Except for Lonesome Dove and Blood Meridian, I had not read a western since my freshman year of high school. Back then, I read a lot of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey; not because I was a huge fan of the genre, but because westerns and the Bible were all the Jesus freaks with whom I lived would allow. Why were westerns acceptable? Beats me. Sometimes it’s best not to probe too deeply into the workings of twisted minds.
I was writing, too. I found an old manual typewriter at a yard sale. Five bucks. I had no money, got no allowance. So I asked Mr. and Mrs. Jesusfreak to buy it for me. They said, “We’ll pray about it.” I knew what that meant. They would pretend to clear it with God first, but in the end I’d have to crawl for it. So I crawled. Don’t ask for details. I got the typewriter, though, and my bottled-up anger ensured I always hit those sticky keys hard enough. Fifteen years old and already growing bitter about the things I had to do to learn my craft.
Since I was reading westerns, I tried my hand at writing one. My memory of the story is positive, though the details are sketchy. It was full of worn-out western tropes: a range war, the lone-wolf hero, the tough but vulnerable woman who falls in love with him and the evil railroad baron who wanted all the land and the girl. I was happy with it and started writing another.
Then Mrs. Jesusfreak read that first story. Before the day was over, she had burned the manuscript in the woodstove and confiscated my typewriter. What did I do wrong? I had used the word “virgin” when referring to a fresh snowfall. Mrs. J. declared the story “obscene” because of that. Obscene? Clichéd, sure, I'll confess to that. But obscene? Fuck.
Oh yeah, they also forbade me from reading more westerns. From then until I finally got to move out several months later, I was only allowed to read the Bible (they didn’t know that I spent every study hall in the high school library, finding shelter in books by Stephen King, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft). For some reason, I never did get back into westerns. I’ve always liked western movies, but the novelists stayed off my radar.
Now jump ahead almost twenty-five years to this spring.
I watched the DVD of 3:10 to Yuma (the new version) and decided it was time I read some of Elmore Leonard’s westerns. On the surface, Gunsights is the story of a copper war in Arizona. It has plenty of action and works just fine on that level. Beneath that, though, it is about people who have been driven to a certain point and refuse to give up any more ground. It is also about two unlikely friends, by chance on opposite sides, who everyone expects to shoot it out any minute. The plot twists and twists again, just as in Leonard’s crime novels. Nothing is certain, right up to the last page. Fans of Get Shorty (1993) will enjoy seeing Bo Catlett’s namesake ancestor in action, too. I can’t say Gunsights ranks up there with Leonard’s best, but it’s gotten me interested in his other westerns. I’ll also have to check out some of the books that James Reasoner has been recommending.