“The Medusa Archive: Clemente Palma’s “Los ojos de Lina” (1904) and the Horrors of the Female Gaze”

“The Medusa Archive: Clemente Palma’s “Los ojos de Lina” (1904) and the Horrors of the Female Gaze” by Christopher Conway, Journal of Hispanic Modernism (March 2014, Issue 5, 43-52).

The Peruvian Clemente Palma was one of Latin America’s most able practitioners of the Gothic. By Gothic, I mean a Romantic mode of literary expression defined by the uncanny, mystery, terror, and shadowy psychological drama. In the Gothic the subject is not an isolated monad, safely separate from the outside world, but rather an entity manipulated by forces (real or imaginary) that cut against the grain of Enlightenment rationalism (Smith 2-3). As Allan Lloyd-Smith writes: “The Gothic situates itself in areas of liminality, of transition, at first staged literally in liminal spaces and between opposing individuals, but subsequently appearing more and more as divisions between opposing aspects within the self” (Lloyd-Smith 6). This fracturing of the self, or at least the exploration of the self as a changeable and unsettled persona, is understood both literally and figuratively in Gothic literature as a kind of haunting. The genre’s commonplace of ruins, castles, and labyrinths are the traces of the repressed that haunt the conscious self (Hogle 2). This eruption of mystery into the world of the real, of the fantastic into a rational world, challenges both characters and readers to experience fear and uncertainty and to call into question their experience of reality. While it is true that the experience of fear in Romanticism was a generative, creative force, the disquieting fear sown by the Gothic represented forms of excess and extremism that the self could not transcendentally repurpose as something moral and elevated (González Moreno 14). In Latin American literary history, the concept of the Gothic has been less influential than the Fantastic, which, as theorized by Todorov and others, is a broader and more mechanistic/structuralist mode relating to the classification of literary effects as real, marvelous or uncanny. Although undisputably valuable, the Fantastic is too general and formalist to acknowledge the complex, psychological dimensions of fear, especially when speaking of stories inspired by the European Gothic tradition and Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, as I will show below, most readers of Palma have rarely looked beyond the epistemologies of the real and the unreal to dwell on the psychological and existential themes that the Gothic puts forward.

No other Latin American writer of the fin-du-siecle wrote so many tales that pushed the limits of the nineteenth-century Gothic into the territory of outright terror and science fiction as Clemente Palma. In his short story collections Cuentos malévolos (1904) and Historietas malignas (1925), as well as his novels Mors ex vita (1923) and XYZ (1934), Palma explored vampirism, satanism, altered states of perception, insanity, necrophilia, reincarnation and even the cloning of human beings. However, Palma’s literary recognition was eclipsed by the legendary reputation of his father, Ricardo Palma, the author of the Peruvian Traditions, and by the international reputations of Modernistas like Rubén Darío, José Martí and Enrique Gómez Carrillo. Contemporary critics have been rediscovering Palma over the past few decades, thanks to our interest in exploring gender and power. The Gothic, with its intense psychologism, is an excellent laboratory for exploring the self in relation to the “other,” however this other is defined or constituted.

The focus of this article is one story by Clemente Palma: “Los ojos de Lina,” from Cuentos malévolos (1904). My aim is twofold: to isolate one tale by Palma to showcase its conceptual complexity and to deepen our understanding of his treatment of gender. My argument is that in this story Palma explores man’s fear of woman’s sexuality through a device (Lina’s eyes) that is symbolically tied to the power of the Medusa. The story thus belongs to a well-defined geneaology of texts —a literary and philosophical tradition—that is rooted in exploring the fear of Woman by way of the myth of Perseus and the Medusa. As I explain below, I call this geneaology the “Medusa Archive,” and argue that it is an ideal critical apparatus for defining the text’s treatment of Man’s paralyzing fear of Woman. In short, the Medusa Archive provides us with models for historicizing and theorizing Palma’s representation of Lina.

To download the complete article, please click here.

