Thursday, August 17, 2017

Arizona Ames and Other American Portraits by Zane Grey

Arizona Ames and Other American Portraits by Zane Grey
by Thomas McNulty

As a Chicago boy growing up in the swinging Sixties, when nostalgia was a fashionable trend, someone gave me an old Zane Grey paperback. It was Riders of the Purple Sage, and I delved into the book numerous times, thumbing the pages. Occasionally, there was something in the prose that appeared like magical incantations; a descriptive passage that rang true like a guitar chord. The magic lingered in my mind. Here was language with the emotional effect of music, or the resonance of a great motion picture, and it thrilled me: “A sharp clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.” That first line set in motion a remarkable tale that was impossible to put down. Years later, as a fledging college student, I learned that line is considered among the great opening declarations in American letters, and that Riders of the Purple Sage is considered a classic of Western genre writing. I experienced a sense of pride in realizing I was already familiar with such a revered book. I began collecting the Walter Black editions. I bought old and new paperback editions as I encountered them. I kept them. Today, I return to Zane Grey far more than any other Western writer.

Zane Grey loved the landscape. He wrote with a poet’s eye but always complemented by his uncanny understanding of human nature. He understood that we are all a part of the landscape we inhabit, and he celebrated his love of the land with adventure tales set in the wild country that he loved so much. From the forests and hills of the Tonto Basin, across the Colorado Rockies; deep in the verdant valleys and forests of tall pines, down winding creeks and across roaring rivers; along the majestic beauty of the Ohio River and down into the glimmering heat-drenched deserts; there Zane Grey had his characters live and struggle and succeed and fail and sometimes die.
At the center of these tales are his characters, and all of Grey’s stories are character driven. I point to Arizona Ames, one of my many favorites. Ames refers to himself as “Just a grub-line ridin’ cowpuncher who cain’t hold a job…” (p 217) but who possesses the virtues and capabilities inherent in our dream of the quintessential American man. Early in the novel, Ames kills the man that had taken advantage of his twin sister, Nesta, and subsequently fled his beloved Tonto Basin where over the course of a decade has earned his reputation as both a capable ranch hand and lethal gunslinger. At the heart of the story is the fact that Ames, being afraid of devoting himself to a woman, continuously ends up on a lonely trail. With his beloved twin sister and her children unseen for years, Ames takes the side of the underdog time and again. His reputation precedes him wherever he goes.

Arizona Ames is not seamless. The plot jumps about, and the central incidents are disconnected. However, Ames himself is immeasurably alluring, and like so many of Grey’s characters we find ourselves rooting for him, hoping that he’ll find the happiness that he deserves. Ames is a man running from his past and haunted by his actions. “But I am only a wanderin’ cowboy,” he says at one point, “I have nothin’ except a horse – an’ this blood-stained gun.” (P. 227.) He pushes women away, and rides on, righting wrongs as he he goes. When he finally meets Esther it’s a decade into his wanderings and he’s now in his early 30s. As for Esther, she thinks “…he was the finest-looking man she had ever seen, obviously a cowboy, or most certainly a rider. Tall, lithe, booted, spurred, belted, with gun swinging low, gray-clad, his head drooping, with face hidden under a wide sombrero that had once been white…” (p.235)
Ames is the quintessential Zane Grey hero, blood-brother to most of the protagonists in his Westerns, possessing of a singular morality, an unspoken code of honor, decent and honorable. Grey created with his literature a series of American portraiture that is perhaps idealized to fit his vision of the American West, and far removed from the industrial revolution that was changing the landscape before his very eyes. Grey was born in 1872, and the changes in American life he experienced by the time his first story was published in 1903 were profound.

