this, McCarthy has also created another of modern fiction’s memorable characters, Judge Holden. He is a polymath, a fantastical figure both physically and intellectually, nearly seven feet tall and hairless. He acts as Glanton’s ‘legal advisor’ and moves through the carnage being variously described by critics as a godlike figure or the embodiment of evil. On one occasion the gang pursued by the Apache’s are out of powder. Holden’s knowledge of chemistry allows him to gather up the raw materials for powder manufacture and thus rearm the gang.
In 2005, McCarthy revisited the same borderlands in No Country for Old Men. The story is set in 1980 and this time the source of violence is drugs. The narrator Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is a man weary of it all and his reminiscences form part of the narration. As the 2007 film based on the book (which won four Academy Awards) emphasised, McCarthy retains his ability to create truly memorable villains.
These books bring a sense of timelessness, although if anything the violence in the present century has become worse. The borderlands are both a physical and a literary landscape where technology might change but nothing much else does. Violence and lawlessness remain the constants and have been the source of some great books.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire