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!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Magic Places

The Magic Places
Thomas McNulty

There are enough of these magic places still that anglers speak of them with reverence. They occupy our conversation over a cold beer in a faraway lodge, or in the passing comments we make traveling the highways of this great country. They are the places that are both hard to find and right in front of us. They are the small lakes and winding rivers that intersect our lives. These are the places where the water reflects the blue sky and the summer wind stirs our imagination as we toss a line over the bow, cut the Evinrude, and drift with a yellow straight-tale grub affixed to a hook.

We are connected to these places by memories, and by this constant desire to kindle the flames of that contented feeling we first experienced on some long ago day when a father or an uncle took us fishing for the first time. Maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because in those halcyon days the world seemed fresh. Keeping that sensation of freshness alive matters more with each passing winter. A canny bass fisherman knows the shoreline reeds and tall grass cast late afternoon shadows in secret coves and hidden bays across Wisconsin and Minnesota. Down deep in those shadows the bass feed on minnows; relentless shoreline hunters as the sun eases down like a molten doubloon tossed across and azure horizon. A burst of water-lilies in the shadow of an old plank pier offer the angler an opportunity for the bite of a lazily gliding northern pike.

The quiet coves and sun-splashed inlets, free of computers and the nonsense of social media, bring a solitude punctuated by the choices we make from a case of colorful artificial jig combos. Sometimes there is an urgency in our actions. “He’s down there,” a friend told me once as we fished a familiar cove, “and he’s mine today.” He was referring to a rather large northern we had seen the day before in this same spot, and we had failed to catch it. We hadn’t seen much fish in the shallows this day, but of course they were down there. They were always down there. Catching them was another matter entirely. My friend caught his northern, but in a different spot. The bounty we receive is dictated perhaps by terms we have never understood. There is skill involved, and a knowledge of fish and ecosystems, and there is luck. Fishing such magic places invokes a philosophical pursuit every fisherman knows well. Time in the boats with a line in the water gives each man or woman time to ponder the vast mysteries of life.

The night fisherman has the heavens above and myriad galaxies sweeping past in a heartbeat, the flash of falling stars a constant reminder of our mortality. How many fisherman, I wonder, have wished upon a falling star as much because of a learned cultural reflex but also in response to some atavistic desire to embrace and understand the unknown. To debate in solitude the benefits of live-bait rigging over a tackle box overflowing with colorful plastic lures is to engage the memory banks with images of crappie and bluegill, or largemouth bass and panfish. Fishing is relaxing, to state the obvious, but what is obvious to a fisherman is not always recognized in a society prone to hated-filled electronic communication. So the angler retreats and comes home simultaneously; it’s a way of driving the mind pollution away and recharging one’s spiritual battery.

The fishing pole in hand, an array of lures, and reasonable weather is all a man can ask for. When I fish I seek a familiar shoreline, a quiet place where the sun can warm my back and the scudding clouds are mirrored by the pristine depths of a sandy bottom; and then, suddenly, I glimpse the silver flash of gills as my lure strikes the water. There are times when fishing alone is vital, and yet other times when good companions are necessary. Competition is one thing, but truly admiring a fellow angler’s cast or the instinctive way he chooses the spot for his lure to drop all helps to fill the afternoon with a fraternal appreciation for the great outdoors.

Everything that we understand about ourselves can be summarized in the singular act of fishing. We define ourselves by our actions and by the lures we choose and by the sun-dappled coves we float in, with rod and reel in hand, a contented smile on our lips. The 10-20 pound monofilament line is standard issue for bass and northern pike, and in the event a record-breaker is hauled in the happy fisherman gets bragging rights on skill in handling the torque and axis rotation.  There are times where I’ve fished myself to the point of exhaustion without necessarily fishing well, and with little to show for my effort, I allowed the boat to glide into a shallow bay, the water-lilies rustling against the boat’s aluminum side. Sometimes I’ll lift the camera and snap photos, or I might just bask in the cool shadows thrown by the towering shoreline pines. If I’m especially lucky, I’ll watch an eagle swoop soundlessly from above as its talons snap a fish from just below the surface. Such a sight is awe-inspiring and not without its own irony, because the American eagle is infinitely better at catching fish than any man yet born.

