Two Westerns: G. Clifton Wisler / Louis L’Amour

I happened to read two Westerns this last week, very different from each other in length, quality, and subject matter. The first was Spirit Warrior, by the Spur Award-Winning author G. Clifton Wisler. Not bad, although some may tire of the continual references to the “spirits” and “praying to the spirits.” The front cover of the mass market paperback (Zebra Books, 1986) has an interesting tag line that places the book (copyright 1986) in the pre-PC days of the 80s: “He was the tribe’s greatest warrior—except he was white!” I have to say that Wisler chose a great name for his protagonist—Metaha.

By coincidence, I happened the same week to catch just a few minutes of a 1962 movie—Geronimo, starring the very white Chuck Connors, yes, the man better known as The Rifleman, one of the Westerns I enjoyed as a kid because Lucas McCain (Connors) was such a loving dad to his son. The Wikipedia entry on Chuck Connors notes that The Rifleman was “the first show ever to feature a widowed father raising a young child.” That series in black-and-white lasted for five years (from 1958-63). I loved the way Connors handled his customized Winchester rifle. None better!

The other book was The Lonesome Gods  by Louis L’Amour, a novel that surpasses Wisler’s in quality as well as length. Coming in at 452 pages in the mass market paperback (compared to Wisler’s 223) The Lonesome Gods is actually four or so novels in one, though most of the action relates in one way or the other to Johannes (“Hannes”) Verne, a six-year-old kid who has lost his mother a year before the action begins and who will lose his father near the end of a perilous trip to Southern California, this in the days when Los Angeles was just beginning to be a small town and when the Apache and Yuma tribes along the way were hostile.

As in the Wisler book, the spirits play a part in The Lonesome Gods, as one can see from the title itself, but in a much less repetitive, much better integrated fashion. The one person most in touch with the ancients will be the young Hannes, whose coming-of-age story dominates much of the book. Hannes soon demonstrates unusual abilities as he makes friends with the Cahuilla, a more peaceful tribe, and faces numerous enemies, including his Spanish grandfather who wants him dead.

L’Amour creates suspense by suggesting but not revealing the mysterious pasts of other important characters, most notably Miss Nesselrode, a woman whose success in business threatens the Californios (as the early settlers were called) and whose secrets endanger her life.

For me, the weakest aspect of this lengthy novel is the romance between Hannes and Meghan Laurel, which leaves much to be desired! Apart from that, there’s a well-developed chase sequence, where Hannes tries to elude his merciless pursuers through some of the roughest terrain in the West. Throughout the book, no matter what is taking place, Hannes goes through an extended learning process, embodying his father’s message that “he who ceases to learn is already a half-dead man” (pp. 32-33 in the Bantam Books mass market paperback).

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Just finished Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Olive Kitteridge on the recommendation of my wife. Wow! What a spectacular writer, so observant, so able to create astounding characters. The novel, as the author admits in a conversation at the end of the Random House trade paperback, is a collection of connected short stories with no driving plot, it seems, until you realize that what ties everything together is not only Olive Kitteridge but life itself. The book offers a fantastic fullness of life captured in all its nuances by a masterful hand. For anyone interested in how great writers develop engrossing and believable characters this book is a beautiful primer.

Wharton and Winter

For a break from what I normally read, I picked up Edith Wharton’s novella Ethan Frome, only 77 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition, selling new at an incredible price of a buck fifty (yes, $1.50, today!) and, in reality, a sort of suspense novel in the gentler ways of the past where the reader is “suspended” but not with the driving intensity of many contemporary thrillers.The novel has an interesting structure, a contemporary frame  with a major middle segment—an old-fashioned romance—set roughly twenty years earlier.

What I particularly enjoyed about the novel were the descriptions of winter in Massachusetts. Nice to read those when baking under an Arizona sun. Wharton was very attentive to the nuances of a wintry landscape. Opening the book at random, this is one example of many:

They drove slowly [this is in a horse-drawn cart] up the road between fields glistening under the pale sun, and then bent to the right down a lane edged with spruce and larch. Ahead of them, a long way off, a range of hills stained by mottlings of black forest flowed away in round white curves against the sky. The lane passed into a pine-wood with boles reddening in the afternoon sun and delicate blue shadows on the snow. As they entered it the breeze fell and a warm stillness seemed to drop from the branches with the dropping needles. Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.

The author’s style is typical of serious writers in the early 20th century–heavy use of semi-colons and an ornate, elaborate style that flows (despite those heavy adjectives) with great ease. Here’s a selection where the author describes Ethan Frome, a twisted wreck of a man in the present, hale and vigorous in the past:

He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access, and I had the sense that his loneliness was not merely the result of his personal plight, tragic as I guess that to be, but had in it, as Harmon Gow had hinted, the profound accumulated cold of many Starkfield winters.

The only part that made me a bit uneasy was the melodramatic conclusion of the past story. That had to be difficult to write—frustrated passion slowly breaking out amid despair over a situation with no easy exit. The results of the chosen way out are dishearteningly portrayed in the novel’s concluding contemporary scenes.

Saul Bellow and Mr. Sammler’s Planet

I’ve enjoyed a few of Saul Bellow’s novels over the years, most of all Herzog, followed by Henderson the Rain King, though there are others, attempted long ago as a student, that I haven’t been able to finish (e.g., The Adventures of Augie March and Dangling Man). But recently I’ve gone back to try Humboldt’s Gift and this last week Mr. Sammler’s Planet. A real effort to get through the latter! Often I found myself rereading paragraphs three or four times, or reading for a while and suddenly realizing I wasn’t paying attention or not comprehending, just letting words slip by. Not good! In fact, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, though I suppose the intellectual elite might enjoy its philosophical meanderings.

Three quotes:

Life! Everyone who had it was bound to lose it.

Where liberty had been promised most, they had the biggest, worst prisons.

And finally, a section where old Sammler is talking to his wacky, libidinous daughter Shula, asking her how much she’s read of H.G. Wells, a writer she idolizes and about whom she’d like her father to write a memoir:

“Truthfully, my child, have you ever read a book of Wells?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Tell me—but the truth, just between you and me.”

“I read one book, Father.”

“One? One book by Wells is like trying to bathe in a single wave.”


Cloud Cover (eBook and hardcover edition)

Now out as an eBook (hardcover available August 15)!


“Incredibly entertaining and thrilling!”Suspense Magazine (Sept/Oct issue)

 “A strong addition to spy thriller collections, much recommended.”The Midwest Book Review

 “A fabulous writer” – Brad Thor, #1 National Bestselling Author of Hidden Order

 “A writer to watch” – Barbara Conaty, Library Journal

Find it here Kindle Store
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