Friday, September 24, 2010

A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler (debut Western novel)

Update: For those who have been waiting, A Congregation of Jackals is now available in an electronic edition, with the trade paperback slated for May 2011.

Author S. Craig Zahler's debut Western novel (he is best known for his film work) opens with a scene that quickly lets readers know what is in store if they continue reading A Congregation of Jackals. In it, a set of swarthy twin outlaws torture a young newlywed couple physically and emotionally just for the fun of it.

Then the story shifts to the main plot: 47-year-old rancher Oswell Danford receives a telegram inviting him to Trailspur for the wedding of one of his old gang, James Lingham, to Beatrice Jeffries, daughter of local sheriff T.W. Jeffries. "All old acquaintances will be in attendance," promises the sender, and this makes Oswell and the other recipients — Dicky Sterling and Oswell's brother Godfrey — very nervous, as it means that the fifth of their Tall Boxer Gang is ready to settle an old score.

A Congregation of Jackals is a mature and thoughtful Western that can stand up alongside anything that Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry have written. At the same time, its unrepentant violence, intensity, and dark worldview could easily appeal to fans of hardboiled crime fiction, as well as current envelope-pushing Western authors like Peter Brandvold, Max McCoy, and J. Lee Butts.

I especially liked Zahler's choice to tell the backstory of Oswell's bank-robbing past through the letters he writes home to his wife during his long journey to Trailspur. Not only is it an improvement over the traditional flashback, but in telling the story through Oswell's own words, it gives the reader a chance to get to know him, and his feelings about his past, before all hell breaks loose.

Because once the wedding starts, the tension is unbreakable, as Oswell, Dicky, and Godfrey guard the church door in preparation for the arrival of Quinlan, their expected but unwanted visitor. Locals and outlanders work together to ensure that nothing will ruin the ceremony. But no one can possibly be prepared for what Quinlan has in store for them and anyone who gets in his way.

Zahler's choices in A Congregation of Jackals are truly surprising. He seems to give Quinlan a free hand, tending toward the brutal realism of a man who has been stewing over a betrayal for decades and is finally ready to make his retribution fantasies reality. None of the characters is safe; anyone could die at any time, so the suspense is always high.

A Congregation of Jackals is a truly modern Western. Zahler takes all the traditional excitement of a narrative of the Old West and injects it with a 21st-century sensibility, giving it a freshness not often seen. In order to survive, the Western genre needs to appeal to newer, younger readers, and Zahler's cinematic style may be just the thing to draw them in.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Native Son by Richard Wright (unabridged audio book read by Peter Francis James)

A classic of African American literature — and indeed of any kind — author Richard Wright's Native Son is surprisingly accessible to the modern reader, since it is basically a crime novel with literary leanings. Bigger Thomas lives with his mother, sister, and brother in one room on the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. They are so cramped, they have to turn away while the others dress, causing much embarrassment all around.

Bigger is not ambitious — and he actually seems a bit lazy — but a chance connection gets him a good job chauffeuring for the owner of the Thomases' apartment building, Mr. Dalton. Wright clearly shows the mixture of fear, shame, and anger that Bigger feels toward whites, and it is these conflicting yet combined emotions that cause most of his later trouble.

He is supposed to drive the Daltons' daughter, Mary, to the university his first night on the job, but she has him detour to meet up with her Communist boyfriend, Jan Erlone. The couple were previously the subject of a gossip newsreel viewed by Bigger and a friend earlier that day, a bit of a scandal since Mr. and Mrs. Dalton are most fervently not Red supporters.

Mary and Jan invite Bigger to hang out with them, whereupon they all get a little too drunk. Delivering the girl to her room late that night, Bigger nearly has his way with the barely conscious (but seemingly willing) Mary, but the blind Mrs. Dalton enters the room to check on her daughter. Bigger panics, fearing the worst if he is found in the bedroom of the white girl. He reaches for a pillow....

I don't have to tell you what happens next. And Wright doesn't shy away from any of it. Every aspect is there on the page: the fingernails scratching his hand, the glassy eyes, the realization of what he has done, his decision to cover it up and blame it on the boyfriend, his decision to simply make the body disappear, the planning, the trunk, the hatchet, the furnace ... and that's only part one of Native Son, entitled "Fear."