Grey was prolific, and once Riders of the Purple Sage became a best-seller, he was constantly in demand. He rarely deviated from his standard formulae and characterizations, but he was skilled at infusing his prose with likable characters, and enough action to keep readers on the edge of their seats. He became a celebrity, and his legend grew. Zane Grey was a man’s man; a hunter, fisherman, baseball player, film actor, explorer and world traveler. He appears to have been always moving, always writing, with fishing being perhaps his favorite activity next to pursuing women. The books are amazing: Code of the West, Forlorn River, Knights of the Range, The Light of Western Stars, The Lost Wagon Train, The Man of the Forest, The Mysterious Rider, Raiders of Spanish Peaks, Thunder Mountain, Wildfire and so many more. He published over 60 books before his death in 1939.
Certain of his books stand out as examples of great American fiction, although it is the rare critic who will agree with me. Desert of Wheat is a modern tale, set during World War I and published in 1919. Grey strikes an anti-union pose with his depiction of the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World – in addition to discussing ethnic prejudice against Germans. Later scenes set on the battlefront of France during the war are fully realized, and he keeps his romantic notions intact. Desert of Wheat is underrated and quite an accomplishment for a writer best known for his Horse Operas. Grey proved that he could write a contemporary novel the equivalent of anything Sinclair Lewis or Theodore Dreiser would produce.
Frontpiece from the 1935 signed edition of Thunder Mountain
Wanderer of the Wasteland is a riveting story about Adam who flees his life to seek refuge in the desert where he wanders for years, meeting strange characters, and coming to grips with his past. Grey ponders man’s often violent nature, relationship with women, and offers a conclusion that is truly a “surprise ending.” Another, The Rainbow Bridge is the sequel to Riders of the Purple Sage and among the few of his novels that scholars agree has literary value. Greys work is too often dismissed as winsome fabrications, but I’ll argue that Grey captured the spirit of those Westerners who forged ahead to tame the land. The critics were hard on Grey from the onset, and remain critical of his work. Critic Jonathan Miles, writing in his The New York Times review of Thomas H. Pauly’s 2006 biography on Grey, falsely stated that “Grey was a profoundly bad writer who combined mawkish sentimentality with geographic fabulism.” Miles is miles off-base, and misses the point that Grey’s sentimentality is part of what strikes a chord with readers. There is nothing wrong with sentimentality. Grey expressed those moments beautifully. If anything, Grey was a profoundly intuitive and insightful writer who framed his stories with tales of heartache and loss, creating portraits that might have been culled from any family album.

I agree that some modern readers will struggle with Grey’s use of phonetic spellings to mimic a drawl or accent, and the melodrama is at times clichéd, and the dialogue simplistic. These are, however, not valid reasons to dismiss his work. I suspect part of the problem lies in the cultural changes that make Internet haters all feel empowered to say something negative rather than positive. This has always been the weakness of American literary critics, of which Jonathan Miles represents the common hack. Zane Grey’s readers and fans exist because he fulfills a need, and he told great stories. It really is that simple.
The Heritage of the Desert is a personal favorite, and a novel that many fans agree is among Grey’s best. The tale of Jack Hare, and his trials and tribulations is melodramatic, rambling, and often epic; it involves land grabbers, Indians and Mormons, is vividly drawn, and packed full of excitement. Yet another, The Lone Star Ranger is well known among Grey’s fans and clearly the inspiration for the character created by Fran Striker and George W. Trendle for radio in 1933, and who, as you know, was later epitomized on television and in films by Clayton Moore. Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger was published in 1915 to immediate success. It’s a good book, but the unexpurgated manuscript, published in 2008 by Leisure Paperbacks as Last of the Duanes, is a masterpiece.

There are so many other examples of Grey’s fine novels, that readers today will have no difficulty in finding either modern paperback reprints or e-books on Kindle. Although Westerns were Grey’s bread and better, he ventured into non-fiction with books like Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon, Tales of Southern Rivers, Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado-New Zealand, Tales of Fresh Water Fishing, and Tales of Tahitian Waters all which added to Grey’s popularity. A few juvenile novels, especially those dealing with baseball, round out Grey’s enormous literary output. The Shortstop and The Young Pitcher evoke Grey’s love for baseball. He was a minor league player prior to becoming a novelist, and this fact, too, adds another layer to the depth of his extraordinary life.
I believe what is lacking here is a comprehensive, academic appreciation of Grey’s novels. The critics may not like him – they never have – but readers are always connecting with Zane Grey because his appeal is universal. The rule I follow, and that was a driving force behind my Errol Flynn biography (which took me ten years of research and writing) is that one should not write about historical figures unless you truly appreciate their contribution. Write about what you know and what you love. That’s what Zane Grey did. It’s also vitally important to understand the era in which Grey lived, and that our cultural history shapes us all, like it or not. We cannot distance ourselves from the landscape we inhabit, and Zane Grey was a product of his time.

