Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Larry D. Sweazy - The Rattlesnake Season

I am not an expert on the Western genre. In fact, this is the second Western I've read in my life, and the first was read so long ago that I couldn't quite understand what all the prostitutes were up to. My interest in the genre was sparked, though, by a conversation with someone who likely could be called an expert in it, who compared the Western to Crime fiction and argued that Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest could be said to be an archetypical Western. In that conversation, The Rattlesnake Season earned mention, and its cover does boast that it "Ris[es] to the level of a classic." Having read the novel, I can confirm that the fellow was certainly onto something; the Western does seem a brother to historical Crime fiction. Alas, The Rattlesnake Season is not good Crime fiction.

Reeling from the loss of his wife and daughters to disease, former soldier and determined lawman Josiah Wolfe briefly leaves behind his young son to take his place in the newly reascended Texas Rangers. His first assignment with them brings him right back to the heart of his past. Once, Josiah and Charlie Langdon were not only brothers in arms but friends, and, after the war, Josiah trusted Langdon enough to deputize him before Charlie's fall into lawlessness. Now it's up to Josiah, Captain Hiram Fikes, and a group of other Rangers to bring Langdon to justice against the best efforts of his gang. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose, and Langdon is soon on the run with the rest struggling to not only catch him but also to deal with the traitor in their midst.

The relationship between Josiah and Langdon, however, is problematic – by which I mean that it's nonexistent. Though we're told that Josiah knows Langdon better than anyone, the two never meaningfully converse. Worse, in his desire to demonize Langdon and raise the stakes, Sweazy falls back on memories of the Civil War, in which he paints Langdon as a psychopath, someone who enjoys slaughter and the killing of children, someone who loves to "torture" his victims with "slow cutting," a method of gaining information through the inflicting of "shallow slits in the skin from a sharp knife" (p. 275). We're told that "Josiah was convinced that Charlie Langdon was born with a deep and abiding hate in the pit of his stomach and had never known a moment of love or tenderness." (p. 52) So why, then, did Josiah not only consider Langdon a friend but deputize him? How can he act surprised, now, by Langdon's viciousness when he explicitly tells us at great length that he was aware of that viciousness from the start?

An easy solution to all this would have been simply to remove the element of their prior friendship, which never plays a role in their interaction when they're together. But then, of course, we couldn't have our utterly nonsensical climax, in which Langdon – having already escaped his pursuers – doubles back to take Josiah's son hostage. There is absolutely no reason for him to do this. None.  At all. It would be like if a criminal, after escaping the FBI and crossing the border, decided he had nothing better to do than go back, take the Bureau's chief prisoner, and hole himself up in a building to be shot by a sniper. Then again, Sweazy doesn't even give us that last part, as it's a rattlesnake that brings Langdon down, rather than something boring like, say, any action on the part of the main character we just spent the book following.

Sweazy is at his best when invoking setting; he is fully capable of building hot, crowded streets to life and filling them with voices, smells, and characters. Unfortunately, his skills at setting often come at the expensive of narrative. Certain details – like how Rangers don't wear badges – are repeated ad nauseum until the reader's sick beyond belief of hearing them and groans aloud at the next mention of how Josiah wants the new model Winchester or how he leaves one chamber in his gun empty for the gun's health. The worst of all of these repetitions comes after a cliff hanger. After a chapter ending with Josiah finding his own pistol pointed in his face, Sweazy spends a paragraph short of two interminable pages info dumping the gun's entire history. Then there's Sweazy's bizarre tendency to explain clich├ęs as if we had all never heard of figurative language before: Scrap Elliot looked like he had just been scolded by his father – even though Feders wasn't old enough for such a thing to be considered, his being Scrap's father, that is. (p. 98) It's a good thing he pointed it out; as someone capable of reading a three hundred page novel, I never would have known that the word "like" implied a break from the literal.

As a novel starring the Texas Rangers, it's not surprising that The Rattlesnake Season's main theme is justice. What is surprising, though, it how ineptly and contradictorily that theme is explored. Josiah is one of the least self aware characters I've ever read about, and his ideas of justice seem to be nothing but a high minded excuse to do as he pleases and flip flop faster than can be believed. Towards the top of page 158, he says "McClure's guilt or innocence was not for him [Josiah] to decide." (p. 158) Less than five paragraphs later, towards the bottom of the page, we get:  "If there was the slightest chance that Vi McClure was innocent, then it was Josiah's duty to find out, his duty to bring the truth to the surface." (pp. 158-9)

But maybe there is something in the middle of all these seeming contradictions. Justice isn't easy, it's a tough concept. Let's try to piece together what Josiah does and says and see if anything coherent emerges. Early on, Josiah wonders how a person could come to disregard life so much that he would try to kill a man he did not know, for a reason that was not his own, as if it were a job, just another task to be fulfilled. (p. 31) In the course of the novel, Josiah does kill, and we know that he killed in the war, making that a rather strange thought to have. Maybe you could argue that, for Josiah, it was personal, though. After all, he was fighting to avenge his captain, Hiram Fikes. Only… isn't that what the enemy's doing, fighting for their own captain, Charlie Langdon?

