Nearly every genre is more respectable than the western. So says Ed Gorman in this collection of a few of his western stories. [pause for readers who want a moment to scratch their heads] He goes on: But what foolish snobbery that is...the modern western is just as good, and many times better, than any other type of modern fiction. Unfortunately, not enough modern readers—or editors—know this yet.
I could name some of the authors and their works Gorman lists as examples, but we're here to talk about the stories in this collection, which make his point equally well.
Admittedly I lean toward the snob side in the respectability equation of western fiction, knowing better but unable to completely shake the yippee ki-yay sense I've carried from boyhood of blazing sixguns, flaming arrows, and inevitable battles between the white hats and the black. In fact, the boy in me identifies poignantly with “Bromley,” the writer of westerns in “Pards,” one of my favorite stories in Dead Man's Gun. The tale concludes with me marveling at Gorman's deftly droll wit, which, with his generous heart and narrative mastery, leaves me with a pang of sympathy for the two main characters who in less-skilled hands likely would have come off as ridiculous.
This heart of Gorman's beats strongly throughout the collection. Human decency at odds with its opposite rules the range of these stories, although the distinction is rarely as obvious as the symbolism of hats. Bad guys and good guys alike can give us pause in our judgment of how best to navigate life's fickle rapids. If there's a common theme that threads through Dead Man's Gun it might be that it ain't always easy being human. I came to this collection not for nostalgia or the vicarious freedom of wide prairies or whiffs of gunsmoke, but because it includes a story I'd heard about called “The Face.”
I knew it won Gorman a coveted Spur Award, and I figured with a title like that it had to be different. I got more than my curiosity's and my money's worth. It's a story from the American Civil War as told by a Confederate battlefield surgeon. Having grown up in the Midwest and lived most of my adult life in Virginia, I've had a fascination for this tragic war as far back as I can remember. I do not exaggerate when I say "The Face" is the most sublime, horrifying and memorable Civil War story I have read. It may well be the most powerful anti-war story ever published. Every high school student should be assigned to read it. There need be no test given afterward. "The Face" will stay with them the rest of their lives, as it will with their teachers and with you, as it will with me. This I can guarantee without fear of contradiction by any who have read this brief, profound, elegant, haunting story, no matter their religion, their politics or their station in life.
Please know I do not intend my exuberant praise for “The Face” to detract from the value of the other stories in Dead Man's Gun. “The Face” brought me to the book, but the entire collection has deepened my appreciation of Ed Gorman's extensive talent. In one, “Gunslinger,” he combines the art of suspense wrapped in intricate detail with the unveiling of a human life and personality aimed at an inevitable showdown so filled with tragi-comic irony I could only gape in admiration.
Gorman, with characteristic modesty, admits he has felt the same way reading other masters. In Dead Man's Gun's last entry, a nonfiction piece called “Writing the Modern Western,” he calls The Shootist, by Glendon Swarthout, an exemplary modern western— its prose real poetry at times, its psychological portraiture so considered and wise that you feel decimated after finishing it.
I have yet to read The Shootist, but I know precisely what Gorman means.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]