Ni salvajes ni sietemesinos: la restauración de la masculinidad en Nuestra América

Conway, Christopher. “Ni salvajes ni sietemesinos: la restauración de la masculinidad en Nuestra América

“Hablar sobre Martí y los estudios de género, particularmente la masculinidad, es entrar a una rica y controvertida veta de investigaciones y reflexiones…En las páginas que siguen, releemos la famosa crónica de Martí en función de la restauración de una masculinidad agredida por el discurso colonial. Si es cierto, como escribe Julio Ramos, que “Nuestra América” es “un clásico cuyas condiciones de producción se han ido borrando con el paso del tiempo y el proceso de su canonización” (Ramos 395), la lucha por la virilidad del sujeto es una de las condiciones históricas del texto que debemos recuperar y poner en primer plana.”

“Entre tarántulas y dementes: Heriberto Frías, reo-narración y la Cárcel de Belem”

“Entre tarántulas y dementes: Heriberto Frías, reo-narración y la Cárcel de Belem” de Christopher Conway. El texto disponible aquí.

“El marco de mi análisis parte del concepto de la prisión como mecanismo de diferenciación social propuesto por el investigador Frank Lauterbach en su estudio del discurso carcelario británico del siglo XIX. De acuerdo con este modelo, el discurso escriturario producido por burgueses y gentlemen en la cárcel se constituye por medio del temor a que se les confunda con la masa criminal que los rodea.  Cercados por miembros de las clases ínfimas, la identidad social de reo-narradores privilegiados queda amenazada, catalizando una serie de estrategias retóricas para defender su respetabilidad frente a la otredad. Aunque el contexto mexicano de Frías dicta que enmendemos aspectos de esta aproximación, la contribución de Lauterbach nos permite enfocar las estrategias representacionales del autor de Tomóchic y la paradójica reserva que guarda frente a la experiencia carcelaria mientras la está viviendo y escribiendo.”

Writing It Raw: A Review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Vol. I

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is the first in a six volume memoir-cum-novel about all the things that a person might think and feel and know but is usually afraid to admit to anyone, much less publish in a book. If you really think about it, it’s difficult to speak honestly about family, love, and sexuality without falling into sentimentalities that ultimately distort their uncomfortable truths. (Maybe there are no single truths to tell about these things, after all, just disappointments, shame and secrets?) Knausgaard sets out to break down these sentimental notions and tell his story raw. Who would have thought that it would be so damn fascinating?

Knausgaard anchors his first volume around the theme of his relationship with his father, the theme with which the book opens and closes. In between he tells the story of his childhood and teen years in agonizing detail, punctuating the narrative with jags of fascinating reflections about the nature of death, time, parenthood, and creativity. Knausgaard’s  experiences are, at face value, ordinary, like the experiences of most people, but like all lives, his is haunted by knots of fear, doubt, ambivalence, selfishness and desire. This is where he works his writerly magic, by attempting to put all of that on the page along with the trappings and tedium of everyday life.

Knausgaard’s series has been a publishing sensation in Norway. Now, through translation and glowing reviews, an increasing number of curious readers from outside of Norway are jumping onto this bandwagon. I don’t know if we’re dealing with a U.S. and U.K. cult classic in the making or something bigger than that. Knausgaard has gotten into trouble for his brutal honesty in Norway, and the title “My Struggle,” which is the same as Mein Kampf, has raised eyebrows and hackles. (There’s nothing Nazi about the book, by the way.)

The second volume has just been published in English and deals with love and Knausgaard’s relationships with women. I’ll definitely read it.

Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard” from The Paris Review.

A review of Breaking into the Backcountry by Steve Edwards

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 8.17.44 AM

I suppose we have the Romantics to blame for making us believe that we can find ourselves in the contemplation of nature and the pleasures of solitude. A lot of us long to “get away” to somewhere quiet, for a weekend, or a week, or longer, to press the reset button, to make the hubbub go away and make ourselves clear to ourselves again. Telling stories about such journeys, like Wordsworth did about Tintern Abbey, or Thoreau did about his iconic pond, seems to have carved a groove into the North American psyche. I’m not a novelist or fiction writer, but sometimes, when in a day dream, I thought I might write that kind of plot. The formless ideas for this fiction were just another way for me to indulge in the desire to get away, to find the quiet inside.

