The Western as a genre did not die with John Wayne, but it most certainly seems to be in a decline, if the TV screen is any gauge. Nor have there been any important Western movies lately. The recent attempt to backdate the adventures of Butch and Sundance seems to have passed away like a schoolmarm's blush, for after "Blazing Saddles" and the Vietnam War it might be said the Western can never be quite the same again. And what is true for the movies and television is true also for the Western novel. w
Douglas C. Jones, best known perhaps for his "The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer," has here again mixed fact and fiction, this time be reverting to the tradition of the historical romance as Americanized by James Fenimore Cooper, giving an authenic period setting a melodramatic cast of characters and events. At the center of the book is Isaac Parker, a federal judge given jurisdiction over what was known in the late 19th century as the Indian Territory or Nations. Parker was a real person who earned his sober sobriquet "The Hanging Judge" from his severe administration of justice during his years on the bench, and Jones has surrounded him with a cast of imaginary characters. The narrator, Eben Pay, is a young law student from St. Louis who has come to Fort Smith, Ark., as a clerk to Judge Parker, and who serves the traditional role of novelistic novitiate, leading the reader into mysteries that only gradually become clear. As Eben learns, so do we.
Jones makes it clear from the beginning that he regards Judge Parker sympathetically, as no arbitrary wielder of the death penalty but as a man who strove to do his best to bring law and order (and civilization) to a troubled and violent land. Not only were The Nations a place in which many disparate tribes had been gathered by U.S. edict, tribes with ancient rivalries and alliances, but the U.S., in granting the Indians their own legal system, neglected to extend their jurisdiction over white men living in the Territory. The Nations soon became a haven for outlaws and social misfits, a situation that Judge Parker struggled to rectify. Jones makes all this quite clear, using a central fictional event, the "Winding Stairs Massacre," as his demonstration. The novel begins with Eben Pay's initial involvement in the investigation of the massacre and ends with the trial and execution of its perpetrators. In between, young Eben learns the age-old lesson that youth, whether in the Scottish Highlands or the western wilds, traditionally learns in the historical romance: things ain't what they seem.
Jones is an experienced and skillful author, and manages to mount a complex plot which he sustains throughout the kind of novel that we associate with Western writers of the highest caliber -- say, 45. At the same time, his use of his historical materials is somewhat misleading: things weren't quite what he makes them out to have been. An "Author's Note" alludes to the "Rufus Buck Gang," and while disavowing any direct connection between that unsavory bunch and the one he invents, Jones clearly is working closely with the historical instance. The "Rufus Buck Gang" has been called "the most depraved band of outlaws in America," and was made up entirely of renegade Indians and "mixed bloods" -- Negro and Creek. During their two-week reign of violence they murdered, pillaged, and terrorized the region round. For these crimes the outlaws were sentenced by Parker to hang, and hang they did, with few dry eyes among the invited guests. Taking this historical case, in itself an enormity, Jones has wrought a few rather marvelous changes, of the kind necessitated by the '60s.
Jones' sympathies are clearly (and understandably) with the Indians, but by his romantic revisionism, by putting the blame on a mad stereotype of the old-fashioned Western hero, he violates historical fact. Jones certainly conveys thereby an overwhelming sense of the chaos that Judge Parker tried to wrestle into order, but along the way he introduces a number of exotics not found in the standard historical authority -- Glen Shirley's "Law West of Fort Smith" -- nor does Jones anywhere acknowledge what appears to be a considerable debt to that book.
William Decker's is an out-and-out "modern" Western, indebted not to historical record but to personal experience. And it must be said that the personal part is the best. "The Holdouts" is set in the range country of Arizona in 1964, a time when America was just beginning to learn about a place called Vietnman. Vietnam is in fact where one of Decker's young cowboys wants to go as soon as he is old enough to enlist because he has learned from John Wayne movies what fun it is to kill people. But this is a minor theme in a book whose plot is concerned with the attempts of the Mafia to corner the raising and processing (butchering) of range cattle by the time-honored means of rustling. It is a novel in which helicopters play as important a role as pickup trucks and horses, a novel, that is, which is true, in terms of machines, to what has been happening to the range since it was ridden by John Wayne. I'm not sure how valid the Mafia angle is, but Decker is really not so much concerned with the enormities of organized crime as with the disappearance of the horse-borne cowboy, the American centaur, and the values for which he rode high in the saddle.
Decker is so honest to the details of his subject, the tender union of man and horse, the delicate partnership between husband and wife, the difficult balance of law and individual initiative in keeping the range an honest place, that I wish his novel was without a number of glaring faults. But his structure is so rickety, his grasp and control of point of view so precarious, his characters so convenient to the ends of his plots, that this is not a good novel even though it is at times a very fine book. There is an extended description of a modern beef-processing plant that is a classic of constrained, ironic prose, and a long account of a hunt for a maverick bull that evokes (probably consciously) Faulkner's "The Bear." There are other praiseworthy episodes also, but as an extended narrative "The Holdouts" does not hold up. But then, it may very well be that the modern West can no longer accommodate a fiction, that the disjunctions of progress and pastoral norms are such that no unity can be derived from or imposed on them, not even by the Judge Parkers of the pen.