Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Cowboy Rides Away

by David Cranmer

Photo taken by Ron Scheer, March 2011.

On April 11, 2015, Ron Scheer passed away after a long battle with cancer. Lynda—who Ron referred to as his life mate—said, "A blessing to know that he has flown high--like the hawk Anne recently watched in the desert, wheeling and turning on the wind--away from pain and struggle." I know I can speak for our online community in saying that we send our deepest condolences to his wife Lynda and children Anne and Jeremy.

Ron and I never met face to face. Our friendship was one born in the blogosphere. A comment left on his post here and a response left on mine elsewhere. That quid pro quo that often goes nowhere but sometimes crosses the transom into something quite special. Our bond began over five years ago when I immediately recognized characteristics in Ron that I respected, and my admiration for him only grew as the years went along.

What first stands out to any visitor to Buddies in the Saddle (BITS) is this blogger is a very gifted writer. I know we call them posts, articles, etc., but in Ron's hands these often became mini-masterpieces—layered essays deepening one's knowledge of a particular subject and leaving the reader eager to learn more about these passionate interests. And Ron wasn't just enthusiastic about Westerns, he also had an overflowing fountain of knowledge in art, photography, jazz, noir, foreign films, poetry, and literature from all corners, Old West lingo, current events, social justice, science fiction, and the list goes on. You know a top wordsmith when they can instill a thirst in you for a topic you hadn't previously thought you cared about—he had that natural, enviable ability.

Ron and I collaborated on several projects, starting when I asked if he'd be interested in writing a few words for a hardboiled anthology I was editing, and he penned the masterful introduction with the same zeal and perception he brought to his other work. But his first love in writing, clearly, was for the American Old West, so when Ron approached me about publishing his own essays dedicated to the early frontier authors and their novels, I was thrilled to do so. How the West Was Written was published in two volumes, with Spur Award-winning author Richard S. Wheeler saying, "I believe this will be the standard work on early western fiction." Without a doubt, it's Ron's knowledgeable, comprehensive voice we want to hear recalling those early days on the range. These are not dry academic missives, but, instead, a storyteller sitting around a campfire, thumbing his Stetson high up on his forehead, and connecting us to a fascinating history.

Continuing on this writing path leads us to the depth of a remarkable human being. In his blogging when he confronts death's first unwelcomed appearance, not only does Ron's courageous grit shine through but so does his ability to compose poetic prose while reflecting on his own mortality. In just one of many profound BITS entries, this from April 13, 2014, after he has lamented the state of endless wars, he takes solace in a treasured pastime, reading, "where killing and death are transformed into words on the page and real blood is not shed." He then adds:

In literature, the dead do not fall into an Eternal Silence, as do those who have actually lived and breathed. Gravestones do not mark the resting place of a lifetime of memories, locked away forever. Lives lived in literature remain at least partly open to us, unforgotten. I think of Joyce as getting at something like this in "The Dead." Spending a holiday evening with a gathering of people, all of them now dead and gone, we are touched by them, their loneliness and sorrows, their heart-breaking memories, their isolation, weaknesses, and failures, their bravery. Yet somehow the words on the page keep them from being forever snuffed out. At least some part of them is still remembered.

A man who writes with such vision is drawing from a deep reserve. Perhaps, an indicator—a signpost on the trail, if you will—to the origin of this wellspring can be traced, in part, to a lifetime of dedication and service to others.

Lynda and Ron in Palm Springs.

Ron's M.A. and Ph.D. were from UCLA (and Lynda notes it's ironic he ended up at its arch rival USC to teach writing from 2000 until he retired around 2012). His first job was at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania where he taught composition and was excited about working a Head Start program for disadvantaged first-year students. As Lynda told me, there is a noticeable pattern of committed service running through Ron's career-from spending a college summer volunteering at the Behrhorst Clinic in Guatemala to coaching writing students in Watts, an area that had been, at the time, devastated by the 1965 "riots." It was also at Mansfield (1969-1983) where he discovered a life-long passion for film and developed an insight that we would eventually enjoy here at BITS. In 1983, he went on to post-graduate work at Carnegie Mellon, then left teaching to work at the advertising agency Siegel & Gale in NYC where he directed the language simplification projects for the agency's New York, London, and Los Angeles offices. Ten years later, he returned to teaching at USC until he retired.