From there, Wright chronicles seemingly every detail of the aftermath, including Bigger's attempt to frame Jan, nearly successful through his overconfidence in the whites' underestimation of him, until his eventual slip-up in another moment of panic. Part two, "Flight," covers the manhunt as it slowly accelerates into a citywide search, resulting in another murder as Bigger tries to hide out in abandoned buildings during a snowstorm, surrounded by newspaper coverage and passionate discussions of him by both blacks and whites.

Part three, "Fate," shows the inevitable outcome: Bigger's capture, interrogation, and indictment. Wright showcases his fantastic characterization during the trial (easily as good as anything in Anatomy of a Murder) as both sides present intelligent, persuasive arguments in their favor. For this reason alone, aspiring writers should read Native Son to see how balanced presentation of the facts of the case results in gripping reading.

In fact, Native Son is probably one of the best written, plotted, peopled, and constructed novels I have ever read. (Small details presented earlier pay off later on in surprising ways.) It is most definitely one of the most powerful. Wright succeeds in presenting an indelible portrait of a time and place and the attitudes prevalent, while at the same time delivering a suspenseful narrative with a positive ending — though not necessarily a "happy" one.

Actor Peter Francis James lends gravitas to the audiobook of Native Son. His narrative voice is nicely detached, leaving Wright's words to speak for themselves. And James's characterizations are done with subtle changes. My only complaint is that Jan Erlone and lawyer Boris Max sounded very similar, and when the two were in the same room, it was hard to tell them apart, especially since their worldviews are so similar they were often reiterating what the other was saying. But his work superlative throughout, making the audio version a terrific way of introducing oneself to the work of Richard Wright and seeing why his work still resonates with readers seventy years later.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Guest Blogger: Scott Gese: Rope and Wire Short Story Competition

The Western website, Rope and Wire, has been online for three and a half years now working hard to promote the Western genre through a variety of avenues. The approach seems to be working. Since day one, Rope and Wire has seen steady growth not only in the amount of its high-quality content but also in the number of its loyal followers.

The main idea behind Rope and Wire is to promote the Western genre through new, up and coming, and established Western authors. But the site doesn’t limit itself to just authors. It includes many other Western venues.

Short stories are a great way to introduce new readers to what Western authors actually write about. It gives them a feel for the genre that will hopefully continue to grow and mature, possibly translating into the sale of a few Western novels.

In a constant search for new ways to promote the genre, the Rope and Wire website has begun accepting submissions for their very first Western short-story competition. The competition is open to both novice and established authors. It creates an opportunity for the top five winning authors to have their work promoted by Rope and Wire and helps authors gain some valuable name recognition.

The competition, although somewhat conventional, does have several unconventional aspects to it. The first is that submissions will not be accepted by postal mail. All submissions are by email. While there is the possibility that this will reduce the total number of submissions, Rope and Wire believes in keeping up with the times.

As I’ve often said; “Even though the setting we write about is one hundred and fifty years in our past, we don’t write about it with fountain pens. For the most part, we use keyboards and computers.” So to me, it only makes sense to take a more modern approach for both story submissions and fee payments, which brings up the second unconventional aspect of this competition.

All submission fees are paid electronically through PayPal. This is a virtually instantaneous form of payment. After all, if the story submission is being sent electronically, it only makes sense to send the $15.00 entry fee the same way. No more waiting days for a check to clear before your story can be entered into the competition. I admit there are some who will scoff at this approach. But then I’ve always understood that change does not always come easy, but it does always come.

The third aspect to this competition has to do with the prize money. Most short-story competitions offer a set amount, and usually for only one winner. With the Rope and Wire Western short-story competition, we’ve decided to make prize money available to the top three winners and on a sliding scale. This means that, for each submission, the prize amount for first, second, and third place jumps $5.00, $3.00, and $2.00, respectively. So there is the potential of some rather large prizes.