I am not skilled at small talk, and don’t enjoy the chatter when it is so obviously intended as filler for a day that requires no filler. Choose your fishing companions carefully. This wisdom I have heard repeated countless times, and it should never fall on deaf ears. A lousy companion is immediately recognizable in a boat, and if such darkly comedic rumors are true, a poorly chosen fishing companion is responsible for more than one intoxicated northwoods homicide. I recall with clarity a conversation I had with my uncle who was an avid hunter and fisherman. Perhaps the moment lingered because I heard it in a Wisconsin saloon beneath the glare of a five-point buck guilty only of bad taxidermy and who appraised us with the accusing glass stare of a ghost while my uncle sipped a tall glass of cold Hamm’s beer. It was the late 1960s and my uncle, who despised the counter-culture longhairs as “aberrations,” but nonetheless availed himself of the sexual revolution by taking up with a buckskin clad girl who, in his words, was “great in bed, but lousy at fishing and housekeeping.”

When he was in his cups, as it were, and the sparkling carbonation in a cold glass of beer loosened his tongue, he casually remarked to the bartender that if the Herb Albert album spinning on the turntable wasn’t soon replaced by Glen Miller he would demonstrate a lifetime of expertise with his 12-gauge Remington. Nearly in the same breath he vowed that never again would he allow a no-good downtrodden hippie chick ever talk him into coming along on a fishing trip again. “There’s no reason to ruin a good day fishing by taking along a girl I won’t marry.”

Being prone to reflection, I seek out the same fishing spots that my uncle favored, which is easy to accomplish given I am now overseer of the property, and I think of the old days with far greater frequency than any old-timer should publicly admit. I smile thinking of his contradictory nature, and that of his brothers, and on those hushed afternoons just before summer’s end, when you can sense the coming of the season’s first frost, I acknowledge my luck to have had such good companions in the boat, and for an all-too brief moment they are with me again.

The magic places we favor are as varied as the angler himself. Because I am surrounded by some strong-willed women who fish with the same intensity as any male angler, I have broached the subject of jigs and lures in my quest to identify the best techniques. One man’s poison, I soon learned, is a woman’s cure. The many generations of knowledge passed down by fathers, brothers, uncles and sisters are on display at any northwoods flea market.

Musky lures are particularly fascinating. Hand-carved lures painted with care by some long forgotten fisherman are common enough, and sell regularly enough that most flea market vendors make a point of keeping a box of them handy. With their rusted hooks and painted eyes, they adorn a shelf or tackle box as a reminder of a bygone era before everything was made from plastic in a Chinese factory. A musky lure, carved in the silhouette of a loon hatchling, is a piece of Americana.  Any lures made by Heddon and Son out of Michigan prior to the first World War are highly prized by collectors, as are those made by the Shakespeare company. A wooden minnow or underwater spinner in its original box can be quite valuable. I’ve talked to collectors who concentrate on finding any lures from the Creek Chub Bait Company out of Indiana or any Pflueger minnows. Collecting lures is a favored past-time for the sentimental angler who will never admit to sentiment. “My pa owned one like this,” you might be told, followed by a description of some magic place where they fished on a spring day long ago.

On any of the thousands of lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin are secret coves and bays known to only the fisherman who covet the solitude. It is here that they come to fish, and while they fish to listen to the sound of the wind in the tall pines; and to smell the pines on the warm breeze. The act of fishing and their awareness and love for the outdoors is something that is sacred.  I know an inordinate number of northwoodsmen who, when they’re not fishing, haunt the antique shops looking at old lures or rummaging through moldy boxes containing dimpled copies of Outdoor Life or Field & Stream, forever in search of that one story discovered in youth but lost in adulthood. I have searched unsuccessfully for several decades but to date have failed to locate several old magazines with grizzly bears on the cover that my aunt kept at her cabin. I’ll know them when I see them. Maybe just looking for them is enough.

The labyrinthine enigmas of a fresh-water lake on a July afternoon offer a bromide for the disaffected wanderer. Each lake has its special cove, shadowed inlet or dilapidated pier where a day alone with a line in the water is like a salve on a wound. The public misconception exists that fishing is a sedentary activity and unhealthy. Ask any angler, no matter if it’s a fly fisherman, bass fisherman or deep sea fisherman, and you’ll receive a treatise on the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.