His influence is far-reaching. Commencing in December 1946 and released sporadically through the early 1970s, Zane Grey’s Western Magazine published original stories by new authors and the occasional reprint of a Zane Grey Story. Grey’s stories continue to influence both writers and filmmakers, and many of his books have never gone out of print.
In 2009, when I was in Hollywood to attend Errol Flynn’s centennial at filmmaker Jack Marino’s home, my wife and I made a side-trip to Catalina Island. It was a foggy morning, and as the boat rocked across the sea I waited for a glimpse of the island where Zane Grey had made his hideaway. At length, the island appeared to rise from the mist; a primordial sight of steep hills and deep underbrush, wild and somehow forbidding. When the sun burned away the fog the heat set in, and we wandered the shops and small streets of Avalon. Finally, I set my gaze on the white pueblo wall visible on the hillside, and we made the trek on foot through a blanket of heat to the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel, his former home turned tourist destination. It was easy to understand why he chose this hilltop location for the home that was completed in 1926. The view of Avalon Bay is breathtaking, and from here Grey could indulge his love of deep sea fishing.

I lingered awhile and wandered the halls and verandas. It was a quiet day, with little activity in the hotel. I had a sense that this place offered serenity to Grey, and given his self-induced hectic lifestyle, I realized that this island patio overlooking the sea must surely be the place where Grey’s spirit wandered today. Just a swiftly, I realized I was wrong, for while Zane Grey’s presence could surely be felt, his was a spirit that acknowledged no boundaries. He was there, perhaps but briefly, and then in a swirl of a salt-tinged sea-breeze and sunlight, he was gone.

Copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty
All book and magazine cover scans are from the author’s collection.
Arizona Ames quotations and page numbers are from the Walter Black edition.
Click HERE to visit Zane Grey's West Society Web Page

Sunday, August 13, 2017

By Secret Railway by Enid La Monte Meadowcroft

There is scarce on-line biographical material for Enid La Monte Meadowcroft (1898-1966), although her many books are fondly remembered by her readers. She appears to have been an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, working on their “Signature Books” line of historical novels for young readers. Grosset & Dunlap published these novels during the 50s and 60s. These titles were penned by many authors, Meadowcroft included. The 51 titles in the “Signature Books” line are collector’s items today. Meadowcroft published at least 60 books including The Story of Crazy Horse, Silver for General Washington: A Story of Valley Forge, By Wagon and Flatboat, Holding the Fort with Daniel Boone, and The Story of Benjamin Franklin. Several of her titles were republished by Scholastic Books in the 1960s. I own the Scholastic 1963 edition of By Secret Railway, published at a time when “Civil Rights” was relevant to all Americans. By Secret Railway was originally published in 1948, and experienced an active re-publication life. This is historical fiction, and great liberties were taken with actual figures such as Abraham Lincoln. That distinction is important because Meadowcroft never intended to rewrite history to justify a theme or agenda, which is the trend today by such hacks as Newt Gingrich. In By Secret Railway, twelve year old David Morgan sets out to help a runaway slave named Jim Clayton find his way to freedom. The novel plays fast and loose with the “Underground Railroad” and generally sanitizes history for younger readers. The point is obviously “Civil Rights” without stating this explicitly. Jim and David become friends. The writing is clear and unencumbered, easy to read with strong characterizations. By Secret Railway was once a pre-eminent title for Scholastic Books and widely available. Copies of the various editions are easy to locate on-line. Recommended.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Living Shadow by Maxwell Grant