Which is why I was looking forward to reading Breaking into the Backcountry (University of Nebraska Press, 2010) by Steve Edwards, a memoir about a young writer who spends seven months living in Southwestern Oregon. The idea that the author was not an outdoorsman appealed to me; I could read the book and treat him like a proxy for myself, and vicariously experience his journey into a more contemplative life. I did, and heartily recommend the book.

Edwards writes in a warm, open voice that is crisp and controlled. We might expect a grandilocuent voice, the voice of the man who becomes a giant thanks to his interactions with bears, deer, the river and the moon, but Edwards gives us a voice in a smaller, more ordinary key, and as such, he is a lot more affecting. The point is not that nature with a capital ‘N’ changes who you are –although Edwards certainly is changed by the experience– but that knowing nature, and knowing yourself, is a difficult process, a constant negotiation with fear and memory. What I appreciated most about the book was not the trappings of the fantasy of living off the grid, but how Edwards evoked his insecurities and the effort needed to be aware and present of his surroundings. You can move to a cabin in southwestern Oregon but that doesn’t mean you get to unplug who you are, where you come from and what you fear. It is in those aspects of who we are that we find the barriers to finding the quiet inside of ourselves.

Breaking into the Backcountry is a rewarding book for these reasons. Edwards takes us on a journey into both wonder and doubt. The writing flows beautifully, and the lack of pretension that Edwards brings to one of the most pretentious subjects ever is lovely. The big quiet, which is the title of one of the chapters in the book, emerges not as a material destination in the natural world but as an elusive state of being that has been occluded by the hubbub of our busy lives, by our sadness and the ghosts of our past. I am grateful for this book because now I don’t have to fantasize about writing something like it, which I probably would not have gotten around to doing. More importantly: I would certainly not have done as good a job as Edwards has done.

More about Steve Edwards here.

Good versus Evil in Christmasland: A Review of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2

The title of Joe Hill’s new novel, NOS4A2, is a play on the word Nosferatu. The word is a synonym for vampire and it was made famous by F.W. Murnau’s iconic horror film featuring a gangly, bald headed and pointy nosed vampire called Count Orlok played by an actor called Max Schreck. Joe Hill cleverly transplants the unforgettable visage of Schreck’s Orlok into his clever and exciting story of good versus evil. Besides appropriating this archetypal character, Hill fully exploits the creepiness of Christmas. Christmas jolliness, early and/or excessive Christmas caroling and extravagant Christmas decorations belong to the same category of awful creepiness as clowns and church choir boys with glowing eyes (that’s a reference to a Bonnie Tyler video, by the way.) Christmas is one of those unctuously good things that crosses over from cloying into creepiness and even sheer terror. Joe Hill uses both of these conceits, the grotesque image of Schreck as Nosferatu, and the gaudy and chilling iconography of Christmas, to build an enormously entertaining adventure novel that I predict will be a bust-out best-selling blockbuster. Mark my words.

I won’t spoil the novel for anyone here but it’s about a battle between good and evil, with good embodied in a woman named Victoria (Vic, The Brat) and evil in Charlie Manx, a Nosferatu-like monster who is a serial kidnapper of children and worse, much worse. In addition to this basic conflict, Hill uses interdimensional travel to propel both the movement of his two protagonists and the feverish turning of pages by his readers. For Vic, this kind of travel is facilitated by an invisible bridge, and for Manx, by a supernatural 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with the vanity plate NOS4A2. These “magical” canals and vehicles function to transport the characters between different spaces but also between the magical (or nightmarish) spaces that live inside of us and which can bleed out into the real world. Good and evil are not only the stuff of actions in the real world, of things, but also the stuff of our inscapes or inner worlds and subjectivity. Pure evil is a function of the darkness inside a person’s soul, as goodness is of the light. In Hill’s novelistic world, subjectivity and interiority are sources of power, motion, transformation and communication. They are the seat of evil and of redemption. It’s this kind of ‘world-building’ (a term we usually use to talk about fantasy or science fiction novels) that makes Hill’s new novel a superior popular entertainment. There’s magic in it but  Hill doesn’t ask us to accept it at face value, unquestioningly. He makes us believe it as readers by explaining it to us.