This is a soul who left us far too soon, and we feel cheated and robbed by his absence. However, I'm reminded of the Greek poet Pindar who advised us not to aspire to immortal life "but exhaust the limits of the possible." I take stock knowing Ron's life was lived to the fullest. And in what became his twilight, he turned to blogging at BITS and writing and found a new outlet for his enthusiasm and creativity. Once again, Lynda opens a window for us:

"His world expanded as he dug into frontier fiction and met you all. After he retired from teaching, your community became a huge part of his life, a part that inspired him and engaged his most incredible mind. I believe that, by the time he got too sick to write, he felt fulfilled and validated."

Ron, you were a wonderful, compassionate friend to us. A rapport started in cyberspace, true, but one that manifested itself into genuine, affectionate friendships. We will always picture you sporting that cowboy hat under which beamed that wide, inviting smile saying hello.

In many of the Western stories we admire, the cowboy rides away as the sun sets over the mountains with the child running after and left wondering why the hero has gone so soon. We, too, feel that way, but we're grateful that you left so much of your heart with us. We will stoke the fire you set, savor the words you left, and take comfort in your undying spirit.

You once handed me a beautiful sentiment that I will never forget. Now, I'm returning these cherished words to you, where they belong, dear friend:

"When they ask me if I knew any truly honorable men, I will tell them about you."

Rest in peace, buddy.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fathers and sons

New haircut
Oliver Sacks revealed in a New York Times essay recently that he is dying of liver cancer and that he plans to devote the time he has left only to those things that enrich his life: reading, writing, and the companionship of friends; no more nightly news; but disconnecting from the world. Such as it is. And trusting the intelligence and resolve of the next generation to address its problems. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Luke Allan, Blue Peter: “Half-Breed” (1921)

Métis fur trader, 1870
Blue Pete, a Métis cattle rustler who leaves a gang of horse and cattle thieves to work as an informant for the North-West Mounted Police, first appeared in 1921 in a short story in Western Story Magazine by Canadian-born writer William Lacey Amy (later to be known as Luke Allan). That same year, the character appeared in Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” the first of a long series of Blue Pete novels, published in both London and New York, the last of which saw print in 1954.

Blue Peter is a love/crime fiction story set on the Canadian frontier, where the North-West Mounted Police are stationed at Medicine Hat  to maintain law and order. Their main problem is a gang of horse and cattle thieves fearlessly operating along the international border with the U.S. and using the Cypress Hills, a rough patch of wooded terrain in southern Saskatchewan , to hide out (cf. Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Plot. As the story begins, Blue Peter parts company with the gang in an exchange of gunfire, meets up with a young
North-West Mounted Police Fort Walsh, 1878
Mountie, Constable Mahon, and is persuaded to work as an informant, sharing what he knows of the Hills and how they are used by the thieves to hide stolen stock; infiltrating the cowboys who work for ranchers on the open prairie, he reports any questionable behavior to the chief inspector at NWMP headquarters.

As it turns out, one family, the Stantons, are actively in cahoots with the gang. Caught in the act, two brothers, Jim and Joe Stanton, kill each other rather than allow themselves to be taken by the Mounties. Their sister, Mira, has been an accomplice in their thieving activities. She is an all-western girl, skilled as a rider and roper, pretty and independent-minded, embarrassed only by her lack of education and refinement.

Mahon, who has a girlfriend of his own, befriends Mira and helps her with the book-learning she desires. Meanwhile, grief-stricken at the loss of her brothers, Mira warms to him but holds him culpable for their deaths. In a fit of melodrama, she shoots and kills three of her four wolfhounds.

Romance. Blue Peter then comes to her rescue, offering her his cave in the Hills for shelter and his own companionship for solace. Standing trial for cattle theft, Mira is found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. As she is being transported there by train and under guard, Blue Peter comes again to her rescue, and they are pursued on horseback by Mounties across the prairie. After the two are run aground, Mira surrenders herself to save Blue Peter, now a wanted man, from arrest.

Back at the cave, he waits mournfully through the winter for her release from prison. At last, with the coming of spring they are reunited.

