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Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian – excellent

February 1, 2020 18 comments

Incident at Twenty-Mile by Trevanian (1998) French title: Incident à Twenty-Mile. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of westerns. I know of the genre, I’ve seen passages of films, I know the key actors and what they look like but I haven’t actually watched a lot of those films. My mind doesn’t keep an extensive bank of western images for future reference. I like to think that I approach westerns in books with an almost clean mind.

My first western book was Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey and the next one was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. Incident at Twenty-Mile is my third visit to the genre, a western written by Trevanian in 1998. To be more precise, it is a novel that mixes two genres, western and crime fiction.

The novel opens at the State Prison at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 1898. Lieder is a very dangerous prisoner held in the security quarters of the prison. He reads a lot, can manipulate his wards and has already escaped from two other prisons. His new ward is a rookie and his colleagues have warned him against Lieder’s sneaky ways and violence.

Meanwhile, a young man named Matthew arrives at the small of town of Twenty-Mile, a town settled along a railway line between the town of Destiny and a silver mine up in the mountain. The few inhabitants of Twenty-Mile survive because they provide necessities and entertainment to the miners every weekend. This explains why the city has a General Store owned by Mr Kane and his daughter, an inn operated by the Bjorkvist family, a barber shop run by Pr Murphy, a brothel managed by Mr Delany and his three “girls” and a stable handled by Coots and BJ Stone.

When Matthew arrives at Twenty-Mile, he’s penniless and looking for a job. He makes a tour of the business owners but none of them wants to hire him. He doesn’t give up and convinces each of them to employ him for a few hours a day, selling himself at a low price in order to create his own job.

Through hard work, calm and politeness, Matthew worms himself in Twenty-Mile, ends up settling in the vacated sheriff’s house. He needs to belong to a community and decided to settle in this isolated town full of misfits.

From the beginning, we see that Matthew is a troubled man. He tries too hard. He’s afraid of rejection. He has a childish obsession for the children books The Ringo Kid, an anachronic reference to a Marvel Comics series from the 1950s. When he doesn’t know what to do, Matthew wonders what The Ringo Kid would do and acts accordingly. His father was a drunkard and he’s still trying to heal the scars he got from domestic violence and poverty. He wants to be loved and part of something.

Of course, Lieder escapes from Laramie’s prison with other inmates and decides that the money from the silver mine near Twenty-Mile would be a good loot. The town of Twenty-Mile gets prepared to defend itself against this dangerous criminal.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is absolutely brilliant. Trevanian is a gifted writer, with a flowing prose, a knack for describing landscapes and for setting a specific atmosphere. The people in Twenty-Mile are well-drawn, each of them has something in their past or their present that keeps them hostage of the place. The town is a character in itself, an example of these remote Western towns that grew over night, along with the discovery of gold or silver veins. Wyoming and Montana have ghost towns and Twenty-Mile is already declining. We know that if the mine closes, this town up the mountain will die with it.

This is my second Trevanian in a year, the other one was The Summer of Katyaa psychological thriller set in the Basque country in France before WWI. Despite the very different settings, the two books have similarities.

Here, Trevanian plays with codes of westerns, it’s obvious in the various descriptions of the street in Twenty-Mile and the way Matthew repeatedly squints at the horizon. You can almost hear a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

In both books, characters experienced a trauma in their adolescence and it affects their abilities to live as capable and sane adults. Lieder is a psychopath and his damaging childhood released a lot of violence in him, a total lack of empathy and a messianic vision of his role in this world. It’s a bit chilling and uncanny to hear him promote WASP supremacy and rant against immigrants.

Matthew isn’t a functioning adult either, only the outcome is different. He was the recipient of raw violence and does everything he can to tame these tendencies, thanks to the Ringo Kid ideal. I can’t say more to avoid spoilers but Trevanian’s exploration of Matthew’s mind and past goes farther.

In The Summer of Katya, Trevanian showed a pointed interest in psychoanalysis. I think that it is present in Incident at Twenty-Mile too and this particular undertone gives a special flavor to his novel.

Incident at Twenty-Mile is an excellent thriller, with an extraordinary sense of place, well-drawn characters and good suspense. Highly recommended.

Another great find by Gallmeister and masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

July 10, 2015 15 comments

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011) French title: Les frères Sisters.

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceasless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might just do as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?

DeWitt_SistersEli Sisters is the one talking. With his brother Charlie, he’s part of a duo of hitmen, the Sisters Brothers. We’re in Oregon and California at the time of the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers are on their way to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. It’s a job, they have no idea why the man is to be eliminated but they have no qualms about their mission. In appearance, at least.

