Sunday, August 21, 2011

Walk A Mile in My Chaps, Cowboy - #47, 48, and 49

STORY:  “The Colonel’s Lady” – “Blood Money” – and “The Nagual” - by Elmore Leonard


BASICALLY:  Action-packed Westerny goodness.
  • “The Colonel’s Lady” (1952) – An infamous Apache bandit kills a party of travelers and takes the lone woman hostage, hustling her upstream.  They’re pursued by a US Army tracker who hopes against hope he’ll reach them before she’s the victim of further atrocity.  Twist ending.
  • “Blood Money” (1953) – A gang of five bank robbers has apparently killed a man during its most recent heist. The marshal and his posse pursue the four hardened criminals and one boy, trapping them in an old dead-end mining canyon.  Then the wait begins.  Another twist ending.
  • “The Nagual” (1956) – An old man, a vaquero his whole life but now disabled and unable to do much more than mend fences, is aware of the affair between his boss’s wife and the man who breaks his boss’s horses.  When the boss gets wind of the affair and takes a drastic action, the old man has a decision to make.  Cute ending, but not really a twist.

Amazingly, even after my gargantuan (sorry!) analysis of a formulaic noir story in #46, I still wasn’t tired of reflecting on how pulp writing does what it does.  And even though I think TYoOHS’s Library Month started, like, ninety-two years ago, I’ve still got plenty of great material to go through.  (Hooray for online renewal.)  This collection of Elmore Leonard Western stories was a perfect fit for my mood.  On one level, these are basic pieces of fiction that are easily categorized—good guys, bad guys, classic otherworld setting, lots of men doing archetypally manly things with guns and horses and whiskey.  Being a Western raises certain expectations in readers; it has to deliver if it’s going to succeed.

But what I discovered in reading these three Westerns is that Elmore Leonard knows how to use the formula as a jumping-off point, not an end.  Formulaic conventions are unarguably present—after all, that’s part of what it means to be a story in the Western genre—but what’s impressive is how well he masks them.  The guy is clearly brilliant.  In the introduction, Leonard’s quoted as saying that when he decided to become a writer, “I looked for a genre where I could learn how to write and be selling at the same time…I chose Westerns because I liked Western movies.”  But then he went and wrote “twenty-seven of the thirty stories in this volume” in the five years between 1951 and 1956, which is a pretty fantastic learning curve.  Of course, he benefited from a thriving market for the Western story, a market that dried up by the end of the fifties.  But you’ve gotta admire his practicality and drive, combined with what’s clearly a significant natural talent.

In that formulaic murder story discussed in #46, as well as in Dashiell Hammett’s formulaic detective story discussed in #39, a single POV narrates the action in a straight linear arc.  That’s what makes those stories so simple and so analyzable.  They’re fun, but they are not complex.  These three Westerns, on the other hand, feel far more complicated.  Where Elmore Leonard breaks away from the pack, I think, is in his manipulation of point of view (POV).

All three of these stories are told in third person—never “I,” always “he”—but it’s mostly a close third person.  That means that instead of some distant god-like narrator, we’re as close to the character as if it were in first person.  We see the individual’s thoughts and feelings, and we’re in their head as they take in the world.  For example, in “The Colonel’s Lady,” we begin inside the POV of the Apache bandit Mata Lobo:
He inched his body upward until he was standing, placed a foot on a rung of the baggage rack, and pushed his body up until his head was above the coach. He was confident of his own animal stealth. A gun could be waiting, but he doubted it. Only a fool would have moved, knowing he was just outside. A fool, or a child, or a woman.
But Leonard doesn’t stay there.  After Mata Lobo captures the woman and sets off, we switch POV to the unit of soldiers that find the ruined stagecoach.  The narration begins distantly, but soon settles onto the POV of their young leader Phil Langmade.  Like his men, he’s exhausted and filthy from their most recent patrol, and finding this horrific scene is the last thing he could have wanted—especially because the coach contained the Colonel’s wife.  Experience tells him there’s almost no chance she’s still alive.