Adventure. The latter part of the story is devoted to the capture of the gang, as exchanges of gunfire result in Mahon’s (now Sgt. Mahon) being wounded and the arrest and/or death of the rustlers. Blue Peter is also a casualty, shot as he saves Mahon’s life. At the end of the novel, there is reason to believe that Blue Peter’s wounds are mortal and once his body is found, Mira vows to bury him there in the Hills he loved.

For his part, Mahon has a granite monument carved as a memorial to the “half-breed” who was his friend. So the novel has this melancholy and sentimental ending. But like a modern-day TV series with a season finale lacking finality, Blue Peter and Mira live on to reappear for another adventure in a sequel, the Return of Blue Pete published in 1922.

The accuracy in the portrayal of Blue Pete is debatable especially in comparison with Frederic Remington’s mixed-blood title character in Sundown Leflare (1899), who speaks in broken, French-inflected English, and possesses no particular moral character. Physically strong and a creature well adapted to the natural world, Blue Pete has no faults. He is decent to the core, loyal, tenderhearted and willing to take a risk to help a friend. Outside of James Fenimore Cooper we do not find his likes in American frontier fiction.

Blue Peter: “Half-Breed,” is currently available online at Internet Archive and in ebook format at Barnes&Noble.For more of Friday's Forgotten Books click on over to Patti Abbott's blog

Further reading/viewing:

Blowing my own horn: For an in-depth, two-volume survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain a copy, click here). 

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: new short stories

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Meds again

I feel like Hunter Thompson in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas –waiting for the drugs to kick in. I look at the pill bottles collecting on the dining room table and wonder at the mix of pharmaceuticals circling in my bloodstream. Thursday of this week I was at the UCLA Medical Center getting another infusion of Avastin and an adjustment to my intake of drugs and supplements – this time, more steroids and more antidepressants. All to deal with an undertow of counter-productive moods, lethargy, and general grumpiness. 

Lately, I’ve also been made aware of a lot of anger that comes out as I struggle with losses of strength, coordination, and equilibrium, (I am covered in scratches and Band-Aids from the last spill I took while out on a morning stroll in the desert a few days ago. Because I bruise easily now I also bear a striking display of purple blotches from wrist to elbow.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nik Morton, Spanish Eye

I know Nik Morton more as a writer of westerns. His Bullets For a Ballot was reviewed here a while ago. Spanish Eye is something else.

Nik is one of those Brits who left the dark, rainy North for the sunny south coast of Spain, which is where this collection of 22 stories, featuring private investigator Leon Cazador, takes place.

Like Henning Mankell and other writers of euro crime fiction, Morton shares what he’s come to know about crime and the criminal element in Spain, though never painting it as dark as writers of the Scandi-noir school. Against a background of social conditions in modern-day Spain, it’s petty crime mostly, systemic graft, and fraud that find their way to Cazador’s attention. Meanwhile, the menace of organized crime and mafia elements lurks in the shadows.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Knickers and twists

Today’s post may be short. We have guests coming to celebrate a friend’s becoming recently a U.S. citizen. Fortunately, my wife has the energy required of entertaining. I have been in a fog all week; at one point I was standing in a parking lot staring blankly ahead with not a thought anywhere between my ears, which, ironically, is the nearest I get to meditation in the crowded thoroughfare of neural activity that is my usual level of awareness. I assume it is the meds I’m getting as a participant in the drug trial at UCLA.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

I wanted to like this novel more than I did. For its length (464 pages), it promises somewhat more than it delivers. I had the same reaction to the author’s The Last Crossing (reviewed here a while ago). There are a lot of ideas and food for thought in this novel about character, friendship, responsibility, Native Americans, the frontier, and U.S.-Canadian relations. But in the end it’s hard to say what it all adds up to. You can puzzle if you like over the title. Who among the novel’s male characters is the “good man”? Is there one at all?

