Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Lady Packs a Punch

All the while I was reading Lady of the Lake I heard the late Sam Peckinpah's distant ghost-voice imploring, “Goddammit, Lord, send me back down there for one last movie!”
I toyed with saying film except that might have provoked Peckinpah to come back anyway, on his own, just to punch me in the mouth.
The director known as “the picasso of violence”, who gave us those spellbinding slow-motion mayhem scenes in The Wild Bunch, the original The Getaway and Straw Dogs, would have loved Lady of the Lake from the get-go.
Gregg Townsley writes violent scenes the way Peckinpah films them, bringing us so close to the action we see it break into detailed increments. It enables us as readers to sail virtually with ex-Episcopalian priest-cum-bounty hunter W.W. Ronin over the head of his horse onto a sandy path, breaking his/our fall with a trained tumble that starts with a hand, then rolls to a forearm and finally to a shoulder before we're on our feet dashing into a tree-line.
Townsley brings off a visceral authenticity in this opening scene and subsequent descriptions of fights with fists, knives, clubs and guns with a perfect marriage of writing craft and the authority of knowing what he's talking about. Like his protagonist Ronin, Townsley's a former “reflective, free-thinking” pastor, martial artist and western fast-draw enthusiast. He's also a history buff who brings the same accurate feel to his setting and background as he does to the action sequences.
Lady of the Lake is set in the Carson Range around Lake Tahoe in 1880. I'd never been there in person, but the author's skill at conveying his experience with the region and its people transported me there on the magic carpet of imagination. From my own travel experience I know a masterfully guided imagination can leave richer, more poignant memories than does the ordinary fleeting visit in the flesh.
While the book's compelling action scenes and historically accurate setting might be enough for some readers of the western genre, Lady of the Lake goes much further. It brings us engaging characters and a suspenseful story delivered in an easy-flowing narrative that keeps the pages turning.
Coming alive on these pages with Ronin are his friends: Ormsby County Sheriff's Deputy “Dusty” Slade, a Washoe Indian spiritualist named “Happy Hands”, and the widow Emma Naumann, who runs a Christian mission for children. Other characters include U.S, Marshal Augustus Ash, the requisite villains, who are drawn with satisfying background and depth, and the peripheral folks who populate the story's communities and are as recognizable and interesting as the best supporting cast members in a movie by, say, Sam Peckinpah.
By the end of Lady of the Lake I'd come to know Townsley's characters as intimately as any I've encountered in literature. Easy to imagine them sustaining the four-book series Townsley's planned. This is the second of the two he's published thus far, the first being East-Jesus, Nevada, which I have yet to read. He is currently at work on the final two: The Pinkerton Years and True Believer.
Maybe Peckinpah is waiting to read them all before threatening to punch Somebody up there if he doesn't get the chance to return to make at least one Ronin movie.

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