My introduction to The Shadow came in 1969 when Bantam paperbacks reprinted the first novel. I’m sure by now all of you know that the author, Maxwell Grant, was a pseudonym for the legendary Walter B. Gibson. I was vaguely aware of The Shadow by this time, but had never read any of the original pulp magazines. I was already heavily into the Bantam Book’s Doc Savage reprints, and I had some basic knowledge about the pulp era. The Living Shadow was one of those books where I thought to myself, “I want to write like that!” Gibson layered his prose with strong images and swift action. Unlike Doc Savage, The Shadow had no qualms about blasting a villain apart with his dual smoking hot .45 automatics. The Shadow lived in a world of dark alleys; this was Old Manhattan, and there are thugs and con-men and villains with murderous intent. In this premier adventure, The Shadow is assisted by the young Harry Vincent and brainy Claude Fellows who help him unravel the secret of some recent murders. Re-reading the story today, the plot is convoluted and hasty, which wasn’t unusual for many pulp stories. These are features that were cranked out in a few days. The basic premise has The Shadow and his agents solving the murder of millionaire Geoffrey Laidlow. This is also the first of many Shadow stories that features an Asian as the villain, in this case Wang Foo. The Shadow would visit Chinatown many times in his long career. Walter Gibson was a master at creating mood, and his characters, while considered stereotypical by today’s politically correct standards, are fully realized and often complex. The Shadow himself is a mysterious, almost supernatural figure. His identity would undergo a metamorphosis as the series progressed, but not always effectively. Gibson reportedly wrote 282 out of the 325 original Shadow novelettes. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read a lot, and the pacing is consistent, the action relentless, the plot twists implausible but fun to read. For many years The Shadow stories have been reprinted by Sanctum Books as double-editions, and many of these have become collector’s items themselves. The Sanctum Books reproduce the original covers and interior illustrations and shouldn’t be missed by fans of classic pulp fiction. Those Bantam Books Shadow paperbacks remain favorites of my collection. Bantam followed with, The Eyes of the Shadow, The Shadow Laughs, The Death Tower, The Ghost Makers, Hidden Death, Gangdom’s Doom, and more.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence

Iain Lawrence writes books that are treasures for the literati. The Giant-Slayer is not a children’s book in the traditional sense, and yet certainly young readers will understand it. It is also not a contemporary adult novel, although its topic and themes have resonance in our frightening adult world. Published by Yearling in 2009, The Giant-Slayer and other Lawrence books are all fascinating books. The topic here is polio. Although polio (Poliomyelitis, an infectious viral disease that sometimes results in paralysis) is no longer prevalent, it still exists and there is no known cure. Lawrence does not approach polio with rose-colored filters. In the spring of 1955, Laurie Valentine learns that her friend Dickie Espinosa has polio and she decides to visit him in the nearby hospital. Dickie and two other children are inside an iron lung. The Iron lung treatment was once common, sealing the patient in an airtight container which assisted with lung function. Dickie is a fan of Fess Parker and his coonskin cap is hanging in view as a means to comfort him. The historical background and cultural references add another level of depth to the narrative. Laurie decides to tell Dickie and the other children stories to help pass their time. The ensuing narrative structure alternates between the fantasy world Laurie creates, which becomes incredibly real to the polio-stricken children, and the very harsh world where Laurie herself is at risk of contracting polio. The story is at times very sad, as you would expect, but Lawrence is such a fine writer that I’m confident most readers will be swept along by this tale. I have read many of Lawrence’s books and I treasure them all. Also recommended are Gemini Summer, The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, Ghost Boy and his “High Seas Trilogy” – The Wreckers, The Smugglers, and The Buccaneers. NOTE: To avoid confusion when searching for his books on Amazon, Lawrence’s first name is spelled with the double “i” – I. A. I. N. – rather than “Ian.” 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Passport to Danger by Jessyca Paull

Passport to Danger (1968) was the first of a three book trilogy featuring the character Tracy Larrimore. Destination Terror also appeared in 1968 and the final book, Rendezvous with Death, appeared a year later. These books were apparently co-authored by Julia Percival and Rossaylmer Burger, about whom I know nothing. Julia Percival also co-authored other titles with a “Pixie Burger,” which adds to to mystery. Literary mysteries are fun, and I have no doubt that someone out there knows all about authors Percival and Burger. Drop me a line. Meanwhile, Passport to Danger and its companion titles are still quite common on the after-market trail. The publisher was Award Books who also published the long defunct men’s adventure series, Killmaster. In her premier outing, Tracy Larrimore gets swept into a case of mistaken identity. Tracy is a twenty-one year-old American on vacation in London for the first time. When she sees her own photograph in the newspaper announcing that she had been killed in Paris, she begins a strange journey to discover the truth. Enter Mike Thompson, a British secret service agent, and together they find themselves caught up in a deceitful web of international intrigue. The story is solid, typical for its era, unsurprising in its resolution, but well written and enjoyable. Passport to Danger is also decidedly un-romantic. This is a straight thriller all the way, lacking in flourishes and relying on suspense to advance the story. It delivered its 60 cents of thrills, set up the two sequels, and then its heroine Tracy Larrimore vanished into the world of forgotten pulp paperbacks. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