Set in the late 1870s, partly in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan where Fort Walsh was headquarters for the North-West Mounted Police; but mostly in the frontier settlement of Fort Benton, Montana, on the upper Missouri River, the action takes place in the aftermath of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and settlers of the sparsely populated prairie live in terror of the Sioux and other tribes who seem to be organizing under the leadership of Sitting Bull to rid the West of whites altogether.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Richard Wheeler’s blog

Richard S. Wheeler
I have been meaning to mention that Richard Wheeler has begun blogging again after a long hiatus. His most recent news is that the Western Writers of America is honoring him with induction to the WWA Hall of Fame at their next meeting in Texas. After several Spur Awards, he was already chosen in 2001 for that organization's Lifetime Achievement Award, named for Owen Wister.

A man who has characterized himself at his previous blog as a “curmudgeon,” Wheeler can be counted on for sometimes prickly opinions on a wide range of subjects: the current state of the traditional western; the proliferatrion of creative writing programs; and author input to book cover design. Informative is his story of his own long-running Barnaby Skye series. His book reviews are generous in their praise for thoughtful writing. He can also be revealing in disclosures of his personal life, his health and state of mind, looking both back and forward at a long and productive writing career.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1988)

Thelonious Monk, 1947
This 90-minute documentary about jazz great Thelonious Monk began as a one-hour film for German television in the 1960s by filmmakers Christian and Michael Blackwood who followed Monk on and offstage for six months around New York, Atlanta, and Europe.

Their footage waited 20 years before finding producers, including Clint Eastwood, with budget to expand the film to feature-length. It was released in 1988, after Monk’s death in 1982.

Shooting in black and white, the Blackwoods capture the look and feel of cinema vérité- style documentary, being developed and refined at the time by the likes of Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop, 1966).

Illuminating are the close-ups of Monk’s hands on the keyboard as he plays and the physicality of his performance, revealing a creative vehemence that seems at times at risk of reducing his Steinway to splinters.

We also see him as a composer conveying to his sometimes bewildered band the intricacies of a complex chord progression, while reluctant to give them specific answers to their questions. At moments, in his seemingly playful erratic behavior we see early signs of what may have become the mental illness that brought his career to an end. Watching the film is like opening a time capsule of the bebop era, and the music is wonderful.

Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is currently available for viewing on YouTube.

For more of Tuesday's Overlooked movies, click on over to Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Guy Vanderhaeghe, A Good Man

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Busy, busy, busy

Two jets eastbound, morning sky
Saturday. I tune into “deep sleep” music on YouTube as I write this in an effort to quiet my mind, which runs off in all directions, determined to be busy, busy, busy. An hour of meditation goes by in its own kind of hurry this morning, while my attention was drawn to the refrigerator running in the kitchen and birds singing their morning tunes outside, slowing the mental race down a little, but hardly enough it seems to make a difference. 

The lesson of meditation is that it is so hard for an ordinary human to simply be still, not constantly and intensely on alert to every passing thought and distraction. Someone once defined information as “any difference that makes a difference.” That’s my brain on autopilot.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

More magazine adverts from 1907

Since the set of these I posted last week was a big hit with readers, I'm adding some more. The McClure's cover at the right is from 1901, a wintery scene with washed out colors and clouds of steam and smoke lifted by a wind against a gray sky.

I like that the illustration is divided into three parts, with utility poles to the right and left and straight power lines connecting them across the top. A study in verticals and horizontals that frames a snow-covered field and gives a chilly effect.

It occurs to me that The New Yorker continues this tradition of cover art today, while being full of similar content underwritten by full page ads. Big difference in the newsstand price, though. Ten cents vs. $7.99.

Here they are. Most interesting to me is the suspenseful drama portrayed in the Smith & Wesson ad. Then, for pure whimsy there's the ad for phonograph records, with the silhouette of a madcap dancer (be sure to read the copy for this one, too.)

Older readers here may recognize the Pullman porter serving up Cream of Wheat. Note also that Welch's Grape Juice is being sold as a health drink and that Kellogg's Corn Flakes cost more west of the Rockies.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One year

Rain on the prickly pear
Today marks an anniversary of sorts. A year ago I was just out of surgery, most of a malignant tumor removed from my brain, I was yet to meet the oncologists who would get me started on chemo and radiation. Mostly I was amazed that I felt few effects from having my cranium cracked open, my gray matter invaded by a team of neurosurgeons I hardly knew, then stapled back together, soon to be sent back home.