We’re following the two brothers on their journey. Eli is our narrator and his rather candid voice needs to be reconciled with the killer curled up inside him and ready to attack if needed. Charlie is the leader and Eli follows him blindly because he doesn’t know anything else. They had a difficult childhood and their sticking together is their only way to have a family.

But now, they seem to be drifting apart. Eli would like to settle down, get married, open a shop and leave violence behind. Charlie is in a totally different place:

But yes, just as I longed for the organized solitude of the shopkeeper, so did Charlie wish for the days of continued excitement and violence, except he would no longer engage personally but dictate from behind a wall of well-armed soldiers, while he remained in perfumed rooms where fleshy women poured his drinks and crawled to the ground like hysterical infants, their backsides in the air, shivering with laughter and brandy and deviousness.

What an evocative description. You can imagine Charlie in the back room of a seedy saloon, clicking his fingers and having minions at his beck and calls while easy girls are all over him. This quote is representative of deWitt’s craft. He managed to mix the codes of westerns, demystifying the adventure and coupling it with a character who’s searching for a meaning to his life. The trip from Oregon to San Francisco is full of funny moments in the wilderness. Eli’s horse is slow and silly, they come by a haunted house, Eli gets a rash, discovers the usefulness of toothbrushes, they meet up with strangers, they fight, they camp and Patrick deWitt winks at us, saying “Remember all the classic scenes in western and see what I make of them”, like here:

Short, late-winter days, and we stopped in a dried ravine to make up camp for the night. You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This picaresque novel is full of humour and I had a lot of fun reading it. It is a strange combo of humour, violence, adventure, thoughts about life set in a vivid picture of California in the 19thC. Eli’s a funny narrator…

Charlie’s door was locked and when I knocked he made a guttural sound communicating a desire for solitude.

…even candid sometimes. The reader tends to forget he’s killed a lot of people, that the Sisters Brothers are famous for their track record as cold-blooded gunmen. It’s hard to reconcile Eli, the man self-conscious about his weight, longing for conjugal bliss, generous to horses, women and kids with the professional killer he is. He cares deeply about Charlie, even if the feeling isn’t always requited.

An important part of the book is linked to the Gold Rush and the way the possibility to be rich encouraged all kinds of weird adventures. I don’t want to tell too much about that part because it would spoil the book to others.

I’m not a great fan of westerns but this modern version is worth reading. DeWitt did something new, mixing light and deep, cartoonesque descriptions with soul searching moments. He dances on the edge of sadness and comedy. He calls to our common references about the American West and it works. It’s a page turner, well-written, endearing and entertaining.

Recommended.

Indian Country by Dorothy M Johnson

September 7, 2014 13 comments

Indian Country (A Man Called Horse) by Dorothy M Johnson 1953 French title: Contrée indienne (translated by Lili Sztajn)

I started Indian Country because I wanted to read short stories in French between chapters of The Grapes of Wrath which turned out to be difficult to follow with its constant somepin, purty and other spoken words. Contrée indienne is again a book published by Gallmeister. It’s a publisher I’ve already mentioned and I really really like their picks. They’re specialised in American literature and you can see the map of the writers they publish here. I’m a fan, everything I’ve read coming from this collection was excellent. Back to Indian Country, a collection of eleven short stories by Dorothy M. Johnson published in 1953 that includes the following short stories:

Johnson_liste_nouvelles

Johnson_Contrée_indienneAlthough I’d never heard of Dorothy Johnson, I had heard of her famous The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When I started the book, I thought I’d read one short story sandwiched between two chapters by Steinbeck. Big mistake. Dorothy Johnson’s stories are addictive and sound like bedtime stories when you want to say “please, another one. Just one, I promise”.

All the stories are set in the Great Plains. Although not defined in time, most of the stories happen at the arrival of settlers and in the second half of the 19thC. They either describe the settlers’ life (Prairie Kid, Beyond the Frontier or Laugh in the Face of Danger) and the harshness of their living conditions or they explore the interaction between the Whites and the Native Americans. I have absolutely no idea if what Dorothy Johnson describes about Native American customs is accurate. It seemed non-judgemental to me and since she was made honorary member of the Blackfoot tribe, I assume she knew what she was talking about.

The issue of identity is central in this collection of short stories. Through her characters, Dorothy M. Johnson questions the essence of our identity. Who are we? Are we deep in and forever a member of our childhood culture? Can we merge into another culture and live our birth culture behind?