G-Man by Stephen Hunter

There are a lot of good reasons why G-Man is a great book, and one or two anomalies that simply prove that all fiction must be flawed in some way. Stephen Hunter has written many fine books, but my favorites are Hot Springs and Pale Horse Coming. These are adventure novels, or what was once called “men’s adventure stories” of the style that once populated such saucy magazines as True Adventures or Real Men. Hunter, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his non-fiction articles for The Washington Post, is no stranger to gangsters, gunmen, gun molls and snipers. His fictional saga of the Swagger family, Earl and Bob Lee, are mandatory reading. G-Man is advertised on the dust-jacket as a “Bob Lee Swagger Novel” but that’s not true. G-Man is about Bob Lee’s grandfather, Charles, and it’s about John Dillinger; but mostly it’s about Baby Face Nelson. The present day sequences with Bob Lee investigating his grandfather’s past are nominal, at best, and could easily have been cut. The book’s best scenes are those with the gangsters in 1934. Hunter has done his homework and probably visualizes the best description and character studies of Dillinger, Nelson and company, albeit in a highly fictionalized manner. I suspect that Hunter’s view of these men is accurate, and my opinion comes from having read numerous non-fiction accounts. Hunter also earns points by asserting that it was Baby Face Nelson’s final gunfight that was the highlight, not Dillinger’s rather ignoble killing at Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Baby Face Nelson was killed on November 27, 1934 in what is now referred to as “The Battle of Barrington, Illinois” which also resulted in the deaths of FBI Agents Ed Hollis and Sam Cowley. The battle occurred in Langendorf Park just off Route 14 (Northwest Highway) and today visitors can find a commemorative plaque in the park honoring the slain FBI Agents. The plaque is situated next to the parking lot landscaped with asphalt and concrete and shadowed by the Barrington Park District building. Interested readers can google the old newspaper clipping showing that spot with the FBI car and Nelson’s car at the park entrance when the area was still mostly farmland. Hunter’s description of that gun battle and others appears to be meticulously researched. He doesn’t quite master the Route 14 towns in their correct order from east to west, but the gunfights are vividly depicted. G-Man makes for some riveting summer reading. Having fired a Thompson machine-gun myself, I appreciate Stephen Hunter’s factual assessment of the firearms used by the many players. All of Hunter’s books are rich in gun lore. G-Man is a thrilling novel, not quite perfect, but solid and well crafted. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Westward Ho! Song Wagon of the West by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans

This 2017 Jasmine Records CD compilation is a must have for Roy Rogers fans. Featuring 61 songs on two CDs that highlights his career, many of Rogers’ best are included. His marriage to co-star Dale Evans in 1947 only added to his fame, as well as their growing musical catalog. Evans was an accomplished singer and songwriter, and this collection includes many duets with her husband and several wonderful solo songs. Naturally, her two best known compilations, “Happy Trails” and “The Bible Tells Me So” (two versions, both duets) are included. Many of the recordings are real gems, especially those that Rogers recorded with the Sons of the Pioneers. Additional recordings feature Mitch Miller and the Norman Luboff choir. Popular Western classics included are “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Home on the Range,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Bury Me Out on the Lone Prairie,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “That Palomino Pal of Mine” and more. Rogers also showcases his talent with such film score songs made famous by others such as “Old Man River” (sung by Paul Robeson in Show Boat), and “River of No Return” (famously recorded by Marilyn Monroe in the film of the same name). There are so many stand-out recordings among the 60-plus selections that I give this compilation the highest recommendation. Roy and Dale were devout Christians and many of their religious recordings will bring back fond memories, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Since Jesus Came into My Heart” are among the songs that close out the track listing. The liner notes by Robert Nickora are fine but what’s missing is a discography with recording dates. Westward Ho! Song Wagon of the West is a delight. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans sadly now represent what I refer to as “Lost America;” that special part of the American experience where the celebrities we loved were genuinely talented, sincere people, and they entertained us tirelessly. Roy Rogers offered a smooth, polished singing voice, one that matched his All-American good looks. His voice was instantly recognizable to several generations of fans who grew up watching his films and television show. Happy Trails!