So there’s magic, and fear, but there’s also a lot of real life in these pages. Vic and the characters that surround her are not types but real, imperfect people. Another praiseworthy characteristic of the novel is how Hill breaks down some of its most exciting parts into separate chapters, shifting from one character’s point of view to another. I don’t recall this technique in other novels but it’s really effective here. It’s original without being pretentious, allowing the narrative perspective to move around space and do “replays” from different angles, so to speak. Fun stuff.

Ever since 20th Century Ghosts I’ve admired Joe Hill. He manages to preserve the pleasure of genre literature while also indicating a savvy feel for its ambiguities and symbolic possibilities. He’s not a shock jock nor a torture porn guy. He doesn’t jump out at you in a cheap shot of fear. Instead, he respects the experience of the uncanny, and expertly tilts it toward outright fear and lemme outta here! In particular,in 20th Century Ghosts,  the story “Best New Horror” manages to be self-aware and even postmodern but not in an annoying or pretentious way. Then, Hill ratchets up the imagery and the tension and creates a dense masterpiece that is as rich as an Escher design but also just crazy scary dammit. From that moment on I knew that Joe Hill was a special writer.

NOS4A2 is a different kind of story in comparison to “Best New Horror.” I wouldn’t call it horror and quit there, although it has creepy and terrifying elements we would associate with other horror novels. I would prefer to call it magical realism with adventure story thrown into the mix. It is written on a broad canvas, full of big ideas that are thought through with care, and delivered with appealing characters and honest plotting.

Joe Hill has been very successful so far with his two novels and short stories, but I fully expect NOS4A2 to catapult him to a new level of popularity. What’s more exciting is to see a writer who was already excellent become more ambitious and experimental and pull off a big fun book like this one. In other words, we can continue to expect great things from Joe Hill.

Joe Hill’s website.

© Christopher Conway, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Searching for The Searchers: A Review of Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend

Winston Churchill famously called Russia a riddle “wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Less remembered is what he said after those words, which was that the Russian national interest was the key to understanding it. We could attempt a similar construction about John Ford’s landmark movie The Searchers (1956), which is also enigmatic and contradictory, and the key to which is U.S. race history. Another way of putting this is that The Searchers is a Western nourished by both an aura of epic mythology and a sense of dread over the violent legacy of Manifest Destiny. It has the romantic elegance of the paintings of Frederick Remington and the existential darkness of a psychological nightmare. It has moments of intense realism and also cringeworthy racial stereotypes and tropes. The movie’s villainous antagonist, a Comanche chief called Scar, is less authentically savage than Ethan Edwards, played by the iconic actor John Wayne. And so on. These are the kinds of reflections that those of us who love The Searchers try to explain to the uninitiated. The best we can do is eternally return to statements that begin with “It’s a Western” and which must inevitably be followed by the conjunction “but.” The Searchers is a Western, but…

Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend is a kind of biography of the movie. Frankel tells the story of the movie’s historical inspirations, its screenwriter Alan Le May, its director John Ford, its movie star actor John Wayne and the movie’s reception among critics then and now. By far, the most compelling part of the book is the first half, which tells the story of the captivity of Cynthia Ann Parker among the Comanche in nineteenth-century Texas. In one of the ironies of history that proves the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, the captive white girl gave birth to a Comanche boy that grew up to become a fearsome and mythologized Comanche leader: Quanah Parker. As interesting as the true life search for Cynthia Ann Parker was, especially in comparison to what we see in The Searchers, it pales in comparison to the tale of Cynthia’s Comanche’s son and his remarkable success as a leader and friend of the white man. Any reader of Frankel’s book would agree that Alan Le May’s novel, and John Ford’s adaptation of it, only scratched the tip of the iceberg of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. Thanks to Frankel’s vivid tales, I actually hope that someone will be bold enough to retell the story of Alan Le May’s novel, or the true story of Cynthia Ann and her son Quanah.

