Monday, February 15, 2010

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
Doubleday hardcover
Copyright 1975

It's 1901 and an end of an era. With the dawn of the new century, we meet a lone man who has outlived his time. And as his days grow shorter, we witness that they run in parallel with the dying of the Old West. Receiving only resentment and greed from others, he bravely decides his own fate and punches a statement onto his own legacy and for the West of the past. Reading "The Shootist" you quickly realize you have a great book in your hands.

Famed and labeled as a "gun man," a"man-killer," an "assassin," or a"shootist," 51 year-old John Bernard Books rides into El Paso to get a second option from the town doctor. Unfortunately the news is the same, he has an advanced case of prostate cancer and can expect an excruciating death in a few weeks. With just his guns, a newspaper and memories, Books takes a room in Mrs. Bond Rogers' boarding house and plans to end his days there. From her son Gillom, the widow is told of the type of man that is living in her back room and she openly conveys bitterness towards him. News leaks out about the dying J. B. Books and between visits from a journalist, undertaker, photographer, ex-sweetheart, and others, (all of whom want to cash in on the reputation of the gun man) two killers attempt to gun down Books in his room. Even ill, Books violently kills both involved in the sneaky assault. Afterwards he realizes that he can not honorably go down in a death bed. J. B. Books plans to add a final chapter to his legend, one that will pit him against three of the fastest and cruelest men throughout the territory.

There is a lot to like in this Swarthout novel. It contains some of the finest writing that I've ever came across in a Western. The author marvelously turns the reader from a newly constructed West of complacency and then swings us into the violent and graphic world of the Old West. And that is explicitly described in the graphic shootouts. It's also filled with intriguing characters that are intertwined in well crafted relationships. Books' interaction with Mrs. Rogers starts spiteful, but ends into one of compassion and sympathy as she realizes that Books is more than just a gunfighter. Books attempts to reach the mean and out of control Gillom. But as his physical strength quickly leaves him, he fails at preventing Mrs. Rogers from losing her son. It is one battle he can not win. As his final day approaches, Books wonders why he deserves this pain and this loneliness that has undone him. Could he have done things different?

"I wish I had listened to birds more often. I wish I had more schooling. I wish I had paid more attention to the most beautiful country God ever made. I wish I had married and settled down, and had a son to leave my guns to. I wish I had not left home so young. I would like to know what became of my people. I wish I had not been such a loner all my life. I wish I had been more worthy of love, and given a damn sight more. God I wish I had it to do over again. I would do it better."

This is J.B. Books' story and it is a lonely and sad one. He is the last of his breed. And as he waits for the end, preparing to meet his God, Books will not let them (the townspeople and the new West) reduce him into a remnant or relic. J.B. Brooks will give them something to talk about. When he is gone, the vultures might take his horse and saddle, his watch and guns, his photograph and corpse- But they will not get his reputation, or be able to sell his name, or go away with his soul. Those three he will keep. They are his most important valuables. Like he tells the reader, "There is still a lot of me to kill."

On the back flap of this hardcover edition, the publisher states that "The Shootist" will rank with such Westerns as "Shane" and "The Ox-Bow Incident." I'm not going to disagree. Because just like those two, this Glendon Swarthout novel is more than a Western, it is classic American literature.


David Cranmer said...

A very important book. I saw the movie first and was pleasantly surprised to find the book a even richer experience.

Anonymous said...

A moving story with a much darker end than the film version. Ron Howard's character is not really the same guy he was in the novel.

The novel's shoot-out climax is very stylish, very intense, and seems to show the 'slow motion' effect seen in contemporaneous films, most especially The Wild Bunch.
Except on the printed page, Swarthout not only slows the physical action, but the mental action as well, so that we see into the minds of the shootist and those he is busy shooting.
Powerful book.

John Hocking