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