My memories of that time are marked by the sound of cactus wrens outside my bedroom, chattering away each morning as I welcomed the new day, sometimes after an endless night of dreadful dreams and sleeplessness. I read Anne Lamott’s little book about three kinds of prayer (thanks, help, wow), which made me both laugh and cry. And I marveled at the flowering plants sent by a family friend. Here we were alive together.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Elmer Kelton, Texas Showdown

This book is actually two short novels by Elmer Kelton, first published in the 1960s and reissued under one title by Forge in 2007. Pecos Crossing, originally titled Horsehead Crossing (1963), appeared under Kelton’s own name, while Shotgun, originally titled Shotgun Settlement (1969), was published under a house pseudonym, Alex Hawk.

First off, Elmer Kelton is one of my top-10 favorite western writers. He wrote with a strong sense of history and an informed awareness of the West Texas terrain, its flora and fauna, and its weather. I find it easy to believe in his characters. They are not just convenient types but possess an emotional depth that makes them three-dimensional.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adverts from McClure’s Magazine (1907)

Every work of fiction tells us something about the audience and the times it was written for. Today, however, we may have trouble picturing the readers of early frontier fiction. For many of us, they were the parents of our grandparents—or even their parents—adults before the end of the 19th century, dependent on a horse-drawn technology and an agrarian economy.

From the movies and TV, we know what the Old West itself is supposed to have looked like, but it’s harder to imagine that period of time around 1900 when frontier fiction emerged as a genrethough they were clamorous years, as the Gilded Age dissolved into the Progressive Era (imagine the white-haired Mark Twain morphing into Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt).

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Aerial ballet (more pics below)
Turns out the dread I felt about my first infusion as I started into the drug trial at UCLA was unnecessary. Though the procedure lasted 90 minutes, it was mostly a nonevent. Dripped into my bloodstream by way of an IV was not chemo but something called a monoclonal antibody (Avastin), developed to restrict blood flow to tumors and discourage them from growing.

Already approved by the FDA for treatment of cancer, it has been shown to be effective after 6 months in 45% of cases like my own. So while the odds are roughly the same as the flip of a coin, they’re not actually that bad when you consider the alternative. Other trial participants, randomly selected as I was, receive the test drug(s), so they will fare better or worse than me—hopefully better, for the sake of all concerned, current and future.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I guess you’d call this creative nonfiction. A former colleague recommended this book to me after reading some of my thoughts on the life-affirming and health-inducing aspects of listening to jazz as I deal with a visitation of brain cancer. The great irony is that the joyous practice of improvisation in smoky clubs of the bebop era was so virulently self-destructive for its musicians.

In Dyer’s evocative and impressionistic character sketches of several of its iconic figures (Lester Young, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus) we witness mostly downward trajectories, as drugs, prison, racism, alcoholism, mental illness, and violence take their toll. Whether or not you think of them as survivors, you come to understand that the music they invented and played was an act of defiance and subversion in the face of demons both internal and external.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Now available: How the West Was Written, Vol. 2 (1907-1915)

David Cranmer over at Beat to a Pulp Press has just announced publication of Vol. 2 of my book series, How the West Was Written. It continues the chronology of western writers that began in the first volume with Mary Hallock Foote's The Led-Horse Claim (1883). Here is a short description of the new volume from its introduction: 

During the years 1907–1915, frontier fiction boomed with new writers, and the success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) began to make itself felt in their work. That novel had made the bestseller lists for two years running. With the continued popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and the appearance of one-reeler westerns on movie screens, many featuring the adventures of Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero was becoming an established mythic figure in the public imagination. 

New writers capitalizing on this interest begin to emerge in numbers and include Zane Grey, Dane Coolidge, Charles Alden Seltzer, William MacLeod Raine, and Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Fans of cowboy westerns will find this book's discussion of these storytellers of particular interest.

Meanwhile, for writers of popular fiction, the frontier was also a subject for exploring ideas drawn from current public discourse—ideas about character and villainy, women’s rights, romance and marriage, democracy and government, capitalism, race and social boundaries, and the West itself. With each new publication, they participated as well in an ongoing forum for how to write about the West and how to tell western stories.