The remaining $5.00 goes to pay for PayPal fees (yes, they do charge to use their service) and also to help defer the cost of keeping Rope and Wire online. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Rope and Wire Western short-story competition, or the Rope and Wire website in general, just click on the links.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Trail Drive to Montana (Gunsmith #69) by Gary McCarthy writing as J.R. Roberts

Regular readers of this repository of reviews will likely know that I am a big fan of The Gunsmith, which is the only long-running adult Western series still primarily written by a single author under a pseudonym, in this case Robert J. Randisi under the moniker J. R. Roberts. However, he has not written all of them. Randisi stated in a 2007 interview with Saddlebums Western Review that his publisher early on wanted more books than he could turn out on his own. Thus, around 30 of the first 100 were contracted from other authors to fulfill the twelve-a-year quota.

Later, I learned from an interview on Western Fiction Review that author Gary McCarthy, who had written a book I had recently enjoyed called The Pony Express War, had been one of those writers. (He reportedly wrote four Gunsmith novels.) As I enjoy cattle-drive novels, I chose McCarthy's first for the series, Trail Drive to Montana, to see if I could detect a difference in styles.

Actually, it was easy. From page one of Trail Drive to Montana, I would at least have known that it was not from the usual author. Randisi has a fast-paced, easy reading style that utilizes punchy dialogue and short, sharp paragraphs. The first paragraph of this book has 20 lines of small text, and there's no real conversation for five pages. This is not a criticism of either style, merely an illustration of how different they are.

McCarthy shows you the whole picture, and this slows things down a bit compared to the norm for this series, but I must admit to the appeal of seeing ex-lawman and professional gunsmith Clint Adams being genuinely articulate instead of simply a man of action. Even the heroine remarks, "You got a fine way with words, Mr. Adams."

She is Mandy Roe, whom Adams discovers after her horse is killed and she is left stranded underneath it. Her father is Bart Roe, the former outlaw pardoned by the governor and now an innovative cattle breeder in his 80s, who still has as fiery a temper as ever. Or, as Clint says, "He's the craziest old son of a bitch I ever saw in my life." (Having a way with words means you sometimes get right to the point.)

The Roes need to drive their herd of special crossbreeds up to Montana, away from the vengeful Moffit clan, seeking revenge for a 25-year-old transgression. The Gunsmith, in no way a cowboy and actually quite proud of the fact, agrees to accompany them on the journey. Unlike typical Texas longhorns, who are known as "rainbow cattle" for the variety of their hues, the Roe herd is exceptionally uniform in size and color, selected for those attributes in the breeding process.

Dr. Thomas Thom, Bart Roe's brother-in-law and an equal partner in the breeding, makes a connection between the longhorns and Americans. As he puts it, "Crossbreeding almost always results in a more vigorous strain of beef. It accounts for much of the American drive and energy. You see, this country is the greatest bunch of crossbred people in the world.... We are not in-bred like many of the old-line European families. We have greater vigor. So does this herd."

McCarthy fills Trail Drive to Montana with the expected level of action (of both types), and an additonal level of description that makes for a richer read than the typical series novel. He is quickly working his way toward an entry on my list of favorite authors, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Further reading: For another adult Western series novel about a cattle drive, read Longarm on the Goodnight Trail. For other novels on the subject, Ralph Compton's Trail Drive series, starting with The Goodnight Trail, is also a winner. And of course, there's the epic of all Westerns, Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove, which also centers around a trail drive.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Psycho by Robert Bloch (unabridged audio book read by Paul Michael Garcia)

Nearly everyone knows the story of Psycho, of how a woman named Crane steals $40,000 from her employer and takes off to marry her boyfriend. A rainstorm causes her to make a wrong turn off the main highway, and she stops for the night at the one beacon of light on that deserted stretch, the Bates Motel, run by the unassuming mama's boy Norman Bates.

Bates himself has become an iconic figure, synonymous with the psychotic murderer and more often the source of parody than fear. So, how does one approach the original novel by author Robert Bloch with a fresh eye?

Surprisingly, it is fairly simple: one cannot. If you have seen the classic film as directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you've experienced the story in its tightest form.

Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano delivered a very faithful adaptation, and if that is enough for you, so be it. But if you long for more depth of character, more insight into motive and history, and especially more internal monologue, then Psycho the novel is just the thing for you.

Audiobook reader Paul Michael Garcia delivers a better performance than I thought possible, inhabiting all the characters fully. This allowed me to forget that I was listening to "Psycho" and just immerse myself in Bloch's world one more time — almost, if I tried really hard, as if for the first time.
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