Of the many outlaw gangs that flourished in the western United States in the second half of the 19th century, the Daltons were not one of the more remarkable ones. Measured by the standards of the James-Younger gang or Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch, their exploits were paltry, consisting mainly of a few bank robberies. They were neither renowned as killers like John Wesley Hardin, championed as Robin Hoods like Jesse James, nor famed for their nobility of character like Henry Starr. Western historian Harry Sinclair Drago goes so far as to term the Daltons "first-class amateurs, at best." Their notoriety appears to rest on an incident in Coffeyville, Kansas, in which the gang tried to hold up two banks at once and was decimated in the effort. James D. Horan speaks of this incident as "one of the most idiotic adventures in outlaw history."
For any would-be chronicler, the Daltons thus present a challenge of some magnitude. Obviously, the usual western novel glorifying the exploits of its heroes will not do in their cases; such mediocre badmen as the Daltons require special treatment. And in "Desperadoes," novelist Ron Hansen has attempted something on this order. On the one hand, he adheres rigorously to what is known historically about the outlaws, allowing himself to elaborate and distort only where such is plausible and justified. On the other hand, he attempts to render the lives and characters of his heroes in a manner that does not merely glorify or degrade them but gives us a feeling for the milieu in which they lived. The task is one of great difficulty, requiring some historical knowledge and much artistic talent. Unfortunately, Hansen is not up to it. Though there is merit in "Desperadoes," the final effect of the book is not unlike that of the Daltons' abortive attempt to hold up two banks at once - disastrous.
The main problem with the book is that it is over-written. The book jacket tells us that Hansen is currently a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford, but if "Desperadoes" is any indication, he would do well to take a few review courses himself. The novel is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of Emmett Dalton, the only gang member who survived Coffeyville. This form of narration gives Hansen a great deal of difficulty. Though no one could reasonably expect the author to limit himself to the literacy of a largely uneducated train robber, we do have a right to expect that whatever liberty he takes be credible and consistent. Instead, we are asked to picture a character who is equally at home with words like "scrofulous," "copious," and "parvenu," and constructions such as "dang it," "book-smart," and "I couldn't hardly imagine."
Much of the other language employed in this book is little short of horrifying. Thus, Bob "said something sonly" to his mother; the narrator "was growly when Bill rode up"; and someone else "constructed a cigarette." Hansen's style is inflated, pretentious, and generally painful to endure.
It is only toward the end of the novel, during the description of the dramatic shootout in Coffeyville, that one gets a feeling for the potential this book may at one time had. For it is here that the action becomes so intense that the reader's attention is drawn away from the prose style, and Hansen's strong, unsentimental feeling for the lives and fates of these hapless outlaws comes to the forefront. One is swept along with the tide of action and Hansen, for the first time in the book, succeeds in making us empathize with his heroes. Once the action is over and dust clears, however, we are quickly returned, alas, to the reality of the author's prose. A few pages more and the book, seeming much longer than its 273 pages, finally lurches to a halt on a note of failed irony. One is left with the sense that, medioocre as these outlaws were, "Desperadoes" does them an injustice.