During this part of the story, Phil Langmade is unsure what to do, and he’s even scared to look inside the coach for fear he’ll find the corpse of the Colonel’s wife.  But civilian scout Simon Street has already noticed her footprint on the riverbank and reports that the bandit—he surmises that there was only one, and who it probably was—has taken her away on foot.  We stay in Langmade’s point of view and so get introduced to Simon Street through his eyes; mainly, he admires the scout’s abilities and trusts his judgment.  By the time Leonard changes the POV again, this time to Simon Street himself, we understand that this guy is the best of the best—and even he doubts this episode will turn out for the best.  The stakes feel very high indeed.

Leonard uses POV switches in all three of these stories.  In “Blood Money,” the change-ups are even more freewheeling, moving liberally between the escaping criminals and the lawmen pursuing them.  When you think about it, a standoff between a bunch of robbers and a marshal’s posse is about as formulaic as Western plots come.  But by building the story up through successive layers of POV, Leonard complicates the narrative.  A simpler story might keep us in the POV of the criminals, and then the lawmen become their antagonists, and either our bad guy protagonists succeed or they don’t.  Or it might make the lawmen the POV protagonists, the criminals the antagonists, and then the same question would hold.  But by jumping around between POVs frequently, the reader is never sure whose side they’re supposed to be on—which allows Leonard to make this a story about a young criminal’s chance at redemption, instead of what you think at first, that it’s just a story about whether or not some bank robbers get caught.

You’re probably wanting to know how Leonard switches POV so often without being annoying about it.  It’s a good question.  I feel sure it’s a good question because I can’t quite figure out the answer.  It has something to do with purpose, I know—every time the POV changes, it’s for a specific narrative purpose.  It might be to increase tension (as when we leave Mata Lobo with his helpless hostage), or it might be to set up another character (Phil Langmade’s evaluation of the scout Simon Street), or it might be to give the reader more information than a character has (as when we learn from a “Blood Money” lawman that the kid involved in the bank hold-up and attempted murder can probably avoid being hanged for his crime).  In any case, the changes in POV aren’t arbitrary and they don’t repeat information.

In “The Nagual,” Leonard chooses to use fewer changes in POV, providing an interesting contrast.  Most of the action occurs through the eyes of seventy-year-old Ofelio Oso, who keeps to himself and goes often into the hills to look at the stars and meditate on the approaching end of his life.  Unlike in “Blood Money,” “The Nagual” has a single unambiguous protagonist.  Even so, we don’t stay inside his mind the whole time.  For example, when Ofelio is waiting to pick up his boss from the stagecoach station, he hangs out with some other roughnecks who get a kick out of teasing him about going off into the hills.  They try to goad him into talking about “the devils” he says he sometimes sees, just so they can laugh at him.  But the POV shifts to the most sympathetic listener:
Billy-Jack Trew listened, and in a way he understood the old man. He knew that legends were part of a Mexican peon’s life. He knew that Ofelio had been a vaquero for something like fifty years, with lots of lonesometime for imagining things. Anything the old man said was good listening, and a lot of it made sense after you thought about it awhile—so Billy-Jack Trew didn’t laugh.
You might be surprised to know that, in the story, this isn’t really new information—earlier, in Ofelio’s POV, we learn about the long career as a vaquero and the propensity for thinking.  But having Billy-Jack think it, too, sort of validates it as an actual characteristic of Ofelio, not just the way the old man sees himself.  And it builds on that, too, by showing that Billy-Jack considers Ofelio to be a source of some wisdom.

“The Nagual” is the least formulaic of the Elmore Leonard Westerns I read—really, it’s pretty rad how much the stories, despite having been written within just a few years of one another, get progressively more sophisticated.  Although they all have formulaic elements, sometimes even employing Western tropes that border on the cliché, they overcome their humble foundations thanks to Leonard’s skill in making each story feel fresh.  When I talked about stories #44 and 45, I said that Margaret Drabble’s literary pair seemed strangely alike at heart, even though they had very different plots.  Remarkably, despite a shared nineteenth-century setting and masculine outlook, Elmore Leonard’s tales don’t project that feeling of sameness.  His handling of POV seems to be a big part of this, allowing him to inject change and tension into his stories at every turn.  So, go on, whether or not you think of yourself as the kind of person who reads Westerns, enjoy him for his writing chops and his ability to spin a great yarn.