The Instant Enemy (Ross MacDonald, 1968)
A re-read. Late period MacDonald, the first of the “He’s-better-than-Hammett-and-Chandler!” hard-boiled writers and still the only one I know of who very nearly was. This was in his high-middle range and very good indeed. I hadn’t visited with him in a while and though I hadn’t exactly forgotten his unique gift for plots that are simultaneously labyrinthine and tight-as-a-tick, swift and contemplative, it was still a sort of giddy pleasure to be caught up in one again. The fact that he had worthwhile things to say about the center that was falling apart around him in the late sixties is icing on the cake.
The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Glenn Frankel, 2013)
Frankel is a little more devoted than I am to the idea of Cynthia Ann Parker’s particular captivity narrative being the true wellspring of Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers and the subsequent classic film of the same name. Even he admits here and there that LeMay’s sources were numerous, so a broader-based approach might have been more productive.
Still, threading together the Old West and mid-twentieth century Hollywood required massive research (enough that I’m not going to quibble too much over occasional mis-statements of fact such as crediting John Ford with a directing Oscar for Stagecoach in 1939 or stating that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last collaboration with John Wayne or suggesting that the famous “Print the legend” line is the conclusion of TMWSLV–except to wonder why it must always be so). And, given how much territory it covers, the book is a good, swift read. [NOTE: I bogged down a little in the Cynthia Ann section but only because I had recently read S.C. Gwynne’s compelling account and found myself covering a lot of the same territory].
The book is a must have in any case for fans of the film or novel if only because it sheds a lot of light on LeMay and scriptwriter Frank Nugent, two figures that haven’t been written about or appreciated nearly enough. And all credit to Frankel for not falling into the common trap of elevating these unfairly obscured figures into more than they were–he knows that, for all the skill and inspiration supplied by others, the reason The Searchers has the hold it does is because Ford directed it and John Wayne found his greatest role in it and, even if I don’t agree with all his conclusions about the film’s real significance, this is still a valuable addition to the basic libraries on the varied subjects it addresses.
The Pioneers (James Fenimore Cooper, 1823)
Fourth in the historical chronology of The Leatherstocking Tales, but the first written. Maybe a third of the way through it, I thought it was reading a lot like a Jane Austen novel and subsequent research (I really should get hold of a good Cooper bio) revealed that he was in fact enamored of her and that his first novel, written a few years earlier, had been a more or less straight homage.
And as a comedy of manners it often works quite well. The usual criticisms of Cooper’s style are hardly unfounded. Yes, he’s stilted at times, given to melodrama (often at moments when it’s least effective), needlessly repetitive and prone to long-windedness and–a particularly salient criticism here–awkward plotting.
Of course, many a high modernist has been praised to the skies for exhibiting the very same qualities.
And very few of them have matched Cooper’s real strengths–his action scenes still haven’t been surpassed, his descriptions of the American wilderness are peerless and, in the Leatherstocking series at least, he found–over and over–those moments of real emotional power that have evaded–over and over–virtually every one of his stylistic “superiors.”
Plus, all the themes that still engage us in our little experiments in Statecraft and Nationhood are present, restlessly coursing through the national bloodstream right where he put them: tensions between Man and Nature; Civilization and the Wilderness; Private and Public interests; Capital and Community; Christian and Pagan (a theme that has made a particularly strong comeback in the last fifty years…with Christianity being put to flight both within and without the church walls); Progress and Primitivism; Hearts and Minds. The tone might be old-fashioned but the themes will always be contemporary. As long as there’s an “us” anyway.
And while it would be foolish to insist Cooper’s novels in general–and this one in particular–couldn’t do with some pruning, it would be even sillier to deny his more than occasional mordant wit:
“Mr. Doolittle belonged physically to a class of his countrymen, to whom nature has denied, in their formation, the use of curved lines. Everything about him was either straight or angular. But his tailor was a woman who worked, like a regimental contractor, by a set of rules that gave the same configuration to the whole human species.”
Or his knack for pegging social and psychological types at a glance, as in this look inside the dual and tortuous mind of a lawyer (where his real thoughts are inserted parenthetically among bland, oblique language virtually anyone who has ever dealt with a certain kind of legal mind will recognize):
“I will make the communication, sir, in your name (with your own qualifications), as your agent. Good morning, sir.–But stay proceedings, Mr. Edwards (so-called), for a moment. Do you wish me to state the offer of traveling as a final contract (for which consideration has been received at former dates (by sums advanced), which would be binding), or as a tender of services for which compensation is to be paid (according to future agreement between the parties), on performance of the conditions?”
Granted Joyceans–including Joyce–engaged in this sort of thing more frequently. But they never did it any better.