Frankel teaches us about the grim and vivid history of the Texas Comanche Wars, but also about what a dreadful human being John Ford really was. In the book, the enigmatic quality of Ford’s despicable nature is only matched by the sphinx-like mystery of Cynthia Ann Parker, who, upon returning to the world of whites, is both unwilling and unable to cast off her Comanche identity. We can guess and speculate but she remains a riddle. Ironically, John Wayne, the icon that liberals love to hate because of all of the symbolism embodied in his cowboy persona, appears to have been something of a sweetheart.

My only criticism of the book is that I don’t believe that Frankel gives full voice to the extraordinary popularity of The Searchers among film historians and cultural critics. There are some rich interpretations of the movie that go unmentioned in these pages and which readers would find quite fascinating. There is also a missed opportunity when Frankel does not mention Sherman Alexie’s brilliant short story “Dear John Wayne” (from the book of stories The Toughest Indian in the World), which is about The Searchers. Alexie, who is one of our preeminent writers, in addition to being an American Indian (it pays to separate out these two statements), once said that The Searchers was one of his favorite movies. His story is a brilliant riff on both The Searchers and the John Wayne persona. Interestingly, another wonderful writer, Louise Erdrich, has penned a poem by the same title, “Dear John Wayne,” that would also have merited some exploration. Fans of The Searchers, or proud “Searcher Geeks” are interested in all of this. Minor quibbling, though. Mr. Frankel did right by us.

What is The Searchers and what does it ultimately mean? Frankel does not give us a simple answer. In the pages of his book we trace some compelling life stories and obsessions and we are continuously reminded that to be American is to be villain, hero and victim, all at the same time. Perhaps this is the nature of our national riddle/enigma/mystery. The other part is that we aren’t able to reconcile all those personas into a coherent whole.

If you love The Searchers you need to read this book but that’s besides the point because you probably already read it.

For more information on Glenn Frankel, here’s his website.

© Christopher Conway, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The Cult of Bolívar and the Emergence of the Cult of Hugo Chávez

A year before his death, the Liberator Simón Bolívar wrote to one of his supporters that “in my name both good and evil is sought…and many invoke it as the text of their madness.” This, in a nutshell, summarizes what political cults are all about. When a man becomes a myth or a legend, he ceases to be an actor and becomes an object for others to use for their own political ends. In this regard, Bolívar is akin to a santo de vestir, a church mannequin capable of performing the role of more than one saint simply through the changing of its vestments. This is why to study the image of Bolívar over time is to meet many different Bolivars; we see conservatives who tout Bolívar as a symbol of political centralism while Cold War-era Soviet historians celebrated him as a Marxist revolutionary.

Now, with the death of Hugo Chávez we are witnessing the emergence of a parallel Cult of Chávez, modeled on the Cult of Bolívar. In my 2003 book, The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature, I outlined a theoretical model for understanding the kind of symbolism that underpins the Cult of Bolívar and which remains relevant for an understanding of what is happening right now with Chávez. I argued for three elements that defined how intellectuals, writers and statesmen have defined the meaning of Bolívar.

“My argument is that the authority of monuments, and by extension, monumetnalist narratives about heroes, may be diagrammed through the concept of monumental poses, or authoritative statements about the monumentalist hero that explain his primary claim on ideological power. In the case of Bolívar there are three monumental poses…The first poses is the concept of progress. In modern Latin America, the symbol of Bolívar has been charged with the defense of hte promise of tomorrow. History is plotted through continuities and Bolívar is a powerful wellspring of myth capable of joining the past to the present and to a providential future…The Liberator encodes an authoritiative claim to the past and to the future, with the power to exert influence over the political, social and cultural realms…Another dominant pose of the monumental Bolívar is its embodiment of the patriarchal principle…The Liberator is a symbolic father whose heroism and vision have entitled him to the unswerving loyalty of his heirs, who seek his inspiration and guidance in times of crisis…The third and final poses is related to language and signification, and may be termed metatextual. The cult of Bolívar maintains itself through unquestioned faith in the authority of the words of Bolívar…” (3-4)

In looking at the outpouring of grief over Chávez’s death, and the ritualistic, state sponsored celebration of his life, we begin the see these monumental poses at work on the dead body of Chávez. We see Chávez explained as the key to Venezuela’s Socialist future (the pose of progress and futurism), we see him celebrated as a symbolic father who cannot be questioned (the pose of patriarchy) and we see him as a symbolic set of authoritative statements about what Venezuela should be (the pose of metatextuality.)

