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Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Western That Cuts Against the Grain


In the history of the western genre (whether it be film or fiction), there have been a few basic plot skeletons used over and over again. One of these involves war with the natives; another pits lawmen against outlaws; and another features a range war.

Since the New Deal, the range war plot has been used extensively, and almost always cattlemen have been the villains, oppressing small ranchers and farmers on a greed-maddened quest for more grazing land. This theme is ubiquitous in western films, and western novels have mostly followed suit. Critics and theorists mostly agree that creative works with this theme are making a statement against Big Business.

Once in a while, though, there is a western tale using this plot template which marches to a different beat. One decent example is Louis L'Amour's Showdown at the Hogback. Then there is this novel, which shares many superficial aspects...but can't be confused with L'Amour's.

"Curly wolf" is Old West lingo for "bad mamma-jamma," and the title character certainly fits that description. Arizona (sometimes called the Arizona Kid) is an amoral gunfighter who hires out to the highest bidder. In this case, the highest bidder is a junta of crooked politicians and lawmen driving homesteaders (with both small and large ranches) off their claims in order to cash in on a lucrative railroad deal.

From what I've read, the quick-draw wasn't actually used in frontier days. Some historians say it wasn't even developed until the 1950s--a complete Hollywood fabrication. Whatever the truth may be, the quick-draw convention has been absorbed into western mythology. It's hard to find a western that does not incorporate it. This novel is no exception in that regard, but it is exceptional in that it handles all the gun play with a verisimilitude I haven't seen in any other western.

The Arizona Kid is deadly with a rifle, and a crack pistol shot either right or left-handed. He is hired to bully the homesteaders off their claims...or kill them if necessary.

Unfortunately for his employers, he begins to develop a conscience as the job unfolds. And that puts him between the proverbial rock and hard place. There are at least three sub-plots which are captivating in their own right. One is the struggle among the homesteaders to band together and fight, or pull stakes and take their family looking for some place they won't have to face death from "gun sharps" in addition to their battle with the elements, starvation, etc. (Life for frontier farmers and ranchers wasn't easy, even when unmolested by their fellow man.)

For fans of westerns, there is enough familiarity here to make you feel at home. There is also enough unorthodoxy to please those who don't normally dabble in the genre.

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