Four Horses Dead Ringer by J.D. McCall is just not for me. I’m not even entirely sure who it is for. Maybe I’ve just grown impatient with this genre. And that’s got me to thinking about why that might be. Here is my theory: way too many authors in the Western genre are so enamoured with the time period, way of speech, and nostalgia for what they believe to have been a simpler time, that they inject themselves into this fantasy environment as a sort of wish fulfillment, without actually evaluating whether or not they have anything to say. (Seriously, how many western book jackets have photos of the author in a fringe jacket or cowboy hat? Does Stephen King where a Halloween mask in his photos? Does William Gibson wear cyberpunk sunglasses and a rayon bodysuit?) Too often these westerns are light on drama, structure, characterization, and theme. Perhaps this is why books by L’Amour are so enduring – he was a writer. And he chose to write westerns. (And he was brilliant so he can wear whatever the hell he wants to.)
The first chapter of Four Horses is a lazy trip down the main street with our protagonist sheriff. He pets some dogs and then he and his newly arrived buddy (our marshal protagonist) hug a lot and slap backs and telegraph to the reader what swell guys they are and how much they love their animals. That’s it. On to chapter two, which is pretty much the same type of “aren’t we awesome, good natured guys?” description. Don’t even get me started on the author’s overuse of dialect. I enjoy a bit of authenticity to dialog, but this is just cartoonish. I swear its like Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn in a buddy cop movie.
Genuine excerpts: “Looky here what the wind blew in.” - “By gum haven’t ya fixed that thing yet?” – “Don’t you be givin’ me any grief when you can’t even figure out how to dress fer this time of year.” - “Ya’ ready to go have some chow? You betcha! I’m startin’ to feel a might wolfish.” Okay, I really must stop now. I’m making myself bleed internally.
I couldn’t finish the thing. I just could not do it, even upon pain of death. Perhaps The Worm is too impatient or maybe I just do not have enough of the western sensibility. Whatever the reason, this novel is painful to read.
I would love to appeal to the writers of western fiction and ask that they do a little prep work before they produce anything else. Figure out a plot first. Develop a backstory for your characters – and then leave most of it out of the prose! Characters are only interesting to the reader if/when you let them unfold through their actions. Not every damn thing has to be spelled out. Unless you think your readership is stupid. In which case, they are likely watching re-runs of reality tv and aren’t reading anyhow.
Lest you think I’m being unduely harsh, here is an example of exactly what has got my ass so chapped. The marshal has just told the sheriff a story about having to shoot his horse, Jinx, after a broken leg. Since the reader has been listening to the relatively unremarkable tale for a couple pages now, it is pretty clear it is significant to the marshal to loose his horse. Here is what immediately follows:
“I’m powerful sorry to hear it,” the sheriff offered. He could see his old freinds’ eyes grow moist as he had uttered his words.
The marshal paused for a moment, then continued with his story, having put his feelings behind him.
Explain much!? Do we need to be told he put his feelings behind him? ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure I already got then when he begins talking again. That tiny little exchange could have been so much more powerful if it had left out the moist eyes and the “having put his feelings behind him.” It is just so… ugh! Well, by golly gosh darn, you done gone and did it – ya’ got that pesky varmit, The Worm, all gobsmacked!!!! (Exclamation points are really important.) I swear the sheriff in this story says “You betcha!” so many times I was starting to picture a perky Slingblade in a ten gallon hat.
But there is hope, Mighty Wormites!! True Women is next, and I’ve already started it. Don’t let the name throw you, its damn good so far. Also, I finished Lucifer’s Hammer, which is post-apocalyptic Sci Fi, but after some of the crud we’ve been reading lately - do you really mind? Until next time – Worm Out!