11-11: Western review (Elmer Kelton)

Wow! I haven’t posted an 11-11 reading update since March! But I have been reading from the list, gang, and I’ll be playing catch-up in my reviews every few weeks from now on.

And since I just finished a Western novel, Elmer Kelton‘s The Time it Never Rained, I might as well start with it:

There’s certainly something to be said for learning to appreciate an older style of writing. I labored with Dostoyevsky for example; I even had to work at loving Chekhov. But such adjusting periods usually pay off because the literature is so rich and beautiful and, for the writer, informative about the possibilities in craft.

I’ve labored long and hard with Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained, because it is an historical novel rooted firmly in a particular culture, a particular era, a particular economy. It addresses issues of race and class, of politics, of environmentalism. It is a complex novel. But my problem with it is this: it takes too damned long to get itself underway, and the labor doesn’t really pay off. Sure, the characters that start out as stolidly stereotypical do eventually develop distinct personalities, individual motives, a life outside the plot. But before Kelton can let these characters live and breathe on their own, he feels the need to utilize them toward some other Purpose, with a capital P: namely, he needs to take the time to explain to us, in textbook detail, the harsh mechanics of ranch life, the prejudices of every class of character, and — most importantly — his conservative, anti-government political slant. And he takes forever doing it.

I suppose that, given the beauty of the second half of the book, that wait might seem worth it. But here’s my problem: While Elmer Kelton takes somewhere between 120 and 150 pages to set up the socio-economic realities of his novel, Jane Austen managed the same in the very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. And I think if Kelton had sacrificed his research and his memoirs in favor of tightly crafted storytelling the way Austen did, this would have been a much, much finer novel.

That’s not to say it is without beauty. Even early in the novel, Kelton’s descriptions of the landscape are among the most beautiful passages I’ve read: “It was a comforting sight, this country. It was an ageless land where the past was still a living thing and old voices still whispered, where the freshness of the pioneer time had not yet all faded, where a few of the old dreams were not yet dark with tarnish. It had not been so long, really, since feathered Comanches had roamed these hills a-horseback, seeking after game, or occasionally in warpaint seeking honor and booty and blood. Eighty years . . . one man’s lifetime.” (One feels the lamenting echo of this romance in the latter pages of Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men, both set and written a generation after Kelton’s novel.)

And once he gets the dry technical-manual-like explanations of ranch life out of the way, he winds up writing gloriously punchy, concise sentences about cowboying and sheepherding: “Diego climbed over the fence, rope in his hand, and dropped down inside the corral. He shook out a horse loop, moved carefully toward the colts, swung the rope in a quick figure eight and caught the bay around the neck.” This quick, easy passage, letting necessary jargon slip in and out without any passing glance, is a far cry better than the full paragraph some 70 pages earlier in which Kelton carries on about the long historical whys and wherefores of putting a plate and glass in the kitchen sink. (I’m not exaggerating.)

Elmer Kelton at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, ...
Elmer Kelton (Image via Wikipedia)

Overall, though, the beautiful pastoral writing and the eventual development of the main characters — especially Charlie Flagg and his Mexican ranch hand’s son Manuel — can’t compete with the pervasive political bias of the novel, which asserts itself in long, awkward treatises and monologues or forced “arguments” between the dogged Flagg and basically everyone else in the book. I don’t mind political content in a novel, especially if it serves the story, but in the case of this book, the servitude is reversed. In an afterward to the edition I read, Tarleton State University professor Tom Pilkington remarks that “it would be a mistake, I think, to read into the novel a particular political message — that all government aid should be sternly and righteously rejected.” But that precise message comprises at least half of Charlie Flagg’s speech and thoughts in this book, and as Pilkington notes, Charlie Flagg is presented as a “a genuine hero,” so his is the voice of the whole novel. And every single character save one who accepts government assistance and offers a counterpoint to Flagg’s perspective does so in weak, circular, repetitive illogic, always resorting to either an “everyone else is doing it” or a greedy “get yours while the getting’s good” position, and every one of them, by the end of the novel, comes to ruination and in one way or another “concedes” that Flagg was right all along. The lone hold-out, the only character to offer the thinnest attempt at a serious argument against the novel’s pervasive anti-government stance, doesn’t make his stand until barely 10 pages from the end, and the best he can muster is “the system’s broken, but the idea’s still good.”

So I think it would be foolish to ignore the political message wedged into practically every page of this novel, and because the story and the characters become so servile to that message, it’s hard to take this book seriously as a work of fiction.

I should say, though, that the problems with story aside, it’s clear that Kelton is a damn fine writer; and in the end, despite Flagg’s “heroic” efforts to resist government aid, the novel ends on a note as bleak and unforgiving as any I’ve seen, which is just the way I like my endings. So I would welcome a chance to read one of his less personal, less politically motived historical Westerns.

For more about my 11-11 project, check out my initial post on the challenge or all the posts in my 11-11 category.

For more on what I’m currently reading, check out my Bookshelf.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

4 thoughts on “11-11: Western review (Elmer Kelton)

  1. Don’t know how you can enjoy reading a book when you labor at tearing it apart. I read the rich lore of local history, local politics and other aspects of West Texas which includes the conservative, political mindset of its people. The author is describing the politics of the region, like it or not, yet I don’t read it as if he is promoting that over the reader’s preferences.

    1. That’s a good question, Dad! Seriously.

      The answer is, I don’t labor at tearing books apart. That isn’t to say the reading isn’t work sometimes — it was in this case, in many of the same ways I labored with Dostoyevsky, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, but also because I wanted to like this book as much as I liked Kelton’s memoirs. But I don’t set out to make the reading difficult, and I certainly don’t set out to “tear it apart,” which is as violent a reading technique as you must suspect it is. (There are certainly people who do read that way — they’re called critics! Ha!)

      The way I look at any novel is this: Some people like to read a good mystery novel in part because they enjoy teasing out the mystery, they like puzzling out for themselves “who done it” by the end of the book. Most writers, like me, enjoy reading ANY novel in part because we like to tease out the craft in the book, we like to puzzle out for ourselves not the “who done it” but the “how done it” — how did the author manage what he or she managed. We like that process, even when we wind up not liking the book.

      I know this didn’t come across in my review as well as the craft comments about the novel (and that’s because, to my eye, they were overshadowed in many places of the novel by Kelton’s craft), but I, too, loved the local history, local politics, and just general local color Kelton worked into that novel. When he got out of the way of himself and let these characters and these situations speak for themselves, the writing was terrific. My main beef (or mutton?) is that he too often got in his own way and forced certain situations or attitudes into the book. And, for this reader and this writer, that was a problem.

      But it doesn’t have to be a problem for everyone, and I’m well aware that, in looking at the other reviews of this novel in Goodreads (for example), I’m in the minority. 🙂

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