Weave a circle round him thrice
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Kubla Khan
Last year, when I reviewed Shane by Jack Schaefer, I admitted that I did not know much about Westerns and that I intended to rectify the mistake. Well... it's taken me a while to get around to it. I have so many books lying unread on my shelves... But because of my blog, I tend to emphasize crime and detective fiction. As a result, I have plenty of books in other genres lying unread and which I will probably never read if I follow my current reading patterns. So I've decided to rebel. For the next little bit -- maybe one week, maybe two, maybe a month... who knows? It depends how much I enjoy myself... - I've decided to take a small hiatus from mysteries and to focus on other genres. (There might be one or two mystery reviews, but these would be out of my backlog.) And to kick this break off, today I’d like to talk about another Western that was recommended to me by Bill Pronzini: The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout.
|The scene of the crime has temporarily been taken over by other genres. All those who object may use the provided space-time continuum to proceed to the next crime fiction review.|
Western fans might recognize the title as the title of John Wayne’s final movie, and for good reason: that movie was adapted from the book by the author’s own son, Miles Hood Swarthout. The film co-starred such legendary actors as Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Stewart, and it included other high-profile names: Ron Howard, Scatman Crothers, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, and John Carradine all come to mind. I consider the movie to be one of the finest Westerns ever made, a poignant valentine to the Western and the type of iconic hero John Wayne might have played. (Indeed, the movie began with a unique sequence, in which a series of clips from Wayne’s glory days in film were used to show his character’s glory days.)
John Bernard (J. B.) Books is the titular “shootist” (a term that was once the popular word for a gunman). He comes all the way from Creede, Colorado to El Paso, looking for a doctor. Specifically, he is looking for Dr. Charles Hostetler, who once saved his life when he was shot in the belly. As a consequence, Hostetler is the only medical man Books will trust. Books complains about severe pain in his crotch. After an examination, Hostetler delivers his diagnosis: Books has a carcinoma of the prostate: cancer. He can’t expect to live much longer, and his eventual death is going to be slow and excruciatingly painful. At Books’ request, Hostetler delivers the harsh truth about the kind of death he can expect:
"Waste away?""Loss of flesh. Known as `cachexia.' bones of the face become prominent. The skin takes on a grayish cast. You will be a pretty awful sight. No one will dare tell you, but you will. Pretty awful.""What else?""There will be increasing severity of pain. In the lumbar spine, in the hips and groin.""What else?""Must we go on?""Yes.""Your water will shut off progressively. The bladder will swell because you can't unload it. You will gradually become uremic. Poisoned by your own waste products, due to a failure of the kidneys. By this time the agony will be unbearable, and no drug will moderate it. Hopefully, you will become comatose. Until you do, you will scream.""Jesus Christ."Charles Hostetler picked up his bag, walked to the door. His look for the first time was severe, almost angry. "I regret you forced me to be specific, Mr. Books. If you need me, telephone. Good day, sir."
And thus, J. B. Books gets ready for the hardest battle of his life, a battle he is guaranteed to lose. He has gained a reputation as an assassin, and he’s never backed down from a fight. If these are to be his last few weeks on earth, he is going to go out like a man.
But there are other things to consider. He takes up lodgings with Bond Rogers, a widow with one son, Gillom. There is reason to worry about Gillom, who’s been keeping bad company of late. Gillom looks up to and respects J. B. Books, however, and Books decides that he will teach Gillom what it takes to be a real man. At one point, he outlines his moral code to the youngster:
"Everybody has laws he lives by, I expect. I have mine as well.""What laws?"Bond Rogers was dismayed. Yet she waited, evidently as curious as her son."I will not be laid a hand on. I will not be wronged. I will not stand for an insult. I don't do these things to others. I require the same from them."
The Shootist is a poignant novel which chronicles the last days on earth of J. B. Books, and how he slowly gets ready for his own death. Reporters come to him eager for his life story, wanting to examine the psychology of a murderer. The undertaker comes by to see about Books’ final arrangements. Other local “tough guys” hear that the great assassin is on his deathbed and decide it’d be a fine feather in one’s cap to kill the infamous J. B. Books.
One of the novel’s most disturbing features is the pain felt by Books, and not just the physical pain. Throughout the novel he prepares himself for his inevitable death. Everything he owns is slowly stripped away, piece by piece. People show up to his bedside in order to try to take advantage of him and profit from his death in some way. He even reunites with a woman he once loved, and that scene is one of the novel’s most poignant and tragic moments. Through his interactions with these people, the author is interrogating the whole idea of the Western hero, with Books representing the last of the gunmen, those John Wayne-like characters. It’s fascinating stuff.
Books’ physical pain is important as well, and it mirrors his emotional turmoil. He gets a bottle of laudanum from Doc Hostetler, who warns him that its effects will decrease over time. Slowly, the laudanum gets less and less effective. Books at first only uses it to sleep through the night… but then comes the first night where he wakes up in pain and has to take a second dose… and then comes the first day where he can’t get through the afternoon without a dose… and on and on it goes, the pain mercilessly increasing. It makes for riveting reading.
Overall, The Shootist is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone who enjoys Westerns. Like the best genre fiction, it uses the boundaries to craft a quality piece of fiction. The result is tragic, poignant, and beautiful. The prose, the characters, hell, even the story on its own… all of them are terrific. This is a book that comes highly recommended – it must be experienced to be understood.