1010_NavajoSeveral stories revolve around the integration of white people in an Indian tribe, temporarily or not. The men or women came to live with the tribe as prisoners and managed to assimilate their culture…or not. In The Unbeliever, Mahlon Mitchell would love to leave behind his white culture to become a Crow in his heart and soul. But he has trouble with the spiritual side of the culture, not that he’s a devoted Christian. He’s at ease among the Crows; he respects their culture and believes they treat old people better than the American society does. Still, he can only state that he remains “white” in his reflexes, ways of thinking and vision of the world. War Shirt is another example. It’s about two brothers, one coming from the East to look for his long lost brother. He’s led to believe that his brother has become a fierce Indian warrior. When they meet, the question is open: is this man his brother although he denies it? Has that man who had been rejected by his father and sent to the new territories turned his back to his past up to the point of pushing back his brother?

Another side of the identity quest is: can we reinvent ourselves? As a Native American, as a mountain man, as a farmer. Are the new territories of the West an opportunity to become someone else? Is it even possible?

And above all, are we only the sum of our actions? This idea is explored in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or in Warrior’s Exile, where Smoke Rising is not considered as a man because he never had his vision and never killed an enemy. He’s a nonentity. Dorothy M. Johnson shows that both culture value bravery and the capacity to kill as an abacus to measure the value of a man. Basically, the identity of a man is based upon violence. Do I sense a feminist criticism here? Since Ms Johnson prided herself for her independence after a nasty marriage, I can’t help wondering if she purposely put this forward.

Although Dorothy M. Johnson doesn’t hide the violence among settlers and between the settlers and the Native Americans, her tone is moderate and the stories never too harsh. The times are difficult and dangerous but there’s hope. I’ve also read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx and her vision of the time is a lot darker. People die in horrible conditions, the weather is deathly, the settlers are isolated from one another. When you read Proulx, you realise that what she writes is totally plausible and that make the short stories even more unsettling. One mistake can cost you your life. Make the wrong decision and you freeze to death. Johnson is not that dramatic but sounds plausible too.

Oddly, Indian Country is out-of-print in English but used copies are available. I understand that westerns are out-of-fashion but it’s not a reason to dismiss Dorothy M. Johnson as a writer. Luckily, there are always libraries and I’ve heard they’re quite good in America.



Stormy riders or when I read my first western

December 17, 2013 14 comments

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. 1912. Not translated into French.

An’ I’d like you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody. You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’ I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders. An’ we have—what you’ve lived through these last months. It can’t be helped. But it can’t last always. An’ remember his—some day the border’ll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like Lassiter!”

Grey_Zane_RidersI have to confess that all I know about westerns are clichés. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at night and I missed the opportunity to see the most famous ones. As an adult, I have trouble watching films on DVDs and on TV. I tend to fall asleep or be distracted. I find it difficult to be absorbed in a movie seen on a television screen. For me, cinema means going out to see a film in a dark room among strangers and if you pick the right films, you might even avoid the pop-corn munchers. This explains why I have seen so little old movies and thus have not caught up with all the westerns I should have seen at my respectable age. But back to the book.

Riders of the Purple Sage opens with a typical western scene. We’re in 1871 at the border of Utah. A young Gentile* man, Bern Venters is about to get whipped in the sage for befriending Jane Withersteen, a Mormon young woman. Tull, the Minister of the Mormon Church in Cottonwoods wants to whip and exile Venters and intends to marry Jane. She’s the richest person of the village; she owns a ranch, herds and the only source of water. She’s a catch. Jane refuses Tull and Venters is in a desperate situation when Lassiter shows up and drives Tull and his men away. This dramatic scene is the start of everything. Lassiter, a well-known gun-man arrived at Cottonwoods to understand what happened to Milly Fern. His interfering in Jane and Venter’s business will break the peace. Tull now craves for revenge and will do everything in his power to ruin Jane, morally and financially. The neighbourhood is also hunted by rustlers led by Oldridge accompanied by his Masked Rider. They steal cattle and nobody knows where the animals are led. When Jane’s red herd disappears, Venters heads for Deception Pass, where the herds vanish, decided to avoid Tull and discover where Oldridge and his riders hide. His encounter with Oldridge’s men is violent and he almost kills the Masked Rider, only to discover that he’s a she, Bess.

The novel follows two story strands, one with Jane and Lassiter in Cottonwoods and another one with Venters and Bess in the sage. Their paths cross, they help each other as they’re on the same side. The four main characters have to go through their personal journey and the events unravel before our eyes. The four of them are tortured souls, for different reasons. The four of them will have their epiphany.