Of equal importance to the fisherman is the boat upon which his day is measured. From a leaky bark canoe to the sleek, aluminum bass and panfish boats with bow and aft casting decks, anglers rely on their boats to get them to that magic place. I’ve fished in Jon boats and from a pontoon boat and shiny new aluminum trailer boats. Perhaps my favorite was my father’s old varnished mahogany runabout, The Honeypot, a four seater that cut like a bullet across many a lake and river.

Like most runabout owners, my father relied on an Evinrude outboard motor which helped propel The Honeypot across the surface of Lake Michigan and other waterways. Such boats are treasures, and often I spy them at anchor or resting next to a pier like some otherworldly creatures, haunted with memories and anxiously waiting to come alive with a sputtering roar. Photographs of our boats are integral to any family album, carefully pasted onto the album page as a reminder of the sunlight on our faces and the feathering spray blown out in our wake by the blazing Evinrude.

I once brought a nephew to our northwoods cabin, situated on a lake and far removed from Chicago’s neon distractions. I observed with amusement his inability to adjust to seven days on a lakefront. He discovered that although the scene was relaxing, he was in constant motion. The simple act of walking thirty feet from the cabin to the pier was, after just two days, enough exercise to cause his unused muscles to protest. Constantly getting in and out of a boat, using one’s arms with a rod and reel, and gulping down all of that fresh Wisconsin air, complimented by the occasional tick problem, resulted in a physical collapse where he was flat out and shaking the timbers with his nasal buzz-saw. Afterward, he vowed never to go fishing again.

There is an unwritten history of the magic places that can be found on the road. I have found them in Wyoming side-trails, or down in New Mexico and Arizona. These are the places off the beaten path; the small lakes and nameless rivers discovered by accident but never forgotten. I cannot stop myself from pausing at any waterway to study the curving shoreline, watchful for a glimpse of a bronze head or the silver glint of a fluctuating gill. I travel to Wisconsin most often these days, my home away from home, and there on the lake but thirty feet from my porch, the water offers up its revelations, mysteries and the endless miracles of nature.  If I am to be guilty of being religious, then it is this – a religion of pine-scented breezes and the silhouette of a circling eagle above a pristine lake as I gather my gear and trudge down to the boat for a day in a magic place. A man truly owns only what he knows, and I know such places are my remedy. I need nothing else.

 NOTE: Thomas McNulty is the author of a biography about actor Errol Flynn and the Western Novels Trail of the Burned Man, Wind Rider, Coffin for an Outlaw and The Gunsmoke Serenade. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Text and photographs copyright © 2017 by Thomas McNulty.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

I am committing an injustice by penning only a few modest words about Hesse’s masterpiece. I think there are enough essays and thesis papers and even blog book reports that you can indulge yourself elsewhere. My purpose here is to look back at my first reading of the book, and understand it at a visceral level. It was no accident that I carried this book around in my rucksack with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, and A Happy Death by Albert Camus. There were other books, the ones I call my essentials, like A Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen and Beam Ends by Errol Flynn, but Hesse was pre-eminent among my rucksack companions. Harry Haller’s tale is one of exploration, redemption, and enthusiasm. His agonies are handled systematically. The Bantam 1969 paperback is the translation by Basil Creighton. Hesse was a poet, painter and philosopher, and his command of ideas is akin to that of an orchestra conductor, waving and directing the tremolo into a syncopated whole, brimming with melody. Hesse loved music. My analogy is intentional. The Creighton translation is my preferred text. The language is ripe with themes, overflowing with images and philosophies. In his 1961 introduction to the novel, Hesse says that the book “is not a book of a man despairing, but of a man believing.” Harry Haller’s entry into “The Magic Theatre” and “For Madmen Only” struck a chord with the 1960s counter-culture youth who embraced the book. I am a child of the 60s, and I believe Haller’s suffering was seen as analogous for the turbulent era of “The Nam,” rock and roll, sex, drugs and a general refusal to participate in the global colonialism espoused by a corrupt political leadership. The wolf of the “steppes,” or the beast that is within all of us, is easily recognized in our political system today, as it was in the 60s. Hesse could not have foreseen that perception when he wrote the book, but having survived the Nazis, he would understand it. Reading Steppenwolf requires dedication, a love of language, a willingness to understand alternate philosophies, and perhaps a belief in the goodness of your own soul. Also recommended: Siddhartha, Demian and Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson

