Friday, February 04, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books, February 4, 2011

Todd Mason has the links right here.

Philip Abbott is Distinguished University Professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His recent books include Exceptional America: Newness and National Identity (1999), Political Thought in America: Conversations and Debates, third edition (2004), The Many Faces of Patriotism (2007) and Accidental Presidents: Death, Assassination, Resignation and Democratic Succession (2008). He had published more than fifty articles in academic journals and held the Thomas Jefferson Chair in American Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained (New York: Forge, 1973)

Reviewed by Phil Abbott

Readers should note I can count the number of Western novels I have read on three fingers: Portis’s True Grit; Clark’s The Oxbow Incident and Proux’s Brokeback Mountain. My interest was piqued by recently watching Deadwood. Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained was recommended to me as perhaps the best contemporary novel about the American West.

Kelton struggled to find a publisher. He wrote a draft in the later fifties. Unable to find a press, he re-wrote the novel in the early sixties only to fail again. Only after receiving positive reviews of The Day the Cowboys Quit, was The Time It Never Rained published in 1973. From the today’s perspective the novel is hardly innovative. The narrative is linear. There are no picaresque characters. Exploration of racial tension (which Kelton expanded in each draft) is relatively limited. The Time It Never Rained is a family saga about the drought that plagued West Texas in the 1950s. Before the drought began, Rio Seco was a relatively prosperous community of proud and independent ranchers. When the rains finally returned in 1957, the town has all features of The Last Picture Show. Young people have left; ranches have been auctioned; those remaining are angry and dispirited.

Despite its narrative and stylist simplicity, however, Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained is an engrossing novel. The central character, Charlie Flagg, a cattle and sheep rancher, is a figure who exemplifies all the features of a lost masculinity, and by implication, a lost West. Scrupulously honest and hard working, his loyalties are simple. His family and the land are the primary source of his affections. There are some cracks even in this lost world. Flagg’s marriage shows subtle signs of disintegration and one wonders if his wayward son’s behavior is the result of a silent but demanding father. His relationships with the Mexican workers on his ranch are correct and cordial and on occasions affectionate, but as one young Mexican explained to a loyal employee they are also “patriarchal.” The young women on the ranch, both Anglo and Mexican, are treated with exceptional respect by Flagg, but also with a chivalrous manner that is only possible for one who has defined gender relationships on permanently unequal terms.

Perhaps the defining aspect of Flagg’s character is a ferociously protected independence. His refusal to accept government aid indirectly leads to the loss of almost all of his land and stock. On the other hand, Flagg’s resistance to the new economy in which ranchers and the government are partners is for the most part justified. When federal bureaucrats are not incompetent, they are predatory. Thus the tragedy of the West Kelton depicts is one in which the lone rancher’s fate is failure. He will be destroyed by nature or the government. At the close of the novel, the rains finally come but Flagg’s last remaining livestock, a herd of goats, are destroyed in a stampede. Flagg’s reaction to his crestfallen spouse is a classic reiteration of the American Dream: “There is still the Land. A man can always start gain. A man always has to.” This engendering of American enterprise has both a conservative and a revisionist aspect. American greatness is dependent upon the maintenance of masculine values. These values also lead to excess and disaster.

One of the pleasures of novice reader of a genre is simply informational. How a ranch economy works, how sheep are sheared, how coyote predation is managed are all carefully delineated by Kelton. Finally, in terms of the forgotten book theme, The Time It Never Rained illustrates another lost world in addition to Charlie Flagg’s. The conventional novel still has the capacity to transport a reader to another time and place.


Todd Mason said...

As one of your fellow FFB newbies (or newish) might note, Clark is good for at least one more you can add to your pile, too...THE TRACK OF THE CAT. (Said newish named his blog for the novel.)

Welcome to Blogland...

Ann Summerville said...

I don't think I've ever read a western. Thanks for the review. I need to look into this genre.

Anonymous said...

...and that TRACK OF THE CAT is not to be confused with the book with the same title by Nevada Barr.

Fine review, it would be great to see some more by this previously below-the-radar member of academe.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It took me three years to wrestle this one out of him. But I will try because he reads mostly, if not exclusively, forgotten books.

Evan Lewis said...

Fine review. And Kelton was a fine writer. Hard to go wrong with one of his books.

Ron Scheer said...

Very nicely reviewed. I like how it finds an argument in the characterization and plotting above and beyond a storyline. Thanks...

Wallace Stegner takes up similar issues in "Carrion Spring," which takes place after a killing winter, and a young rancher persuades his bride to stay on rather than give up.