In the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx famously wrote “all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Bolívar’s anonymous death on the coast of Colombia was tragic because he was arguably the most important leader of Independence and because he had been rejected by all. There were no state funerals or processions or grandilocuent speeches. The man who had led the liberation of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, died a pauper’s death and vilified by both Colombians and Venezuelans. It was only twelve years after his death that Venezuela reclaimed his body and began the symbolic work of rehabilitating him for posterity. Other South American countries did the same by mid-century and Bolívar became a Pan-American symbol that has endured into the twenty first century.

The death of Chávez, and the transparent creation of “another” Bolívar-like cult is reminiscent of the farce in Marx’s quote above. I don’t say this on ideological grounds, out of a rejection of Chavismo (although I am not a Chavista). I say it in relation to the question of form: the Cult of Chávez is a simulacrum or parody of the Cult of Bolívar that has begun and will continue to function in parallel and analogous ways to the original Cult of Bolívar.

It will be interesting to see how the Venezuelan state tries to negotiate the maintenance of two cults at the same time: the Cult of Bolívar and the Cult of Chávez. It will also be interesting to see whether the Venezuelan opposition to Chavismo will take up the mantle of Bolívar to counter the Cult of Chávez. In a war of words and ideas, political factions always need symbols.

Notes:

My citation of Marx is from The Karl Marx Library, vol. 1, ed. Saul K. Padover (McGraw Hill: New York, 1972), 245–46.

The association of Bolívar with a Santo de Vestir is a concept I use in The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature on page 18. Elías Pino Iturrieta, in his book El Divino Bolívar, cites a conversation with me in which I shared the term with him before the publication of my book.

For students and researchers in finding out more about my book, here’s an overview of its contents:

The Cult of Bolívar in Latin American Literature provides an introduction to Bolivarian identity in Latin American culture.

My introduction, “Dominant Poses, Iconoclastic Gestures,” uses a controversial painting by the Chilean Juan Dávila to frame an analyis of how the Cult of Bolívar has historically authorized itself as a commanding set of “Truths” related to language, gender and historical development. The rest of the book examines how critiques of the Cult of Bolívar have been used as vehicles for condemning the shortcomings of Latin American modernization. Primary materials considered in the study include: the visual arts, fiction, poetry, biographies, children’s literature, and political tracts. In sum the book provides a framework for speaking about the contours and limitations of hero-worship in modern Latin America.

Chapter 1 “Bolívar and the Emergence of a National Religion” examines the emergence of the Cult of Bolívar in nineteenth- century Venezuela through archival research.

Chapter 2 “Monumentalism and the Erotics of National Degeneration” is an exploration of late nineteenth-century challenges to Bolivarian nationalism. This chapter includes a reading of the Modernist novel “Idolos rotos” (1901), with special emphasis on sexuality and development.

Chapter 3 “The Promise of Bolivarian Paternity” deals with Bolívar as symbolic father of the nation, through children’s literature and specifically the writings of Teresa de la Parra, who died before she could write a sentimental and ‘feminine’ biography of Bolívar.

Chapter 4 “A Whore in the Palace: The Poetics of Pornodetraction” examines the Cult of Manuela Sáenz as it relates to Simón Bolívar, with special attention to the controversy over Denzil Romero’s pornographic novel “La Esposa del Dr. Thorne” (1983).