Artist and writer Jill Thompson is a 7 time Eisner Award winning artist and creative powerhouse. She is the creator of the Scary Godmother and has worked on The Sandman, and the Wonder Woman monthly series, and many other notable accomplishments. In 2016 DC Comics published her Wonder Woman: The True Amazon graphic novel in hardcover. This re-imagining of Diana Prince’s origin is unforgettable and heartfelt, a satisfying emotional journey that offers s fresh perspective on Wonder Woman’s formative years. At the heart of the story is Diana’s youthful selfishness which ultimately leads to a life-changing tragedy. Thompson wisely and effectively humanizes the goddess who will one day become a central figure in the world’s pantheon of heroes. A character-driven study and laced with the requisite mythology, Jill Thompson’s Wonder Woman: The True Amazon engages readers in a journey of self-discovery that will forever change their view of DC’s pre-eminent heroine, and that’s a good thing. Thompson’s vision of a young Diana as a spoiled brat may come as a surprise to some readers, but I felt that Thompson did her character justice and the resolution was appropriate. In one sense, the story reminded me of a traditional fairy tale, albeit infused with modern sensibilities, but wise and endearing. The artwork is great and the color palette is bright. The endpapers include sketches and a special “Pencils to Color” feature. Wonder Woman: The True Amazon will be published as a paperback later this year. I’d love to see a sequel. Recommended for readers of all ages.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones

Raymond F. Jones wrote many fine novels, but for some reason this Beacon paperback from 1959 is the one that collectors want. For example, I own a first edition hardcover of Jones’ This Island Earth, his best known work, and collector’s rarely show substantial interest. This Island Earth is not difficult to find. I own the Science Fiction Book Club edition from Shasta publishers out of Chicago. The original owner had slipped the 1953 Science Fiction Book Club pamphlet into the book. We collector’s do have esoteric tastes at times. Anyway, The Deviates was originally published in 1956 as The Secret People. Nobody wants that edition either. They want this 1959 Beacon reprint with artwork by Robert Stanley. The Deviates is a science fiction story, published under Beacon’s Galaxy Science Fiction imprint. This paperback is widely offered on e-bay, often listed as “rare” but it’s not rare. Action Comics # 1 is rare. The Deviates is everywhere. I see this book all the time. For the record, if anyone tells you this book is rare they’re either intentionally lying or ignorant of vintage basic book collecting. It’s become the trend to list something as “rare” in order to justify a higher price. There are hard-to-find titles from this era, but The Deviates is not one of them. The Deviates is a good book, and I recommend it. This is the story of Robert Welton, Chief of the Genetics Bureau, who discovers that the genetics program is failing. There are fewer Normals each year, and most amazingly of all, he learns that not all Deviates are flawed. In fact, some of them are telepathic – like Welton himself! He initiates a plan begun by his father, to form a group of secret people who are hiding in the Canadian wilderness. Born of natural mothers and bearing his genes, the colony comes under attack when a government committee learns of their existence. The Deviates is a dystopian novel, typical of the era, and strong on characterization. Jones imagines a frightening world that promotes itself as utopian, but is actually simmering with conflict. Welton and the other characters propel the narrative. I’m a fan of author Raymond F. Jones, and in addition to The Deviates, I can recommend This Island Earth, Son of the Stars (for young readers), The Year When Stardust Fell, and Renegades of Time. I may cover some of these at a later date. Jones began his career in the pulps in the 40s. Several of his books are available for Kindle.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Curse of Skull Canyon by Peter Brandvold

Some years back, when I read my first Peter Brandvold book, .45 Caliber Revenge, I appreciated his skill in creating characters, the quick pace, and hardboiled action. Since then, Brandvold has never disappointed. His books are a blast to read. Ole Mean Pete is predominantly digital now, and I finally joined the Digital Age and bought a Kindle. Well, I’m loading it up with Peter Brandvold books. The latest I read is The Curse of Skull Canyon, a sequel to Lonnie Gentry, which I recommend you read first. Lonnie Gentry is a thirteen-year old in the Old West who cares for his mother. In his first adventure he gets tangled up with some bank robbers, a pretty girl named Casey, and a saddlebag full of trouble. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are a change of pace for Brandvold who has made a name for himself with his edgy, adult-oriented blazing Western adventure novels. Lonnie Gentry and The Curse of Skull Canyon are coming of age stories with a homespun feel, but still loaded with Brandvold’s action scenes and great characters. Young Adult readers should find these tales at the top of their list. Brandvold’s ability to handle diverse themes and exciting plots combined with wholly original storytelling is all on display in The Curse of Skull Canyon. There’s a supernatural element here regarding the actual curse of Skull Canyon, and I enjoyed the tension as Lonnie Gentry works to extricate himself from yet another dire circumstance. The Curse of Skull Canyon is a delight. I won’t be surprised if Ole Pete pens another Lonnie Gentry adventure, and if he does I’ll be happy to saddle up and ride along.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Earthstrike Agenda by Bobby Nash