Okay, so personal loyalty alone can't make justice. Maybe it's a question of self preservation? In the early parts of the novel, that seems to make sense. Josiah fights back when attacked, but he says that, if he and his fellow rangers watch a helpless criminal die, they would be "no better men than he is." (p. 30) Alas, this explanation of justice comes to a screeching halt when Josiah squares off against the traitor towards the novel's end. Now, the traitor did shoot first, so Josiah's first shot to the fellow's stomach makes sense. Maybe even his shot to the chest, "just under the heart." But, after that one, as his foe "bounced on the muddy ground, a combination of convulsions caused by being shot and his body finishing the motion of shooting at Josiah," Josiah still fires again, a coup de grace, a blow to just under the fellow's "right eye." (p. 283) Something makes me think the fellow wasn't getting up after the bouncing and convulsing stage, so, if preservation is our idea of justice, then Josiah just violated it.

Then, of course, there's the most obvious kind of justice of all, especially to a lawman. Maybe Josiah considers justice a matter of following the law? Nope, as it turns out. To return to one of the earlier quotations, and to go just before it, Josiah is standing over a badly wounded outlaw, and he says that: "Justice is not ours to dole out, my friend." (p. 30) So simply being an outlaw isn't a death sentence, but we know that Josiah has no compunctions about killing when justice calls for it, and we also know that justice does not come from self preservation.

As it happens, law and justice are again held apart in the quotation that finally gives us our answer: Even if Vi McClure did turn out to be an outlaw, Josiah didn't want the world passing judgment before justice got its own chance to make the truth known. (p. 123) So, survival, personal loyalty, and law alone are not enough to make up justice. What is? Well, in the above quote, you might notice that justice is strangely active. It's coming on its own, independent of the character's actions, to make the truth known. In fact, in The Rattlesnake Season, justice is none other than plot, the author's hand reaching down from above to show the truth, to remove all incriminating doubts, to make sure that the traitor monologues his guilt just before we must face the hard job of shooting him.

The Rattlesnake Season is thematically incoherent, unexciting in its action, and bewildering in its plot twists. It's not offensively bad, but it's not good, and it lacks a single true strength to balance out its flaws. If this is, truly, a "classic," as the aforementioned cover quote would have us believe, I fear for the Western genre.

2 comments:

  1. Hey Nathaniel, I love westerns, so I'm hesitant to say this, but I wouldn't use any western published in the last seven years that wasn't written by McMurtry to introduce anybody to the genre.

    There's a big tendency towards two dimensional absolutism (heroes and stories in the black hat/white hat mold) in modern day western writers, at least the ones I've tried to read (and if anybody can point me in the direction of somebody who isn't, I'd appreciate it). Many writers try to relive the golden era of western television. I'm a fan of The Lone Ranger and Paladin and all that, but when I pick up a book I like a little more ambiguity, a little more meat on the bones.

    That said, may I humbly suggest that it sounds like you'd do better to read something by Elmore Leonard? There are a couple paperback collections of his western work that are worth a read - I think they're called Western Roundups. They collect his best endeavors, like Hombre and Valdez Is Coming, but some lesser known gems like Forty Lashes Less One as well.

    Richard Matheson's Journal Of The Gun Years or The Secret Memoire of Wild Bill Hickock are first class, though if you read one, don't bother with the other as they're essentially the same (I read Hickock first). His collection By The Gun is very good.

    A couple really great one off's I'd recommend are The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and The Shootist by Glen Swarthout. True Grit by Charles Portis is amazing. I'm also fond of Forrest Carter's two Josey Wales novels.

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  2. Two dimensional absolutism was indeed a huge part of my problem with The Rattlesnake Season. I've been meaning to read something by Leonard for a while but somehow never noticed he did Westerns. I'll pick up one of those Roundups of his, or something by one of the authors you mentioned, at some point. And thanks for commenting!

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