Taken together, the chapters of this book describe for modern-day readers and writers the origins of frontier fiction and the rich legacy it has left us as a genre. It is also a portal into the past, for it offers a history of ideas as preserved in popular culture of a century ago that continues to claim an audience today.

Currently available at amazon for kindle and in paperback. Also in paper at Createspace. Order both volumes from amazon here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
Frank E. Schoonover

Frank E. Schoonover
Born in New Jersey, Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972) was a painter and illustrator, who studied with influential American artist Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. A creator of more than 2,000 book and magazine illustrations over most of a century, he helped to organize what is now the Delaware Art Museum.

Schoonover's work ranged from illustrations for Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 westerns to pirate tales (click here) and science fiction/fantasy by Edgar Rice Burroughs (click here). Below are examples of his illustrations for frontier fiction appearing in books and magazines, 1905-1918.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Uneasy alliance

Another day
So now I am officially lending my body to medical science. Last week we made a trek to the neurooncology department at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, and I signed onto a drug trial, which may or may not halt the progress of the tumors in my brain, but there isn’t much in the way of an alternative. The oncologist was not in favor of more radiation.

It’s an uneasy alliance between me and Big Pharma. It will require trips to LA every 2 weeks for long infusions, and the list of possible side effects is daunting, ranging from nausea to death itself. But there’s a chance we will both profit in some way from this gamble. Whatever the outcome, there will be something to be learned for others in the future. Because it’s important for me to feel useful, this is one way to be doing that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Robert J. Randisi, ed., Livin’ on Jacks and Queens

This is an entertaining anthology of 14 stories about gamblers and gambling in the Old West. Editor Randisi has assembled a notable gathering of western writers, providing an array of storytelling styles and imaginative treatments of the subject. The names of several contributors will be quickly recognized: Johnny Boggs, John D. Nesbitt, Matthew P. Mayo, Nik Morton, and Chuck Tyrell.

To these he has added a story of his own, plus the yarns of two women writers who may be new to some readers: Christine Matthews and Lori Van Pelt.

My favorites of the bunch include Ms. Matthews’ “Odds on a Lawman,” which tells of a succession of sheriffs who each assumes a tenure of service to a frontier town, before dying or disappearing for various reasons, on which the townsmen place bets until the turn of events claims one of them the winner. It’s an amusing and well-written tale that brings its Dickensian cast of characters to entertaining life, while we wait to see the fate that befalls each of the town’s series of sheriffs.

For a colorful portrayal of the daily life and business of a riverboat gambler, Nik Morton brings that world vividly to life in his story, “Hazard.” In “Acey-Deucey,” John D. Nesbitt’s central character is hired by a woman to retrieve an emerald pendant once given to her by a paramour. Finally locating the current owner of the gem, he has to win a game of cards before he can take possession of it.

Robert Randisi
Randisi’s story, “Horseshoes and Pistols” is so quirky, I kept thinking that it qualified as Twilight Zone material. In it, two men are forced to bet their lives on a game of horseshoes. Matthew Mayo’s “Pay the Ferryman” veers off in another direction, as a man on the run escapes into what might well be called “the heart of darkness.”

My favorite story in the collection was penned by a favorite storyteller, Chuck Tyrell. His “Great Missouri River Steamship Race” evokes a period of river travel from the point of view of a youngster working as a fireman aboard a steamship with a regular route between St. Louis and Fort Benton. Tyrell brings his gifts for characterization, dialogue, and suspense to this story with its echoes of Huckleberry Finn.

Livin’ on Jacks and Queens is currently available in ebook format at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Shamelsss plug: For an in-depth survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain acopy, click here).

Image credits:

Coming up: Illustrators of frontier fiction, Frank E. Schoonover

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
J. N. Marchand

J. N. Marchand, Outing Magazine, 1906
J. N. (John Norval) Marchand (1875-1921) was born in Leavenworth, Kansas. After high school in St. Paul, Minnesota, he worked for the Minnesota Journal, and later was a staff artist for the New York World. A painter and sculptor, he provided numerous illustrations for magazines, such as Munsey's and Outing Magazine (see more examples here), and for as many as 35 books, mostly featuring western themes and subject matter.