I find it immeasurably enjoyable to read a science fiction novel where it’s obvious the author was having fun. Too many authors take themselves and their work so seriously, that the entertainment value is muted by their pomposity. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Bobby Nash. Here’s an author that jumps right into the tale with a gee-whiz attitude and spins an exciting Space Opera with all of the galactic world-building you could ask for. Earthstrike Agenda is New Pulp Fiction at its best, professionally written, thrilling and satisfying. The various elements of the tale will be instantly recognizable to readers, including a dash of Star Trek, Star Wars and Flash Gordon, all while weaving an original story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Nash creates a fantastic protagonist with starship captain Virginia Harmon who takes command of the ship, Pegasus, just as earth is about to face a threat from deep space. Nash creates a vibrant supporting cast, and devotes large chunks of multiple chapters to them. With so many players, I admired Nash’s ability to not only keep track of them, but to make them relevant. Earthstrike Agenda is decidedly Old School adventure writing, and I mean that in a positive way. The drama unfolds at an easy pace, builds momentum, and before you know it you’re racing along with Virginia Harmon, Dr. James Silver, Ensign Bailey and others as the fate of earth hangs in the balance. An expertly constructed Space Opera like Earthstrike Agenda shouldn’t be missed by any Sci-Fi fan. Highly recommended.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent by Joe Bonadonna

This eagerly awaited follow-up volume to Joe Bonadonna’s classic, Mad Shadows, is exactly what I hoped for. This continuation of Dorgo’s chronicle is comprised of three novellas: “The Girl Who Loved Ghouls,” “The Book of Echoes” and “The Order of the Serpent.” This is razor-edged fantasy at its best. In the first tale, Dorgo has some romance going on in his life, with a witch. This is not a Harlequin romance. Bonadonna’s masterful prose is ripe with images, appropriately gothic, spooky as hell, and a delight for fans of classic fantasy-adventure fiction. I love Bonadonna’s world building. Laced with autumnal winds and lonely graveyards, Dorgo’s world is chilling and often deadly: “What little was left of Glacken lay to the south, between Widow’s Fell and Baloo Fen. The fire blackened ruins of Sahn Magnor, the old Estaerine church, stood on the outskirts of the ghost town. The cemetery lay behind the church and had been part of its once-sacred ground. I gave the supposedly haunted hamlet a wide birth, not wanting to encounter any demons or devils…” (p.30) I love this type of natural exposition where the writer can so deftly transport us into an imaginative and exotic locale. Dorgo never has an easy time of it, but I’m always rooting for him to overcome his tribulations. Bonadonna pits Dorgo against some fairly wicked creatures. In “The Book of Echoes” Dorgo learns about “The Book of Echoes” which seems to be on everyone’s mind. After being nearly killed, Dorgo learns that the book can open realms beyond time and space, and holds answers to all the riddles of the Echoverse, the secrets of life and death, and the Nine Levels of Attainment. But such knowledge has a price. Those who are pure of heart will become the Crystal Children, while those with evil intent will become Endarkened Ones. Bonadonna brilliantly structures the tale and populates it with plenty of weird characters, nasty monsters and rising tension. The third novella, “The Order of the Serpent,” ties it all together and pits Dorgo against a warlock, the leader of the Order of the Serpent. Engaging characters, artful construction, scenes dripping with mood, and a world of castles, goblins and wild monsters are all hallmarks of Joe Bonadonna’s Dorgo the Dowser tales. Impossible to put to down, Mad Shadows II: Dorgo the Dowser and the Order of the Serpent is a richly imagined collection. The great cover artwork is by Erika M. Szabo.