Chapter 5 “Solitude, Signs and Power in ‘The General in His Labyrinth’ analyzes Gabriel García Márquez’s “The General in his Labyrinth” (1989) vis-a-vis “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, “The Autumn of the Patriarch”, and García Márquez’s early journalism, his Nobel lecture and his memoir, “Living to Tell the Tale” (originally published in Spanish in 2001; 2003 English translation).

Afterword “Bolivarian Self-Fashioning into the Twenty-First Century” is a meditation on President Hugo Chávez and his brand of Bolivarian nationalism. Full text here.

Valdez Unchained: Some Thoughts on Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard.

I’m not a big reader of westerns, despite having grown up in Spain watching western movies every Saturday afternoon. Still, one of my all time favorite novels is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. That’s an epic entertainment of the highest order and I’ll never forget the experience of reading it for several days as I lived in an empty apartment with one air mattress and one brown suitcase. (I had just moved to Texas and I was waiting for my possessions to arrive, I didn’t even have a car.) Anyway, few years ago I read the western novel Hombre by Elmore Leonard after hearing a lot about what a smashing novelist he was, and after catching the Paul Newman movie on television. I was impressed by how economical and interesting the novel was and decided to read more at some point. This morning I finished Valdez is Coming and my estimation of Leonard has grown in leaps and bounds.

Once again, the prose is spare and direct. There are no flourishes nor any posturing, literary or otherwise. Leonard does not indulge in sexy set pieces, or gory set pieces, or flights of description that are not needed. He has a story to tell and he gets to the point. In spite of this, the writing is not simplistic or overly schematic. The writing is good.

I won’t spoil the plot too much, but the premise of the novel is the unintentional shooting of a black man by Valdez. This leads to the protagonist’s quest to atone by seeking economic justice for the Apache woman pregnant with the dead man’s child. Valdez, who spent his life as a hunter of Apaches, now becomes a passionate advocate for financially remunerating the Apache woman for the unjust killing of her black partner. In this way, Leonard articulates an alliance between Mexican/Latinos and American Indians. (I write Mexican/Latinos because Valdez has many names… he is Roberto, he is Bob and he is Valdez. He is not purely Mexican.) Along the way, he is victimized by villains and rises again to seek justice. There is a lot of shooting. Ultimately, a mistreated woman joins his cause, and she too becomes a part of Valdez’s ‘movement’ for justice. The weak and disenfranchised, people of color and women, become a part of Valdez’s personal code of justice.

Valdez is Coming is a quick, pulpy read but its unexpectedly rich. It is politically forward, especially for a novel published in 1970. It also suggests that Valdez is something of a divine figure, a resurrected Christ who returns from the dead to make a better world. I think everyone pretty much agrees that the mythology of the ‘Wild West’ hinges primarily on the celebration of white masculinity and individualism. For Leonard to posit a brown man as the hero, to represent him as the leader of a symbolic community of disenfranchised people, and then put in his mouth the words of a culture of law and order, is to really cut against the grain of mainstream Americana. Echoes of The Searchers?

Elmore Leonard seems to be going through one of many revivals. He has always been popular and critically acclaimed but the success of the contemporary western Justified seems to be driving new readers like me to seek out his novels. Good deal. People will not be disappointed.

OK so this is the question: why the heck was Burt Lancaster cast as Valdez in the 1971 movie version?

I tweet about these kinds of things too, at @cristobalconway

Some Thoughts on Death Without Company by Craig Johnson.

Death Without Company by Craig Johnson is the second Walt Longmire mystery. This is a very likable series because of its Wyoming setting, which is lovingly rendered, and its appealing  characters: Sheriff Longmire, his best friend Henry Standing Bear, his deputy Victoria Moretti, and others.  Death Without Company is tinted with the faintest hue of something uncomfortable and potentially supernatural while also containing exciting set pieces about people at war with their surroundings and nature. It’s very atmospheric and inviting for this reason. However, despite its appeal, I found the novel a bit  disappointing. There are relationships and dynamics that seem significant at the beginning but which the book pretty much casts aside by the end. While the mystery at the center is tight and clever, the plotting of Longmire’s interactions and relationships were a bit unconvincing and unsatisfying. Some balance was missing.