Below are his illustrations for several novels set on the frontier. My favorite is the faro scene from Alfred Henry Lewis's Faro Nell and Her Friends, where players cluster in a hubbub around the dealer, and in the foreground is the relaxed figure of a cowboy in leather chaps and boots, smoking a cigarette, long legs crossed, his big hat beside him on the table.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bump in the road

Winter sunrise
I don’t feel much like posting today. It’s a gloomy, drizzly day in the desert. Mostly I’m dealing with the news this week that my oncologist believes my tumor is showing signs of growth, and we’re looking at a change of treatment. She wants me to get a second opinion from a specialist at UCLA. As the day for that appointment draws closer, a handful of CDs with all my MRIs in a shoulder bag ready to take with me, I feel a little apprehensive. I continue being positive, but I’m not as strong as I’d like to feel.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Naguib Mahfouz, Karnak Café (1974)

Bit of a change today at BITS, from West to Middle East. This short novel by Nobel-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz is a sadly melancholy story of the crushing of youthful hope. Set in the 1960s around the time of the 1967 war with Israel, it describes how a generation of young Egyptians, the children of the revolution of 1954, were betrayed and lied to by their government, while being subjected to interrogation and imprisonment by secret police.

Their story is told by an older man (and stand-in for the author), who befriends a gathering of them who are regulars at a Cairo café, Al-Karnak. There they talk of politics and express their idealistic aspirations, both for themselves and their country. Abruptly disappearing for periods of time, they return shaken and demoralized. While in police custody, kept in windowless cells, they have endured harsh treatment and false accusations.

Eventually it’s revealed that they have been coerced into becoming informants, which corrodes their trust in each other and eventually leads to the death of one of them. Two, a loving couple at the story’s start, are driven apart by their guilt and shame.

Karnak Café is a troubling vision of life in a modern police state, and it sheds light for Westerners on the recent struggles in Egypt for freedom and justice. Novella-length, it takes a stand somewhat distant from political events, while clearly throwing its sympathies to the young people who speak on its pages. It is currently available in paper and ebook format at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Coming up: Robert Randisi, ed., Livin’ on Jacks and Queens

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Richard Prosch, Devil’s Run

If there’s such a thing as comic violence in the western, Richard Prosch is a gentle master of it. There is shooting and fighting enough in his Devil’s Run—and work for the undertaker—but it’s a story told with a wry and barely suppressed grin.

The central character is Prosch’s “Peregrine,” John Coburn, a gun for hire who’s taken the job of escorting a man improbably named Tie-Down Sam Gustaffson, from Missouri to Nebraska, where he is to appear as a witness in a murder trial.

Family ties, however, produce an obstacle as the two men stop overnight at a river town called Bindlestick, and for a while it looks like they won’t make it out alive. They are joined in their attempt to escape by Margo Blaze, proprietress of the town’s hotel and whose bed was warmed the previous night by our man Coburn.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Illustrators of frontier fiction:
W. Herbert Dunton

Taos Society of Artists, 1915 (Dunton, 3rd from left)
William Herbert "Buck" Dunton (1878-1936) was born in Maine. An outdoorsman from an early age, he travelled frequently to the West. After working in New York as a magazine and book illustrator, he eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico, which had become a thriving artists colony. There he gave up a career as an illustrator and took to painting and hunting. He was an original member of the Taos Society of Artists.

Like the writers Zane Grey (1872-1939) and Will James (1892-1942), Dunton had a nostalgic regard for the Old West, preserving and celebrating in his work and pastimes the mythology of frontier scouts, cowboys, and other singular figures who lived independently off the land as it was before westward settlement. Here are a number of his book illustrations from the years 1904 - 1919.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Quoth the raven

Wind farm at the foot of San Jacinto
This will be a little short. I have been having too much fun to get serious about posting to this journal today.

About the nicest thing that has happened to me during this whole past year is the receiving of two greeting cards signed by colleagues from the department where I used to teach. Such warm and generous comments they made, I must’ve had a grin from ear to ear. On top of that, they passed the hat and sent me a very generous gift card from Amazon. I’m totally touched. Writers, artists, and musicians who teach writing are the best on Earth.