Jane Withersteen is a very pious woman. She was raised a Mormon, she has a deep faith and she respects her bishop and her minister. When she refuses Tull, here’s what she’s told:

Marry Tull. It’s your duty as a Mormon. You’ll feel no rapture as his wife—but think of Heaven! Mormon women don’t marry for what they expect on earth. Take up the cross, Jane.

Isn’t that cheerful and awfully tempting? The American version of “Close your eyes and think of England”. I found Zane Grey extremely hard on the Mormon community in Cottonwoods. They are Christian zealots who preach a message they don’t practice. Women are oppressed and churchmen take advantage of their spiritual power to keep a hold on the population. Gentiles are discriminated. Jane is brainwashed and doesn’t see them as men with flaws but as churchmen, better men than others, by definition. The events force her to acknowledge the truth and Lassiter will be the messenger.

Lassiter is also a broken soul. He’s driven by his quest: what has become of Milly Ern? It makes him relentless and lonely. He has everything of the ragged hero hiding a heart of gold. Jane will force him to reconsider his lifestyle and his goals in life.

Venters the Gentile was a pariah and his encounter with Bess will change him. He will find his true self in the wilderness and the passages of his exploration of the canyons and the valleys are simply beautiful. They echo his stormy inner mind and he becomes one with his surroundings:

When he gained the cover of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then he saw how the trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of rain had run down the slope, circling, eddying in depressions, wearing deep round holes. There had been dry seasons, accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and cedars rose wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if growth were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old. Theirs had been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange sympathy for them. This country was hard on trees—and men.

Venters discovers a secluded valley that be baptises Surprise Valley. Its description is like a time machine, bringing back Venters and Bess to Paradise before the fall. Grey pictures striking landscapes inhabited with lively fauna:

Out of his cave he saw the exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces crossing a round space of blue morning sky; and in this lacy leafage fluttered a number of gray birds with black and white stripes and long tails. They were mocking-birds, and they were singing as if they wanted to burst their throats.

I wanted to go there and see everything with my own eyes. He has a gift for cinematographic descriptions. There’s a superb scene where Venters chases after another rider. It’s gripping, the ride described so precisely I imagined I was on horseback with Venters. He also knows how to build tension, like here when Venters is in a critical situation:

Perceptions flashed upon him, the faint, cold touch of the breeze, a cold, silvery tinkle of flowing water, a cold sun shining out of a cold sky, song of birds and laugh of children, coldly distant. Cold and intangible were all things in earth and heaven. Colder and tighter stretched the skin over his face; colder and harder grew the polished butts of his guns; colder and steadier became his hands as he wiped the clammy sweat from his face or reached low to his gun-sheaths.

Can’t you imagine him? This book also came with a mental soundtrack. I know I should have been hearing music by Ennio Morricone when I was reading but all I could think about was the haunting Riders on the Storm by The Doors. Add to the mix that I had reached the page of Red River Valley in my piano textbook and there was no room left for classic western soundtrack. I was all with riders and cowboys. Sorry.

Considering the time this book stayed in the Currently Reading box, you’d think it’s 800 pages long instead of 300ish. It took me ages to go through the descriptions of the landscapes, of the rides and of Vender walking in the canyons. I had trouble with the vocabulary related to herds and had to pause to imagine the men riding in the different paths. I paused to polish mental pictures of the scenes I was reading. I had also to deal with the spoken language with sentences like this “An’ they jest froze up—thet dark set look thet makes them strange an’ different to me.” or this “Wal, hev it your way, Bern. I hope you’re right. Nat’rully I’ve been some sore on Lassiter fer gittin’ soft. But I ain’t denyin’ his nerve, or whatever’s great in him thet sort of paralyzes people. I had to tell the words in my head to figure out what they meant and imagine the accent. Since I have a terrible French accent when I speak English, I’m not sure I really figured out how these men were speaking. However, I will always marvel at the elasticity of the English language. You can’t really do that in French; it’s hard to transcribe accents.

Although it demanded a tremendous amount of concentration to me, I highly recommend Riders of the Purple Sage. It has all the qualities of a great book. It’s gripping, well-written and well-constructed. I need to thank Max for recommending this novel to me. So thanks, Max, that was a treat and I didn’t know Zane Grey. I looked him up on Wikipedia, though. He was the first writer to become rich thanks to his books. His novels are currently out of print in French and that’s a shame. I suppose westerns aren’t fashionable anymore.

* All along the novel, Gentile will be used to define non-Mormon characters. Don’t ask me why. Lack of a better word?

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